The 1800s were heady days for drinking in the US, but especially in the South, where (some say) one of America’s first cocktails – Sazerac – was invented. America’s only native spirit was also created in the Deep South: Bourbon, made from the corn that was prolific in Kentucky. To be authentic, it must be: made in the US; have at least 51 percent corn mash and aged in charred oak barrels. A few decades later in 1920, prohibition came into effect – manufacture, sale, transport, import and export of liquor was all illegal, giving rise to the illicit manufacture and trade of alcohol. Moonshine (un-aged corn mash whisky) was prolific – named in tribute to its clandestine manufacture at night. Prohibition may have made liquor illegal, but spirits flowed freely in the back alleys and countrysides of America. Many of the best cocktails were created in those days and survived the dry years. These days there is a growing appreciation for the traditional cocktails of the Deep South. Here are my absolute favourites, where best to enjoy them and recipes for re-creating them when you get back home*. Sampling them all will take you on a winding course along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River all the way from New Orleans to Nashville, discovering the fascinating history, toe tapping music and all the fun that this vibrant region has to offer along the way. It is for sure one of the USA’s best road trips. Are you ready? “Cheers!”
The Vieux Carré – The Carousel Bar, Hotel Monteleone, New Orleans
The Vieux Carré mixes cognac from France, vermouth from Italy, rye whisky from just up the Mississippi River and Caribbean bitters. It is boozy, sweet, bitter and smooth and sums up the cosmopolitan concoction that is New Orleans perfectly. There is nothing like live jazz music to get your toes tapping and your body swaying – especially when you are going round and round on a revolving bar!
1 measure Benedictine liqueur
1 measure Bazerac Rye Whisky
1 measure Copper & King’s Brandy
1 measure Carpano Antica Vermouth.
Add a dash each of Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters and ice. Serve in a chilled old-fashioned glass, garnished with a lemon twist.
The French 75 – Arnaud’s – New Orleans
A heady concoction of cognac, champagne, lemon juice and sugar syrup. Many recipes use gin instead of cognac – but do try it this way! A simple classic, famous for a reason! This restaurant serves traditional creole food with live jazz accompaniment – it’ s heavenly. The artwork is great too.
1 1/2 ounces. cognac 2 3/4 ounces well chilled champagne.
Simple sugar syrup, to taste
A dash of lemon juice
Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into chilled glasses. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Mint Julep – Monmouth Historic Inn, Natchez
There is nothing finer on a hot Summer day in the Deep South USA than a refreshing Mint Julep. Just watching the condensation run down the sides of a well chilled silver julep cup is enough to relax you gently into the evening ahead. The cocktail waiters at the Monmouth Historic Inn Natchez really know their stuff and make this famous classic cocktail to their own secret recipe using seven unique ingredients. Despite my best efforts – I could not persuade them to divulge the magic recipe. To try the authentic version, you will just have to go there yourself. When we tried it, we were treated to an extra shot of bourbon which really helped make it extra special!
10 mint leaves
½ ounce turbinado syrup
2 ounces bourbon
2 mint sprigs
To make the turbinado syrup: Place 1 cup demerara or turbinado sugar and 1 cup water in a small saucepan over medium heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let it cool to room temperature Transfer it to a clean lidded jar and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.
Place the mint leaves and syrup in a julep cup and lightly muddle. Leave the muddler in the glass and add the bourbon, pouring it over the muddler to rinse it off. Use the muddler to mix the ingredients well together. Fill the cup a little more than halfway with crushed ice and stir with a bar spoon 15-20 times. Add more ice to form a dome on top. Place a straw in the cup. Garnish with mint sprigs (pressed to release the beautiful aroma) tucked into the ice. Lightly dust the mint sprigs with powdered sugar.
Pina Colada Martini – Rusty’s Waterfront Grill, Vicksburg
There are classic cocktails and then there are those that are just – well – pure, unadulterated fun. The Pina Colada Martini is definitely one of those. I was treated to this by a new friend we met on our travels – it was the bar tender’s best recommendation because she said it was “so cute – it looks like a bunny” – the tail is a marshmallow. It is an unashamedly sweet mix of vanilla vodka, coconut rum, and cream of coconut. The recipe I found adds a splash of pineapple for an added lift. What you get is a creamy, frothy cocktail with a tropical sweetness that is to die for. Add your flirty decoration of coconut flakes all around the edge of the glass, attach your marshmallow bunny tail and you are GTG (Good to Go). Go on – you KNOW you want to try it?!
1 1/2 ounces vanilla vodka (e.g. Grey Goose La Vanilla or 360 Vodka Madagascar Vanilla
1 ounce coconut rum (e.g. Malibu)
1/2 ounce cream of coconut
a splash of pineapple juice.
Pour all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Jack Daniel’s Peach Sour – The Peabody Hotel, Memphis
This really is the perfect way to start your week-end. The Peabody Hotel make it using their “Peabody Select” Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel – you might have to find the best available substitute if you can’t get hold of this. The garnish is possibly the most important thing – arguably, it just isn’t a real peach sour without those gorgeous Amarena cherries.
Take: 3 parts Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel
1 part Peach Schnapps
1 part simple sugar syrup
1 splash White Peach Puree
Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice (to taste)
Combine all the ingredients, shake and pour over ice to serve, garnished with Fresh Sliced Peaches and the all important Amarena Cherries
Jack’s Mule, The Oak Bar, The Hermitage Hotel, Nashville
Classic cocktails are hard to beat. The Oak Bar at the Hermitage Hotel make a mean Jack’s Mule – it would just be rude not to try it?! The fiery spice of the ginger combines perfectly with the smoothness of Jack.
2 oz Single Barrel Jack Daniels (e.g. Old No. 7)
A dash of Lime juice
A splash of Ginger juice
Three quarters fill a highball glass with crushed ice. Pour the Jack over the ice. Add the remaining ingredients and stir. Garnish with a lime wedge.
If you like it a bit more fiery, try swapping the ginger ale for ginger beer.
Smoked Old Fashioned, Etch Restaurant, Nashville
This wins my award for the best cocktail I have ever tasted – so far, of course – there is much more sampling still to be done still, obviously. It is so unusual – the smoked nose and flavour really wakes up your senses and tickles your taste buds. The perfect start to a great evening meal at this excellent restaurant in downtown Nashville.
2 oz Belle Meade Bourbon
1/2 oz smoked demerara syrup (chose Hickory, Applewood, Mesquite or Cherrywood smoke)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 large ice cube
Combine all the ingredients and serve over ice. Usually garnished with an orange wedge and a cherry – they must have run out when I went?!
Bloody Mary, The Capitole Grille, The Hermitage Hotel, Nashville
This was the first Bloody Mary I had ever tried – but it definitely won’t be the last. I chose it to accompany a perfectly prepared eggs benedict for brunch on our final day in the Deep South. What a great way to end the trip. Perfect.