The Carousel Cocktail: History of the Vieux Carre


The Drink that Spins: The Vieux Carre Cocktail

If you’re looking for a strong drink, nowhere can serve one quite like the Big Easy.  From rum-loaded Hurricanes to the unspeakable Bourbon Street ‘Hand Grenades’, from the classy Sazerac to the the classic Old Fashioned, there’s no doubt that New Orleans knows how to mix them.  But one cocktail stands out from the rest, a Crescent City signature, the Vieux Carre Cocktail.

A Bar that spins
The Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone

Cocktail Basics

           A good place to start with the Vieux Carre, perhaps, is how to pronounce it.  Although the name is French, the pronunciation most certainly is not (a theme you’ll find common down in New Orleans, especially with street names).  So leave French class behind you and embrace your Creole side, this cocktail is pronounced ‘voo car-ray’.  In French, this means ‘Old Square’ or ‘Old Quarter’ which was the original name for New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Made up of Benedictine, bitters, rye whiskey, vermouth, and cognac, the Vieux Carre is a wonderful option for imbibers who love both brandy and whiskey and aren’t willing to sacrifice either.  It is served in a short glass on the rocks and is most often garnished with a lemon peel.  This drink has a slightly sweeter taste due to the incorporation of sweet vermouth as well as the Benedictine, because of this, the Vieux Carre can hold up a higher proof whiskey and is thus often mixed with Wild Turkey or Rittenhouse.  The cocktail also includes two types of bitters, both Peychaud’s as well as Angostura, both which help to even out the sweetness.

For those who don’t know, Benedictine is a French liqueur.  It not only adds sweetness to the Vieux Carre but also contributes a floral quality.  The liqueur is made up of 27 different herbs and spices and while a good portion of these remain a secret, some of them include juniper, saffron, coriander, aloe, thyme, and even cinnamon.

A Twirl Back in Time

           To understand where the Vieux Carre comes from, we must first learn the history of the bar that invented it.  Nestled in the French Quarter on the beautifully antiqued Royal Street is the Hotel Monteleone.  The hotel was purchased in 1886 by a man named Antonio Monteleone.  Antonio was a Sicilian nobleman and the heir to an incredibly successful shoe business in Italy.  He decided to move to New Orleans in the early 1880s and began operating a cobbler shop in the French Quarter, also on Royal Street.  When property just a couple blocks down from his shop became available, Antonio jumped on it and quickly became the owner and operator of a hotel.  Giving the hotel his family name, Antonio grew and nurtured the Hotel Monteleone for many years and passed the business on to his family after his death.  The hotel still remains in the family, having been passed through five generations of Monteleones.

While the Hotel Monteleone’s facade is indeed beautiful, its true secret lies within.  Installed in 1949, the Hotel Monteleone boasts the Carousel Bar, a spinning bar created in the likeness of a carousel.  Visitors can seat themselves on a stool adorned with paintings of circus animals and look up to see an ornate and dazzlingly lighted bar structure that perfectly mimics the center of a carousel.  And while a spinning bar doesn’t initially seem like the best idea, the Hotel Monteleone has perfected the tempo with which to twirl their guests.  Rotating once per fifteen minutes, the Carousel Bar is one of the most stunning ways to enjoy a drink in New Orleans.

Even more spectacular, the Carousel Bar was considered a sort of home for many of America’s most famous 19th century authors.  With a dense literary history, the Carousel Bar seated names like Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner (though likely never at the same time as Hemingway), Anne Rice, Truman Capote (who claimed to have been born at the Hotel Monteleone), and even Eudora Welty.  These authors’ love for the Carousel Bar wasn’t solely measured in the drinks they consumed there, but can also been seen in their writing where the bar makes many an appearance.

A Spinning Bar, A Signature Cocktail

           The Carousel Bar is actually where the Vieux Carre was originally invented.  While the exact year is contested, the Vieux Carre was mixed for the first time in the late 1930s by the Carousel Bar’s head bartender, Walter Bergeron.  The recipe is said to have been first published in 1937 in “Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em”, but other sources claim the drink wasn’t invented until the end of 1938.  Regardless, the Vieux Carre stands as the Carousel Bar’s signature cocktail and one of its most frequently ordered drinks.  Named after its home, the Vieux Carre is a truly New Orleanian drink and represents a staple in the cocktail community.