Cocktails Every Southerner Should Master
In May of 2013, cocktails saved me from an ordinary life.
I was pushing paper in a dead-end office job, and I was drinking to cope with the stress. One night, I was at Octane Coffee + Bar in Birmingham. After a few drinks, I asked the bartender, “When are you going to stop telling me about cocktails and actually teach me how to make them?”
Three weeks later, I had quit the office job and was a full-time barback. Six weeks after that, I pulled my first solo bartending shift.
Outside of work, I spent most of my time learning about the cocktails and products we sold. I flew through our in-house liquor and cocktail dossiers, and began researching cocktail books. The classics were especially fascinating to me. For many of them, uncovering their origins required piecing together historical texts, drinkers’ records of their experiences, and regional bar lore. Luckily, David Wondrich, Esquire magazine’s cocktail historian, had done the research on many of these cocktails, but there were some I dug into on my own.
For an incorrigible nerd like me, the mysteries and rich stories only piqued my interest in historical drinking. I started searching out libations that were less popular today, but that some distant relatives probably consumed.
A few shifts into my bartending career, a customer asked me to make him a distinctly Southern classic. I stirred up a Sazerac, and we struck up a conversation about regional drinks — that is, after we’d amiably argued through the Sazerac’s history, my bar’s use of Angostura bitters instead of Peychaud’s, and our preparation. We both knew enough to keep up our respective sides of the argument, but the conversation inspired me to research every aspect of the Sazerac’s story. Just for good measure, I started doing the same for other classic Southern cocktails.
The result was a list of go-to Southern cocktails.
If I were to include the contentious histories of each drink on my list, this piece would more closely resemble a database than a magazine article, so I’ve culled the list down to what I believe are the five essential Southern cocktails. Two of them are from New Orleans because, as a Washington Post article earlier this year pointed out, the city is responsible for keeping some historical cocktails alive. All five are drinks that every Southerner — by birth or by choice — should know.
Since cocktails change as the popular palate changes and evolves over time, I’ve included two recipes for each drink: The first is the standard, the classic. The second is a more contemporary spin on the classic.
As Christmas drinks go, few are more Southern than Milk Punch. It’s only a step away from Egg Milk Punch – also known as Egg Nog – but it’s a different experience. “It’s one of those drinks that’s just essential and simple,” says David Wondrich. “You see it throughout the South.”
From the time of its creation in 17th century England, it has always had ardent fans, Wondrich says. “You’ve always had people who really obsessed over that drink.” About two centuries later, Milk Punch was adopted by the American South. It most likely entered our region, as have many good things, through New Orleans.
“New Orleans was well-supplied with all the good things in life that other parts of the South were struggling with a little more,” says Wondrich. “It was a major seaport, and had ice early on that came by ship from New England.”
Ice is a major component of the Milk Punch. Ice allowed it to take on its current form. Originally, milk was added to the punch, allowed to curdle, and strained out. This process resulted in a rich, silky texture. But eventually, “people realized that if you drink it right away, the milk won’t curdle. You can just shake the thing up,” says Wondrich. The simpler, shaken version was adopted by the South, which meant it was a more portable potable.
It should also be noted that, before the Civil War, the Southern upper class drank brandy, not whiskey. In Wondrich’s words, “If at all possible, gentlemen would not drink whiskey.” Therefore, it’s not surprising at all that one of the most popular cold-weather drinks of the time was brandy-based.
Nowadays, people might be more willing to add a splash of liqueur or a bit of vanilla to their Milk Punch, but it’s otherwise largely unchanged. “It’s pretty conservative, which is one of the things in its favor,” says Wondrich. “It’s a simple drink and hard to screw up, which is a wonderful thing, I think.”
The Classic: Brandy Milk Punch
Recipe from David Wondrich’s “Imbibe!”
2 tsp superfine white sugar
2 tsp water
1 oz Santa Cruz rum (see note)
2 oz cognac
Half tumbler full of shaved ice (see note)
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add approximately 1½ oz of milk and shake well. Grate a bit of nutmeg on top.
Note: Since Santa Cruz rum from the 1800s is unlike most things on the market today, try a Navy proof, barrel aged rum instead. Crushed ice will do if shaved ice is not readily available.
The Modern Twist
Simply add a splash of a nutty liqueur or ½ tsp of vanilla extract to the above recipe.
