The elevator opens, and you’re met with the bright ecstatic cacophony of the city. Everyone up here is dressed well, but not as well as you. You’re a little early. You move easily through the crowd as a seat opens before you at the long mahogany bar. She’ll be a few minutes yet, so you look from your watch to the bartender, vest and tie over a shirt so white it must be new:
“May I offer you a drink, sir?”
That’s what the Vieux Carré is to me. It’s a tailored suit. It’s jazz and a good cigar. Muscular and elegant, beguiling and complex, it’s one of those cocktails that you look good ordering and you feel good drinking, as if you yourself are more sophisticated for being in its company. And while that would be enough, it also just happens to be one of the greatest Manhattan variations ever made.
As with so many plays on the Manhattan, the cocktail is named after the neighborhood in which it was invented: “Vieux Carré” means “old square,” what they call the French Quarter in New Orleans. It comes to us from 1937—one of the rare few classic drinks to be invented post-Prohibition—conceived by head barman Walter Bergeron at the famous Hotel Monteleone, which stands now, as it has since 1886, a block off Bourbon Street on the French Quarter’s southern end.
Today, the Hotel Monteleone is most famous for its somewhat curious Carousel Bar, what the website proudly boasts as “the city’s only revolving bar,” in which the bar and everyone at it literally circles the bartender at the manageable but still bizarre rate of one revolution per fifteen minutes. The thought of a cocktail this elegant invented in a room that gauche kind of ruins my day, and it’s comforting to know that it actually wasn’t, because in Bergeron’s time it was called the Swan Bar, and wouldn’t be converted to an orbital experience for another 11 years.
This is a thoroughly New Orleans drink. Those Crescent City folks are unusually proud of their heritage, and any time you’ve got the softness of French cognac and liqueur mixed with the dry structure of American rye whiskey, all combined with the city’s own Peychaud’s bitters in a single drink that is at once fun, refined and amazingly delicious, there’s really only one place it could originate.
- 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
Stir for 20 to 30 solid seconds. Strain into cocktail glass, garnish with a lemon peel.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Rye: should be big and spicy. I’m not too precious about brands here—my go-to are my 100 proof Kentucky giants, like Rittenhouse, Wild Turkey 101 Rye, but that’s probably because it’s what I’m most familiar with. If you have a 100+ proof rye, it will probably work. An older and/or more expensive one like WhistlePig or Colonel E.H. Taylor Rye will also be great, though not necessarily better, just different. You can get punchy with even bolder rye if you want to, like the 110 proof bottlings from Pikesville or the Willett Family Estate. The danger in this drink is the sweetness, so a few more alcohol points won’t hurt.
What will hurt it is too few. I hesitate to go below 50 percent alcohol for the whiskey and plainly wouldn’t go below 45. Alcohol balances against sweetness; less alcohol and sweetness starts to be a problem.
Cognac: I prefer V.S.O.P or better. Too young and you’ll taste the brandy’s funkiness, which still makes a fine drink, but it’s not ideal. The cocktail is at its best when the cognac is giving rich, supple, woody notes to balance the spicy rye. For this cocktail, I like reach for Hine V.S.O.P.
Vermouth: More often than not, when I go to someone’s house, I see a nice bottle of gin and a nice bottle of vodka and a couple nice whiskeys and a crusty aging bottle of just the worst vermouth I’ve ever seen in my life. Take this as a PSA: Vermouth is not an insignificant ingredient. The decision to make a Vieux Carré (or for that matter a Manhattan or Negroni) is dependent on the existence of non-horrible vermouth. If all you have is a bottom shelf brand you bought for $4.99, throw it away.
My favorite all-purpose sweet vermouth is Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, which is versatile and fairly available and makes a very good Vieux Carré, but my favorite for this particular drink is Carpano Antica, with its powerful vanilla and stone-fruit intensity. If you can grab one of those, do it. If not, your mileage may vary, brand to brand.
Bitters: This calls for both Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, and you do indeed need both of them. The good news is that Angostura is a fundamental and necessary addition to any home bar, and while Peychaud’s isn’t really either of those things, it is inexpensive, so there’s that.
Glassware: The most fertile disagreement among professionals is whether to make this drink in a rocks glass on ice or in a coupe or cocktail glass, up.
This particular cocktail needs a lot of dilution. That sweetness can cloy if it’s not suitably chilled and diluted, which is why almost everyone chooses to make it on the rocks. It was definitely conceived that way by Bergeron himself, and I would never say a Vieux Carré on ice is in any way incorrect, but that’s not how I make it. I mitigate the sweetness instead by stirring longer than other drinks, about 20 seconds, depending on the ice, to get a little extra water before straining it up. This is because one of the principle pleasures of this drink is how the herbal interplay from the vermouth and Bénédictine evolves as it slowly warms.
The cocktail is deliriously good in almost any form, but my favorite part is how the herbal complexity—a background note at first, lumped in with the perception of sweetness—begins to take center stage as time goes on. The warming changes it and the change is half the fun, providing an axis point on which to focus. It’s like a Manhattan but more interesting. What’s more sophisticated than that?