N IS FOR NEW ORLEANS
By Matthew Latkiewicz
N is for New Orleans, the greatest drinking city in America with a bullet. San Francisco and New York vie for second, but will never ascend to the top of the podium. Sorry SF and NYC, but you don’t let me drink on the street.
Public drinking is what New Orleans is known for of course, among other cool things like jazz and boob-showing for beads, but the drinks to-go are actually a relatively recent development. In the late 60s, the famed Bourbon Street was in a state of disrepair following years of vice squad raids on its nightclubs and burlesque bars. With businesses either shut down or struggling, the remaining proprietors started selling whatever they could however they could, including alcohol, right on the street through a serving window to whoever was passing by, most of whom were tourists there to admire the beautiful architecture and ambiance of the famed French Quarter, most of which is actually Spanish in style. More on that later.
While we tend to think of American colonies as an English thing, a huge chunk of North America was claimed by the French during the 16th century, including what is now Louisiana. When they founded New Orleans in 1718, it was designed to be a major port town, and so attracted, as all port towns do, rough characters and people looking for adventure. Foreshadowingly, the entire settlement was flattened in 1722 by a hurricane.
But they rebuilt as New Orleans has had do more than most cities, and fast forward to 1763, and via some imperialist shenanigans, the French lost New Orleans to the Spanish and so the city got a good dose of Hispanic architecture and lifestyle on top of the French, especially when the city basically burned down in 1788 and so was rebuilt again in a more Spanish style (including the French Quarter).
By the time America got it in 1803 in the Louisiana purchase – which is definitely in the top 5 of all purchases – it had gone through French hands again and was the great cultural hodgepodge it remains to this day, with French parades, Spanish buildings, Caribbean culture, a red light district, and drinking, lots and lots of drinking. Unlike the more puritan minded communities in the east and mid-west, New Orleans was a town that embraced its vices, and people came from all over to party there. As one visitor wrote of the town in 1917, “This place is one of the worst I ever witnessed,” citing all the bars and gambling halls. Of course one person’s worst is a lot of people’s best, and in 1834, another visitor commented, “The city’s more than 2,500 taverns are always filled with drinkers.”
And while the Sazerac is probably their most famous cocktail export, I think the Ramos Gin Fizz is truly New Orleans in a glass. Only a town committed to partying would invent a drink as ridiculous as the Ramos Gin Fizz, which calls for not only for the egg white, lemon juice, simple syrup and soda that make up a fizz, but cream, and orange flower water, and lime juice. Oh and Gin obviously. In order to get all those things to mix, especially the cream and the egg, you have to shake it forever. The guy who invented it, Henry J. Ramos, said to “shake and shake and shake until there is not a bubble left but the drink is smooth and snowy white and of the consistency of good rich milk.” What? Apparently, at his bar The Stag, each bartender got a “shaker boy,” which is exactly what you think it is, and also as racist. The bartender would mix the drink and then hand it off to his shaker sidekick because otherwise, they couldn’t make them fast enough to keep up with demand. Point being that to put that much work into a cocktail, you better be selling a lot of them. And in New Orleans, you did.
Which brings us back to the vice squad, and Jim Garrison, the district attorney who attempted to “clean up” Bourbon street, and gave us public drinking instead, the greatest civic fuck you of all time. The state of Louisiana has no open container laws, which means its up to the individual cities and towns to decide when and how you can drink in public. And after the Bourbon street businesses started hawking booze to the pedestrians wandering around admiring the architecture, it eventually, awkwardly became a city wide practice. While technically only allowed in the French Quarter, which unfortunately like Times Square has become a Disney recreation of itself, that rule is rarely enforced. Instead, you can take your drink to go when the bar closes, if it ever does. There’s no official closing time in New Orleans so you can find a bar to slide up to at any time of day or night. Like I said, number one with a bullet.
N is for New Orleans.
Here’s to you Big Easy.