NEW ORLEANS — This city’s liquid assets, from absinthe to iced tea, are getting a lot of attention these days.
The Louisiana State Museum has an exhibit of New Orleans beverages.
A cocktail museum opened recently.
A Southern Comfort museum is in the works.
A group dedicated to the many cultures of Southern food is looking to collect oral histories from the city’s bartenders.
“We make everything an art form,” says Beverly Gianna, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I think the fact that we can take our food and beverage and have museums centered around that just emphasizes and underscores the joie de vivre of New Orleans. Our great spirit. Or spirits.”
But then, you might expect liquor exhibits and bartender history in a city where a top attraction is Bourbon Street. OK, it is named after some old French rulers. But they’re not around anymore. Bars are. The 13 blocks of Bourbon Street include at least 20 bars and cocktail lounges.
“There’s a lot of interesting scholarship about cocktails and New Orleans,” says Amy Evans, who is working on the bartender oral-history project.
“Bartenders are the keepers of history and tradition and gossip and lore that is really a mother lode,” Miss Evans says.
This is the latest of several oral-history projects she has done for the Southern Foodways Alliance, an affiliate of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
She also has done oral histories on barbecue in Memphis and in rural Tennessee; Greek-owned restaurants in Birmingham, Ala.; and defunct restaurants in Oxford and Greenwood, Miss.
The bartenders’ oral history is sponsored by Southern Comfort, which hasn’t been made here for more than a century. But its label shows a mansion only an hour or so from the French Quarter, where the recipe was created 130 years ago — by a New Orleans bartender.
Martin Wilkes Heron developed the drink in 1874, according to Brown-Forman Corp., which counts Southern Comfort among its three dozen alcohol brands.
Heron worked at a long-vanished joint called McCauley’s Saloon. Southern Comfort was originally called Cuffs and Buttons — a nod to a popular New Orleans drink called white tie and tails, says Paul Tuell, Brown-Forman’s brand director for Southern Comfort.
About all Mr. Tuell knows about that drink are its name and a reasonable guess about the main ingredient. “All of them were, at that point, whiskey-based,” he says.
Heron moved to Memphis 15 years later and began bottling M.W. Heron’s Famous Southern Comfort.
If you can dig up a verifiable picture of Heron, by the way, Brown-Forman has $10,000 for you. The reward, announced in late 2001, has yet to turn up a portrait.
“A Toast of New Orleans: A Salute to the Beverages of the City,” which opened in March at the Old U.S. Mint at the edge of the French Quarter, goes well beyond alcohol. Its topic is any drink created in or connected to the city, including soft drinks such as Barq’s root beer, which went national when the Coca-Cola Co. bought it; iced tea (often written without its “d”); coffee with chicory; and cafe au lait.
Then there’s all the alcohol, including the 13 breweries that once operated here, and the “go cup” — plastic cups kept at bars so that if you leave without finishing, you can take your drink with you.
Bloody Mary enthusiasts may want to make plans to visit the Tabasco Museum, set to open next year a few blocks from the French Quarter in the city’s Arts/Warehouse District.
“My great-grandfather Edmund McIlhenny was part of the Americanization of New Orleans. Coincidentally, it’s in part of the city he helped build,” says Paul McIlhenny, chief executive of Tabasco maker McIlhenny Co., of the museum.
Edmund McIlhenny had been a banker, but his business was wiped out by the Civil War. After the war, he started his hot-sauce business on his wife’s family property, 120 miles west of New Orleans in Iberia Parish.
More than 150,000 tourists a year show up at the factory and the associated museum, shop and “jungle garden and bird city.”
“But that’s a rather obscure place south of New Iberia,” Mr. McIlhenny says. “I think most people tend to think of things culinary in New Orleans.”
Food and beverage history
Museum of the American Cocktail: Visit www.museumoftheamericancocktail.org or call 516/355-6319. Exhibit at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, 514 Chartres St. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults, $5; students and seniors, $4. Children under 4, free.
A Toast of New Orleans: Sponsored by Southern Food & Beverage Museum; visit www.southernfood.org or call 504/539-9617. Exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum, at the Old U.S. Mint in the French Quarter, 400 Esplanade Ave. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults $5; seniors and students $4; children under 12 free.
Southern Comfort Museum: Expected to open in the first half of 2006 at 308 Decatur St. Updated information will be posted at www.southerncomfort.com as the opening date nears.
Tabasco Museum: Expected to open in early 2006 at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Julia Street. Updated information will be posted at www.tabasco.com as the opening date nears.
Southern Foodways Alliance: Sponsors research, conferences and oral-history projects on Southern food and culture; www.southernfoodways.com.