The Classic: Sazerac
From Julian Goglia of the Pinewood
2 oz rye whiskey
¼ oz 1:1 simple syrup*
6 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters
Set two rocks glasses on your prep surface. Put ice and a small quantity of absinthe in one, and combine the ingredients listed above in the other. Add cracked ice to the second glass and stir. Dump ice and absinthe from the first glass and strain drink back into it. Garnish with a flamed lemon twist. Discard flamed peel and adorn drink with a fresh twist.
*To make 1:1 simple syrup, bring a pot of water to a boil. Separately measure 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of boiling water into a glass container. Stir until all sugar is dissolved and let cool.
The Modern Twist: Dixieland Axeman
From Julian Goglia of The Pinewood
1½ oz bourbon
¾ oz fresh lemon juice (strained)*
½ oz 1:1 Lyle's Golden Syrup
½ oz Luxardo Aperitivo
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously until chilled through, and strain into an absinthe-rinsed coupe glass.
*Straining juices extends shelf life and ensures consistency.
Out of the five cocktails mentioned in this article, the Sazerac likely has the most contentious history. Both the apothecary behind the cocktail’s bitters (Peychaud’s) and the Sazerac House bar in New Orleans claim its recipe as their own. However, the drink was originally built on the template of the Great American Cock-Tail: booze, bitters, sugar, and maybe water.
We know people were making Sazeracs long before the cocktail was named or mentioned in print. As a result, it’s not surprising that every bar in New Orleans (and in other cities) serves a slightly different Sazerac.
“It’s a style of drink which originated in New Orleans,” says Chris Hannah of New Orleans’ French 75 Bar. “It was obviously being made here in the 1800s, but wasn’t in a book until the 1900s.”
Around 1850, a man named Sewell T. Taylor sold the Merchants Exchange Coffee House to Aaron Bird, who renamed it the Sazerac House. Taylor then went into the liquor import business, where one of his products was the Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac. The Sazerac House used this cognac and bitters from Peychaud, a local apothecary, in their Sazerac Cocktail, says Julian Goglia of the Pinewood Tippling Room in Decatur, Ga. “I’ve also heard that the pharmacist Peychaud invented it and would serve it in egg coupes.”
Between the time of its creation and its print debut in 1908, the Sazerac’s base changed from cognac to “good whiskey.” Though the swap might seem mysterious at first, it has a pretty clear cause: an American root aphid called Phylloxera vastatrix. Around this time, the aphid was transported from America to Europe and decimated thousands of acres of vineyards. As the crops withered, cognac became rare in the states. But, as Julian Goglia says, “when booze disappears, people don’t stop drinking. They switch to the next readily available thing.”
For New Orleans cognac drinkers, rye whiskey shipped down the Ohio River replaced cognac. After a string of owners following Bird, a fellow named Thomas Handy took ownership of the Sazerac House. As the proprietor, he was likely the one who changed the recipe for the Sazerac Cocktail. Once he had done so, he revealed or wrote down the cocktail’s proportions before his death in 1889. William Boothby, who wrote “The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them,” somehow came across this recipe and published it in 1908. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Classic: Ramos Gin Fizz
From Greg Best of the Tipsy Hippo
2 oz London dry gin
1 oz cold heavy cream
½ oz fresh lemon juice (strained)
½ oz fresh lime juice (strained)
1 egg white
2 bar spoons of superfine sugar
3-4 drops of orange flower water
Orange wheel for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously with 1 scoop of cracked ice for 2-3 minutes or until ice is dissolved. Strain into a large chilled Collins glass and top with about 2 ounces of cold seltzer water. Garnish with a thin orange wheel.
The Modern Twist: The Famous Gin(ger) Fizz
From Greg Best of the Tipsy Hippo
2 oz London dry gin
1 oz cold heavy cream
1 oz ginger-infused simple syrup*
¾ oz fresh lemon juice (strained)
1 egg white
2-3 drops of orange flower water
Orange twist for garnish
Candied ginger for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously with 1 scoop of cracked ice for 2-3 minutes or until ice is dissolved. Strain into a large chilled Collins glass and top with about 2 ouces of cold seltzer water. Garnish with a twist of orange peel wrapped around a piece of candied ginger.
