New Orleans . . . a courtesan whose hold is strong upon the mature, to whose charm the young must respond. And all who leave her, seeking the virgin’s unbrown, ungold hair and her blanched and icy breast where no lover has died, return to her when she smiles across her languid fan. . . .
–William Faulkner in “The Tourist,” as compiled in “New Orleans Sketches”
Being in New Orleans during Mardi Gras is an odd mix of seeking out and avoiding the tourist stuff, especially for someone like me who isn’t a parade person — or much of a crowd person for that matter. It’s safe to say I’m not big on outward displays of enthusiasm in any scenario. Lisztomania has always fascinated me. Beatlemania is one thing — but people really got that crazy over Liszt? Put on powdered wigs and kicked over grand pianolas, running through the brick-lined streets in some frenzied mad dash? Throwing, what, eggs at carriages?
Times change, I guess.
What starts off as controversial becomes ubiquitous. My grandfather removed the tubes from the television so my mother couldn’t watch the Rolling Stones’ “devil music” on the Sullivan show — now Brown Sugar’s on the radio while I’m at CVS buying Advil. Hell — popular music has moved far beyond such now-quaint euphemisms. I don’t listen to a lot of new music myself. I’m not complaining, but if you spin through the radio dial you hear a lot of not really shying away from going for the jugular. Whatever you want to call it — desensitizing, oversaturation, progression — maybe the killer of shock value is ritual.
The parades leading up to Mardi Gras are a weird, excessive sight — a little like the cartoony facades of the Vegas Strip and the worst parts of Gatlinburg have come to life under some limited-time-offer spell, clambering down the unsuspecting streets, throwing what is essentially garbage on drunk people, bewildered tourists, and fascinatingly devoted locals.
“I want more debauchery,” my wife Camille said a few nights after we arrived in the city. We had tucked onto Bourbon St. to watch the freaks for as long as palatable. Bourbon St., of course, is the most gaudy and wild stretch in the French Quarter — the neighborhood apex of most of the parades and festivities.
“Maybe they’re saving it up,” I said. We only lasted a few blocks, weaving between the beer-guzzling hordes milling in the streets, which stop all traffic for essentially the entire weekend. We turned a corner and broke out for a quieter street, the panicky sweat on our foreheads belying the gentle southern breeze.
“High-waisted empty nesters,” she muttered, I assumed, referring to the older, suburbanite crowd.
“Were those guys drinking beers from straws?” I asked about a few younger frat guys.
My reply was distracted. It’d been a long, overnight train ride from Chicago, and I had whiskey on my mind.
But I knew what she meant — we were there to see how weird it all could get. Also, my brother and his wife had lived in New Orleans for about a year, leaving when the 2005 hurricane broke the levees, and he’d always wanted me to see the city. So we planned a trip. I figured, why not witness the notorious carnival season with my wife, two people who don’t drink, and their 3-year-old son, Clyde-Jonathon? Outweird the weird? Beat it at its own living, breathing game?
First Impressions part I:
No tourist wants to be a tourist. But I love wandering new cities and finding bars. Maybe I did want to have my cake, eat it, because as soon as I found out that New Orleans is a pretty whiskey-friendly city . . . I got greedy for it.
We first split off from my brother’s family and headed just outside the Quarter to Frenchman St., which we heard was less touristy. We settled on a place called d.b.a. because it looked nice. I looked up at the long chalkboard menu behind the bar and felt an instant relief.
It covered Highland, Speyside, Lowland, and Orkney, Islay, Jura, and Mull single malts, as well as American, Irish and Canadian whiskies, bourbons, ryes, small batches . . . I’d lucked into quite a place for the first try.
It boded well for the trip. I started with regular old Talisker 10 — a huge favorite — and Camille got a beer.
But a nagging scent of some sort of chemical cleaner hung in the air, foretelling something entirely else.
Second First Impressions:
The Famous Hotel Bar
So we only stayed at d.b.a. for one drink.
It was getting late. We came up snake eyes as we walked back across the Quarter, so we tried the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel lobby, where we were staying.
Named for the alleged “first American cocktail,” the Sazerac is a narrow, dark-lit hotel lounge that doesn’t gouge your eyes out on price, running from $12 to $15.
“Classic Cocktails” there included an 1840 version of the Sazerac with its original brandy base (the switch to rye occurred sometime in the late 1800s, according to legend), as well as “New Classics” such as the Basil Julep.
I got (a few) Elijah Craig Old Fashioneds (that tasted great, a little syrupy), and Camille got The Sazerac itself. Billed as “The Official Cocktail of New Orleans,” the drink didn’t disappoint. (Though, my favorite remains the one from Bryant’s in Milwaukee.)
For a hotel bar it was pretty nice. There were endearing touches, like serving water in emptied Sazerac rye bottles and the bowl of spicy nuts at every table.
Le Pig Mac
By day two I was lucking into good whiskey bars everywhere I went.
We all headed by streetcar to the hip-looking Cochon Butcher in the Lower Garden District, but the line looked long for little Clyde-Jonathon — whose humors hung by too-frayed strings.
[Author’s note: Try the Pig Mac sandwich at Cochon Butcher — a novel, high-quality replica of the venerate McDonald’s staple. Yes, you’ll find whiskey too.]
We crossed the street to Wood Pizza Bistro & Taphouse to find another friendly whiskey selection — not as extensive as d.b.a.’s, but providing a fine range of bourbons, ryes and others.
This town was getting exciting. I love whiskey, but I’m also a horrible planner. Where I live in Chicago, there are many great whiskey destinations (The Fountainhead, Twisted Spoke, countless cocktail bars, to list very few.) But it’s all too easy to happen into bars with a selection no greater than — say what you will for them — Jack and Jim. (Even recently, a place opened in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood called “The Whiskey Trust.” Camille went there to meet a friend and was bemused by the selection, which reached as high on the shelf as Jim Beam. The place closed in a few months.)
Chicago is a great craft beer town, bars often featuring imposing tap handle skylines. New Orleans is the opposite: an Abita here and there on tap, but usually some worthwhile whiskey right there in each bar. This may sound insignificant, but the confidence that whiskey is everywhere you go is immeasurably reassuring.
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Joshua M. Sparks
Living in Chicago, drinking as many whiskies as I can whenever I can. I write for Courthouse News Service in my square job, and script-write and watch movies as a hobby. Currently, I’m going through bottles of smoky single malts while I catch up with the French New Wave.