When bartenders gather and stories are told; when the legendary cocktails and famous milestones are fondly recalled; when the discussion turns to iconic bars, the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone is often mentioned. And the drink most often associated with the Carousel Bar, the cocktail that was invented there, is the Vieux Carré.
The Monteleone began as the Commercial Hotel, a lovely Beaux Arts building on Royal Street and Iberville. In 1886, Antonio Monteleone, an Italian immigrant, purchased it. It became the Hotel Monteleone in 1908 and expanded several times over the years. Today a descendant of Antonio Monteleone still operates the hotel and it remains family-owned.
The Carousel Piano Bar and Lounge debuted its much-talked-about rotating bar in 1949. The bar rested on large rollers and was powered by a small motor that cycled the bar once every fifteen minutes. It was a sensation then, and remained so for many, many years. Sadly and as with many things, the bar seemed to get a bit dowdy and lackluster and the bar service became humdrum. In 1992 the bar was renovated and fiber optics added a ceiling of twinkling stars—and one shooting star arcing across the “heavens”. With the resurgence of cocktail culture, the emergence of craft bartenders and the ever-increasing popularity of the French Quarter to hordes of tourists, the family renovated the lounge once again in 2011 to its current version. Throughout all those years the Carousel Bar has remained a favored site and the twenty-five seats remain full each night.
The Sazerac Cocktail was originally—and still today—considered “the” cocktail of the French Quarter, but the Carousel Bar established its new sensation, the Vieux Carré, to adoring fans in the 1930s, and it has been a standard ever since.
Vieux Carré Cocktail
1/2 teaspoon Benedictine
dash Peychaud Bitters
dash Angostura Bitters
1/3 shot each rye whiskey, cognac and dry vermouth.
Shake and serve on the rocks with a twist of lemon
The combination of rye whiskey and cognac is brilliant, allying two different spirits, one grain, one fruit, with different spirits hitting different aromatic and taste zones for maximum palate pleasure. Likewise, the combination of both Peychaud’s Bitters (created in New Orleans by the same person who made the Sazerac, Antoine Amedee Peychaud) the more exotically sweet and aromatic of the two, with Angostura Bitters providing more of a thudding base line of bitterness, adds enormous complexity to the drink.
Vermouth adds more fragrance—although I prefer sweet red vermouth for my Vieux Carré, as I think that makes for a richer, more satisfying drink. Not too sweet though, more in the line of a Cocchi or Dolin.
The true genius, of course, lies with the addition of Benedictine, that lovely herbal/floral/spice liqueur that has been pleasing people for over 500 years. It permeates the cocktail, adding an unmistakable flavor that becomes associated with the French Quarter in your mind.
So, buy a ticket to New Orleans, go to the Quarter, step into the Hotel Monteleone, sit at the Carousel Bar as it slowly revolves, look out over the bustle of Royal Street, and enjoy a Vieux Carré.
If you can’t make it to New Orleans right away, poor you. As a test run, you can head over to the Imperial Bar in the Hotel Lucia, where they make a pretty impressive version of the classic cocktail.