* To prepare ginger-infused simple syrup, simmer one, medium-sized ginger root, peeled and sliced, in 1:1 simple syrup for 20 minutes, or until quite fragrant. Strain syrup, let cool, and use.
The history of the second New Orleans cocktail is a bit more clear-cut. Back in 1888, a tavern keeper named Henry Ramos invented the Ramos Gin Fizz. Because its production was so theatrical, its popularity grew quickly.
“Henry definitely pushed the envelope with his methodology,” says Atlanta bartender Greg Best.
After building the drink in the shaker, “[Ramos] would line up eight or nine different attractive African-American men in white jackets. He called them his shaker boys, and they’d pass the drink down the line and back.” The Ramos Gin Fizz’s fame spread so quickly that it became the drink of choice for some politicians and movie stars.
“At one point, Henry Ramos was even brought to Washington to represent the city of New Orleans to Congress,” Best says. “He was making Gin Fizzes in D.C., which was pretty crazy.”
For modern bartenders, the drink can be a bear to prepare.
“It still makes for a hell of a show,” says Best. “You’ll get a grimace from the bartender, but after that, you’ll usually see him put all the ingredients — of which there are many, some of which are counterintuitive for most other cocktails — in a shaker. Then you’ll see the bartender pass it to the bartender next to them, and then to the barback, and then to the cocktail waitress.”
The Ramos Gin Fizz, also known as the New Orleans Fizz, is known as a morning drink. But this label didn’t originate with bartenders who didn’t want to make it, says Chris Hannah.
“Instead, it’s branded an eye-opener for the ingredients’ purposes in the mixture: the spirit is the hair of the dog, the cream and egg white fill and line your stomach to take in the day, and the sugar, aromatized water [orange flower water] and citrus create a formula equivalent to that in energy drinks,” Hannah says. “[It’s] a drink built to help a fellow man or woman make it through the day in case the night before attempted to cheat them out of it.”
Either way, many people consider it a very special drink — one capable of transporting the drinker backward in time.
“I feel the same way about [the Ramos Gin Fizz] as an adult as I did when I was a kid drinking Orange Juliuses,” says Best. “It’s this weird, transportive drink with so many flavors. It’s satisfying and rich, but it’s also light and ethereal.”
Some people call Chatham Artillery Punch Savannah’s contribution to modern alcoholism. Others call it the punch to end all punches. All I know is that it’ll be on the menu at my next party.
This stout tipple was originally concocted to celebrate a visit in the mid-1800s between the Republican Blues, an all-volunteer unit from Savannah stationed in Fort Jackson, and the Chatham Artillery. Both organizations were as much social clubs as military units, but the Chatham Artillery was especially known for enjoying the good things in life.
A. C. Luce, a loyal townsman and local hotelkeeper, formulated this stiff libation. And strong it was — the original recipe calls for a full bottle each of cognac, bourbon, and Jamaican rum. Don’t skimp on quality liquor: Savannah bartender Scott Marshall says the punch’s success depends on using the good stuff.
“In its natural form, it’s very much dependent on getting good ingredients that will actually blend well together,” Marshall says. “The wrong combination of these things is just awful.”
But even with the craft cocktail revival, you won’t find Chatham Artillery Punch at many bars – even in Savannah. If you're lucky enough to have a bartender friend hosting a party, you're more likely to see it at his or her event than anywhere else.
“It’s lethal, but it’s very fun,” says David Wondrich. “Everybody went from zero to drunk in about an hour. It was wicked.”
By 1900, the formula had gotten a bit sweeter – and a bit mellower. As Wondrich quotes from a 1907 recipe, “Its vigor in those days was much greater than at present, experience having taught the rising generation to modify the receipt of their forefathers to conform to the weaker constitutions of their progeny.” Oh, historical insults about alcohol tolerance.
The Classic: 1885 Chatham Artillery Punch from David Wondrich’s “Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl”
1 pint fresh lemon juice
1 750 ml bottle VSOP cognac
1 750 ml bottle bourbon whiskey
1 750 ml Jamaican-style rum
To make an oleo-saccharum, peel the zest of 12 lemons, getting as little pith as possible. Firmly muddle the peels in a sturdy bowl with 2 cups of light raw sugar. Cover and leave the mixture to sit in a warm place for about an hour. Muddle the mixture again, and it’s ready to use.
