Every time I pass the French Quarter exit on I-10, I remember a dark and stormy evening, about 20 years ago, when I passed it accidentally—and several subsequent exits—and then freaked out because I was headed for Slidell.
The big green exit sign does not read French Quarter, but rather, Vieux Carré—the official, historic, elegantly European name for the neighborhood.
Long before the advent of iPhones, New Orleans could be a scary place to miss an exit. Should I take the next one? Where am I? Why don’t any of the street lights work? What exactly is Slidell?
When someone says Vieux Carré today, I think of home. It’s where I live. I then think more immediately of the namesake cocktail—invented by a man named Walter Bergeron in the mid-1930s.
Bergeron was the head bartender of Hotel Monteleone’s famous Swan Room, where Liberace graced the stage in those days.
The Swan Room became the modern iteration, The Carousel Bar, in 1949. If you’ve not had the immense pleasure of a lobby drink at this hotel, The Carousel Bar perfectly presents the children’s carnival ride, right down to a carved canopy, featuring bright marquee bulbs, grinning carved jesters and painted cherubs (added in 1992), and a base that’s been spinning for more than 50 years.
It rotates on immense cables underneath the floor, and as you hop atop a barstool for the ride, the hotel claims it’s one rotation per drink. Ahem. Well…let’s just offer that at drink No. 3, you might need to hop off.
Legend has it that when Walter created this cocktail, it was in honor of the different cultures that resided in the French Quarter. You are consuming a bit of history while sipping on one.
Bergeron’s Vieux Carré
1/8 teaspoon Benedictine
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
3/4 ounce each of rye whiskey, cognac, Italian vermouth
Served over ice with a lemon twist.
“Most people that come in have heard of the Vieux Carré, but have not had it. Sometimes it takes time to explain what it is and the ingredients,” offers Marvin Allen, who has worked at the Monteleone for 19 years, for nearly two decades behind the stick at The Carousel (a gig that necessitates jumping entirely over the bar to get out, since there is no door in it), and now as the Beverage and Training Manager.
“What I like most about the Vieux Carré is that it characterizes a bit of history of the French Quarter itself,” he says.
“First, an alternative name for the French Quarter is Vieux Carré. And, legend has it that when Walter created this cocktail, it was in honor of the different cultures that resided in the French Quarter: Rye Whiskey for the Americans; the French with the Cognac and Benedictine. The Italians were honored with the Sweet Vermouth and the Islanders of Caribbean with Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters.
You are consuming a bit of history while sipping on one.”
The hotel claims it’s one rotation per drink. Ahem. Let’s just offer that at drink No. 3, you might need to hop off.
A Vieux Carré needs to come with a little caveat. Make sure you’re in possession of a jigger if you make this—or, in a good cocktail bar if you order one. A few drops over on any ingredient and the drink is lost in bitter or sugar; cloying or abrasive, and ultimately unbalanced.
With the right proportions, it really, really sings.
“Pre-pandemic, we would prepare in the area of 200 on a Friday or Saturday,” Allen says.
“It is best if you want to get a seat at the Carousel to arrive early and wait in line. Even if you aren’t able to get a seat at the Carousel itself, it is fun to sit in the area around it and people-watch.”
The Carousel Bar is open noon-midnight, seven days a week.