Much has changed in the cocktail world since Ted Haigh, aka Dr. Cocktail, first released his book “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails.” That was in 2004, well before craft cocktails went mainstream.
But the book, expanded and rereleased in 2009, has not been forgotten and in many ways its “vintage” content feels as current as ever, given the enduring allure of classic drinks. In New Orleans, this love affair seems especially strong.
“It’s a yearning for the past,” said Haigh, during an interview while visiting New Orleans recently. ”And one that’s been marketed so sublimely... we’re witnessing a resurgence of a desire to be gentlemanly. People need a forum for gracious behavior. Cocktails have become the solution.”
Overflowing with information
From its binder-like cover to its spiral bound pages, “Vintage Spirits” resembles a technical manual — except that it’s a heck of a lot more fun. The award-winning volume is chock full of colorful images of drinks, vintage labels, advertisements and historic photographs, many from Haigh’s personal collection.
Most importantly, the volume offers 100 recipes. While some, like the French 75, the Boulevardier or Moscow Mule are well known in New Orleans, more obscure concoctions such as the Corpse Reviver No. 2, the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club Cocktail and Satan’s Whiskers are the stuff of tippler delight. A welcome surprise is just how many recipes call for the same dozen ingredients; Haigh’s book demonstrates that setting up a classic bar needn’t break the bank.
For Benton Bourgeois, bartender at Café Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar, “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails” remains the definitive reference.
“I know plenty of bartenders who call this the ‘bible,’ ” the innocent-faced Bourgeois said as he produced his volume of “Vintage Spirits” from beneath the bar’s counter.
With its dented corners and peeled-away binding, Bourgeois’ copy has clearly seen some heavy action.
“This taught me the basis for everything I know,” he explained.
For example, Bourgeois used three recipes from Haigh’s book for a recent Swizzle Stick event honoring its author.
“If not for this book, vintage cocktails wouldn’t be where they are today,” Bourgeois said.
Keeping classics fresh
A film graphic designer by trade, Haigh is a self-taught cocktail expert and longtime collector of drink paraphernalia. He was a co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, which is now part of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in Central City, and today he continues to curate exhibits there. Haigh revealed that he’s hard at work sifting through some 700 pages of a second vintage cocktail book, the specific focus of which he’d “prefer to keep a mystery for now,” but which he hinted would appeal to local drinkers.
In the introduction to “Vintage Spirits,” Haigh notes that he first began researching vintage cocktails in the 1980s, during the heyday of showy, vodka-infused, anything-goes “martini” era. Then, classic drinks were considered ancient history. He writes that the experience of finding old recipes “was like listening to a crackling 78 rpm record.”
However, the trend toward old school drinks has been raging for years and shows no sign of abating. While New Orleans has always enjoyed a committed relationship to its liquid past, the city’s penchant for classic drinks has steamed up in recent years. (And stemmed up: note the comeback of the coupe glass).
Midrange and upscale bars around town show a proliferation of bourbon-based, classic cocktails, and ingredients that were once deemed too stiff or exotic, like vermouth and Aperol, are ubiquitous.
Meanwhile “spirited dinners” featuring scotch now regularly compete with wine pairings. Indeed, it’s tough to find a male bartender not sporting a tight-fitting vintage vest and ’60s tie combo.
Haigh noted that New Orleans has a unique relationship with vintage cocktails.
“New Orleans was like an insect in amber,” he said. “A lot of drinks here remained unchanged here for 70 years.”
In essence, Haigh said, New Orleans never abandoned the classic drinks. What he now sees are touches of improvisation and experimentation — riffs on the old classics that are key to keeping the vintage scene fresh.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Bourgeois at the Swizzle Stick Bar. He notes the rise of seasonal drink menus, fresh juices and attention to detail. Perhaps part of our current yearning for the past is a longing for craft, one that’s not about the number of ingredients but their quality and the actual mixing of the drink.
As Bourgeois says, many customers expect to taste the same level of care in their glasses as they do on their plates — a farm-to-glass ethos routinely underscored at the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference.
However, Haigh also warns that even the appeal of vintage drinks can topple if pushed too hard.
“The potential downfall here is capitalism, of marketing too much,” he said. “We have to keep cocktails special. Drink regular stuff during the week.”