Named after the city’s famous French Quarter, the classic Vieux Carre was invented by bartender Walter Bergeron at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. The potent combination of rye whiskey, Cognac, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters has stood the test of time, and over the years, many bartenders have used the original recipe as inspiration for modern variations. “The Vieux Carre is one of my favorite recipes to riff on,” says Ezra Star from Drink in Boston. “Any time you can take two spirits that don’t normally go together and put them in a recipe in an unexpected way, it’s amazing. And the Vieux Carre recipe, with the small touch of a little something (Bénédictine) to round the drink off, gives you so many options.”
One of Star’s favorite ways to tweak the drink is to modify the base spirits. Martinique rhum, for example, “becomes altogether different when mixed with the vermouth and Bénédictine,” she says. Similarly, in her Vieux Ananas recipe, Star replaces Cognac with pineapple rum. “Pineapple rum is so good in stirred drinks,” she says. “The body and weight of the Barbados distillate gives this flavor you don’t expect to be there with pineapple, but because of it you can use it almost like a brandy.”
At Trifecta Tavern in Portland, Oregon, rye whiskey is fat-washed with smoked bone marrow for a more full-bodied flavor. “The cocktail pairs beautifully with a steak or pork coming off of a wood burning grill,” says bartender Eddie Riddell. At The Saratoga, the cocktail spends time aging in American oak barrels to allow the flavors to mellow and evolve over time. “The Vieux Carre is a brilliant cocktail but requires expert balance,” says bartender Brandon Clements. “There are some cocktails that can be approached like cooking—a little of this, a little of that—but a Vieux Carre requires pastry-chef precision.”
Banana liqueur and two types of cardamom enhance Anthony Auger’s riff at Benne on Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina. “I wanted to bring some Caribbean flavor to the mix,” he says. And in the Carried Away from Matthew Grippo of Blackbird in San Francisco, a rye bread-infused Cognac is supported by Bonal, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine, bitters and a rinse of absinthe infused with Pu-erh tea. “I wanted to focus on the Cognac for this riff, so I was being cheeky when I had the idea of using rye bread, since I would be omitting the rye in spirit form,” says Grippo. “The rye-infused Cognac had this dark earthy quality that I wanted to complement with the tea.”
Some bartenders use the Vieux Carre as a broader jumping point, merging it with other classic cocktails to create new hybrids, like in the Smoking Pistol from The Dawson in Chicago which takes inspiration from both the Rob Roy and the Vieux Carre, or the Victory Lap from Watchman’s in Atlanta. A cross between the Vieux Carre and a Remember the Maine, the drink pairs the fruit notes of a cherry syrup and Madeira with a date-infused blanc vermouth, rye whiskey, Cognac, Angostura and orange bitters. “I thought that the pepper and floral aspect of the rye would play really well with the dates; it wasn’t until we added a teaspoon of cherry syrup that it all came together,” says bartender Demario Wallace. “After we stepped back from tasting it, I smirked and said that it’s basically a combination of my two favorite cocktails!”
Did you enjoy this article? Get more of the best of liquid culture when you sign up for a print or digital subscription to Imbibe Magazine. Click here for special savings!