A New Orleans' Take on the Manhattan: Making a Vieux Carré
It's time to grab your cognac and rye.
A bright, ecstatic sound greets you when the elevator opens. The people here are well dressed, but not as well dressed as you. You are a little early here. The long mahogany bar opens up in front of you as you move through the crowd. As you glance from your watch to the bartender, who wears a vest and tie over a new shirt, you realize she's only a few minutes away from here.
It's like a tailored suit, jazz, and good cigar to me, and that's what the Vieux Carré is to me. A cocktail that is both elegant and sophisticated, beguiling and complex, it's one you look good ordering, and you feel good drinking, making you feel sophisticated as a result. In addition to that, it also happens to be one of the best Manhattan variations ever created.
It was named after the neighborhood where it was created, as with so many plays on the Manhattan: “Vieux Carré” means “old square,” what New Orleans calls the French Quarter. One of the few classic drinks created post-Prohibition is the Monteleone, which stands today, as it has for 86 years, just off Bourbon Street on the southern end of the French Quarter. It was created by head bartender Walter Bergeron at the Monteleone hotel in 1937.
Its Carousel Bar, which the Hotel Monteleone boasts as "the city's only revolving bar," is one of the most famous attractions at the hotel today. The bar, along with the bartender, rotates one revolution every fifteen minutes, which is manageable but still odd. It's comforting to know that it wasn't actually invented in a room that gauche, as in Bergeron's time it was the Swan Bar, and wouldn't become an orbital experience for another 11 years.
There's nothing like New Orleans in this drink. It's hard to imagine anywhere else where you could combine the sweetness of French cognac and liqueur with the dryness of American rye whiskey and the exquisite taste of Peychaud's bitters in a drink that's fun, refined, and delicious. Crescent City is exceptionally proud of its heritage.
- 1 oz. rye whiskey
- 1 oz. Cognac
- 0.75 oz. sweet vermouth
- 0.25 oz. Bénédictine
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
The cocktail should be stirred for a good 20 to 30 seconds, then strained and garnished with a lemon peel.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
There are several types of Rye out there. My go-tos are the 100 proof Kentucky giants, such as Rittenhouse or Wild Turkey 101 Rye, but that's probably due to the fact that I'm most familiar with them. I wouldn't be too precious about brands here. It's probably going to work if you have one that's more than 100 proof. Older and/or more expensive ryes like WhistlePig or Colonel E.H. Taylor Rye, however, will be very good, but not necessarily better. If you want to be even bolder, then you can try the 110 proof bottlings from Pikesville or the Willett Family Estate. You'll want to avoid too much sweetness if you make this drink, so a few more points of alcohol won't damage anything.
There is something that will hurt you if you use too few calories because there is balance between alcohol and sweetness; if you use too little alcohol and sweetness starts to be an issue, then it will hurt you. I hesitate to go below 50% alcohol for the whiskey and plainly would not go below 45.
As far as I am concerned, a good quality cognac is V.S.O.P or better. If you drink it too young, you won’t taste the brandy’s funkiness, but it still makes a good drink, but it isn’t ideal for drinking. I recommend that you try Hine V.S.O.P for this cocktail, a cognac that provides a balance between the spicy rye and rich, supple notes. Hine is my recommendation for this cocktail, and I recommend you do as well.
I have noticed that when I go to a friend's house, there is usually a nice bottle of gin, a nice bottle of vodka, a couple of nice whiskeys, as well as a crusty old bottle of vermouth which is by far the worst vermouth I have ever come across. Take this as a PSA: Vermouth is not an insignificant ingredient. It is important to note that if you wish to make a Vieux Carré (or the Manhattan or Negroni), you will need to find a vermouth that is not terrible. If you have just a bottom shelf brand you bought for $4.99, throw it away.
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino is my favorite sweet vermouth for all uses, and it's easily accessible, as well as a very good Vieux Carré, but my favorite sweet vermouth for this particular drink is Carpano Antica, which has a powerful vanilla and stone fruit flavor profile. You may want to grab one of those if you can. If not, your mileage may vary depending on the brand you choose.
It is important that you use both Angostura and Peychaud's bitters for this recipe, and it is indeed necessary to use both of them. As a whole, the good news is that Angostura is a very essential and fundamental component of every home bar, and while Peychaud's isn't really either of those things, it is extremely inexpensive.
It is generally agreed among professionals that the best approach is to make this drink in a rocks glass on ice, but the most fertile debate is about whether it should be made in a coupe or cocktail glass, up.
As a result, the sweetness of this cocktail can be cloying when it isn't chilled and diluted sufficiently, which is why most people choose to make it on the rocks because it can cloy very easily if not properly chilled and diluted. Bergeron conceived it in that way, and I would never claim that making a Vieux Carré on ice is wrong in any way, but it is not how I do it.
Rather than adding sugar, I stir for a little longer than other drinks, about 20 seconds, depending on the ice, to get a little more water before straining. As it slowly warms, the herb interplay between the vermouth and Bénédictine develops, which is one of the main pleasures of this drink.
In almost any form, the cocktail is delectably delicious, but my favorite part is the way that the herbal complexity, initially a background note, merged with the perception of sweetness, becomes more evident as it progresses. It's like a Manhattan, but more interesting. What's more sophisticated than that? Warming changes it and that's half the fun, giving us a point of focus.