Haiti, New Orleans, Shared Culture, and a cocktail.
Haiti and New Orleans have more in common than most would guess. Both were ruled under the French, Spanish, and Americans; and both had sizable populations of free people of color mixing among the free whites in the 18th century and influencing their respective cultures. Most importantly for us, last night, at least, both places had a part in the invention of the Sazerac…New Orlean’s (and possibly America’s) first cocktail.
When Haiti was still known as Saint Domingue, it was the home of the first and only successful slave uprising in this hemisphere…the changes that caused were many, including the unfortunate financial straits Haiti still faces as after the European nations refused to recognize its independence it never regained its economic status. As the newly renamed nation of Haiti watched it’s finances collapse, both freed slaves and wealthy planters fled by the thousands to the French city of New Orleans. One of the many was Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a pharmacist who set up shop at 437 Royal Street.
His apothecary, like most places in the Quarter during that era, was also a gambling salon. With the concentration of heavy drinking gamblers in the backroom, Peychaud was selling more and more of his families “cure-all”- Peychaud Bitters, the kind of remedy that could take care of a cold, fever, depression, restlessness, and of course the most common affliction in New Orleans at the time, the hangover.
Peychaud, an inventive sort, found that the bitters did not always go down well, but when mixed with some Sazerac brand Cognac, not only did it taste a bit better, but could be sold in the back as a drink to keep the gamblers loose. He served his drink, the Sazerac, in French style double sided egg cups called “coquetiers”, which may have resulted in the first use of the term cocktail as the drunken Americans would never deign to use the correct French pronunciation. The Americans eventually changed the recipe to replace cognac with rye whiskey, and added absinthe and sugar, but the name remained the same.
Tonight as you sit in the Sazerac bar, Napoleon House, French 75 or Pirates Alley, (or sit in some far away city wishing you were here) order one for histories sake and remember that New Orleans would not be the city it is if not for the shared culture we have with Haiti.
By the way, since New Orleans history is everywhere, Peychaud’s building is still here in the French Quarter at 437 Royal. It is the home of the colorful and very awesome Cohen’s antiques, so you can still check it out.