Mix oleo-sacchrum with 1 pint of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Stir and strain into an empty 750 ml bottle. Add water to fill any remaining space in the bottle, seal and refrigerate. To serve, fill a two-and-a-half gallon punch bowl with ice and pour in the bottled oleo-sacchrum. Add the bottles of cognac, bourbon, and Jamaican-style rum. Top off with three bottles of chilled brut champagne. Stir. Then smile.
A Slightly More Modern Twist: 1907 Chatham Artillery Punch from David Wondrich’s “Imbibe!”
1 gallon Catawba wine (or other sweet, fruity, preferably pink domestic wine)
1 quart St. Croix rum
4 cans sliced pineapples (or 2 chunked fresh pineapples)
Juice of 30 lemons
3 oranges, cut into tiny pieces
1 bottle of maraschino cherries (or a quart of rye whiskey)
2 cups strong green tea
4 bottles of champagne (or other high quality sparkling wine)
Mix the juices of the lemons, pineapples, and the liquor from the cherries with the Catawba wine, St. Croix rum and tea, then sweeten to taste. This mixture is known as the stock, and improves with age.
Let rest for at least two days before serving. It should be cooled in a refrigerator or by placing a piece of ice in it. When you’re ready to serve, place a piece of ice in the punch bowl, then pour in the stock, leaving room for the champagne. As each bottle is poured into the bowl, oranges and pineapples sliced into small particles and cherries should be added in proportion to the amount used.
The Classic: Mint Julep
From Jared Schubert of The Monkey Wrench
2 oz bourbon (100 proof or above)
1/2 oz simple syrup
9 sprigs of mint
In a metal vessel, combine bourbon, simple syrup, and the leaves from two sprigs of mint. Press gently on the mixture with a muddler and fill the vessel with crushed ice. Stir it a bit until the liquid rises, then top with crushed ice to form a small mound. Garnish with the remaining mint bundles.
The Modern Twist: The Jersey Julep
By Jared Schubert of The Monkey Wrench
2 oz Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy
½ oz simple syrup
9 sprigs of mint
In a metal vessel, combine apple brandy, simple syrup, and the leaves from two sprigs of mint. Press gently on the mixture with a muddler and fill the vessel with crushed ice. Stir it a bit until the liquid rises, then top with crushed ice to form a small mound. Garnish with the remaining mint bundles.
Few drinks evoke the image of a wraparound front porch quite as vividly as the Mint Julep. But the julep itself was around long before Spain and England and Portugal had begun the race to colonize the New World.
In fact, the first record of a julep was as a medicine in 900 when Rhazes included it in his “Kitab al-Mansuri.” In the 1600s, the julep was still medicine – and was often made with alcohol. But something peculiar happened when the julep hit America. Around 1796, it starts showing up in records as a recreational drink rather than a medicinal tonic. By 1802, mint had been added, and it was well on its way to popularity.
As far as ingredients go, mint was an interesting choice.
“Mint is not native to the Western Hemisphere,” says Louisville bartender Joy Perrine. “It was held in such high esteem that [European settlers] literally brought it with them so they could use it for medicine. Basically, it was used to settle the stomach.”
Before mint was available year-round, the Mint Julep was a seasonal drink. Once the mint started sprouting, people would infuse their homemade booze with mint and mix it with sourwood honey, sorghum syrup, or whatever sweetener was locally available, Perrine says.
Like the Sazerac, the Mint Julep of yesteryear would not have been made with whiskey before the Civil War (except in Maryland, where it was and is and always shall be made with rye). The Southern Mint Julep of yesteryear would have likely been made with peach brandy, says Jared Schubert, bar manager at Louisville’s The Monkey Wrench.
Other sources cite the mint julep as having been made with brandy, moonshine, rum, and rye, but it’s highly unlikely that any Southerner would have drunk it with whiskey before the Civil War. After that time, the aforementioned European aphid plague would have wiped out French wine crops. As well, Sherman’s march through the South destroyed many of the existing peach brandy distilleries, says Schubert.
Schubert relates this story: The modern bourbon Mint Julep was introduced by Henry Clay, Kentucky’s infamous U.S. senator, whose political maneuvers secured the presidency for John Quincy Adams. After Adams’ victory, Clay was appointed Secretary of State. To celebrate what some call the “corrupt bargain,” Clay made traditional Mint Juleps with Kentucky whiskey.