Memories of New Orleans, pt 3 — Museum of the American Cocktail

It has been unseasonably warm in Nashville these last few days, to the point of feeling downright summery and tropical. In other words, perfect weather for a gin and tonic, or a traditional daiquiri. Now, if you’re at work, about to operate machinery, or just don’t happen to have a drink in front of you, I’ll give you the next best thing: a virtual tour of the Museum of the American Cocktail.

speakeasy

Like this speakeasy, MotAC is fairly hidden.

Going to this museum is almost like going to a speakeasy, in that there’s no direct access from the street. First, you have to first go through the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, which itself sits in the Riverwalk Marketplace mall up by the food court. Food and cocktails make an excellent pairing so it makes sense that the museums are connected, but I couldn’t help wondering about the intention behind the arrangement. Was the SFBM a respectable “front” business for the Museum of the American Cocktail? Why split them into two museums if they are so connected, both physically and topic-wise? Are cocktails really that disreputable, even in a town like New Orleans? I’ve been to places that contain multiple museums in one institution (the Buffalo Bill Historical Center houses five), but I’d never seen such small matryoshka museums. My experience wasn’t diminished by its location so it shouldn’t really matter, but I do wonder how the Museum of the American Cocktail interfaces with the public when it’s so tucked away.

exterior of the Museum of the American Cocktail

What can I get you today, good sir?

In any case, back to the museum itself. Once you pass the absinthe displays (which include a full bar and are for some reason outside of the Museum of the American Cocktail)), you reach the room dedicated to one of America’s most creative pastimes. The three bartenders aren’t real and thus, sadly, can’t offer you a drink, but the atmosphere is quite nice. There’s a mix of an indoor and outdoor aesthetic, what with the wainscoting and warm lighting, and signage that evokes street signs/business shingles. It’s a relatively small room, but is packed with information in a way that doesn’t feel cluttered, which is itself quite a design feat.

interior of the Museum of the American Cocktail

Starting on the left

Speaking of spatial arrangements, I’m going to geek out a little bit more. Traditionally, there’s what we call a “right turn bias” in American museums, meaning that the majority of visitors start their exhibit experience by turning right and go through the exhibition counter-clockwise. Many museums lay out their exhibitions with this behavior in mind, though it’s always possible to have other spatial arrangements, especially if there are constraints on the existing usable space. Here at the Museum of the American Cocktail, which is essentially a rectangular room with a center island, you’re actually meant to turn left to start your chronological tour through the history of mixology in America. This isn’t to say that they’re doing something wrong, it’s just an interesting choice given what we know about visitor behavior. In fact, confusion likely isn’t a problem as there’s a clear direction of information flow, so I’m probably the only visitor who has wondered why the room is arranged this way. Next time you’re in a museum, pay attention to the layout, and see if there’s something about the space itself (not labels and signage) that directs your attention from element to element.

“What about the drinks?!” you say. “You promised us some nice refreshing information on cocktails!” Settle down, I’m getting there. It took us a while as a culture to start developing and appreciating cocktails, so I can be forgiven for taking a minute. The museum displays start out all the way back in the BCEs, with tales of Egyptian cocktails and the recorded history of distillation. Many alcoholic beverages (notably bitters and absinthe) started out as medicinal concoctions, and graduated to recreational use. We’ve had alcoholic drinks for a long time, and we’ve mixed them together in punches, flips, slings, sangrias and other flavor combinations*, but it wasn’t until at least 1806 that the word “cocktail” for a mixed drink** was even in use. It took another 56 years for Jerry Thomas to publish the first cocktail manual with recipes and proportions. A few years later, people started published guides to bar-tending that focused on proper comportment and care for equipment. If you ever encounter a rude bar-keep, hand them a copy of Harry Johnson’s 1882 book for respectable bartenders.

From there, the labels, photos, glassware, advertisements, bottles, and other paraphernalia tell the story of how the American cocktail rose, fell, and rose again. It’s a turbulent history full of pride and shame, secrecy and ubiquity, family businesses and international corporations, fun times and terrible side effects. One such side effect was explained in a fairly innocuous litte lable:

Another flavoring component bartenders used was Jamaica Ginger. While the name indicates the obvious action of this additive on a cocktail, Jamaica ginger was actually a drug — an anti-spasmodic. In dashes, no harm was done to drinks which benefitted from the spicy ginger flavor. During Prohibition, however, “jake” as it was called was added in copious quantities to the awful-tasting bathtub gin and often caused cases of temporary semi-paralysis called “jake-leg” an ironic variation of the term “jack-leg” which meant to stagger around uncontrollably. With “jake-leg” one could not move at all.

Jamaica Ginger bottles

The infamous Jamaica Ginger, for "household uses"

You’ll get a good refresher on American history while surveying the content of the exhibit. Modern drinks wouldn’t have existed without electricity that allowed for seltzer water, ice-makers and the refrigerator’s ability to keep juice fresh. And of course there are the politics and social issues behind Prohibition, that trace their roots back to the 1850s and the start of the women’s rights movement. Lest you find American history boring, you’ll also get a lot of excellent tips and recipes for new drinks. There’s a reason that the Museum of the American Cocktail is in New Orleans — Peychaud made his bitters in the French quarter, and many of the great classic cocktails like the Sazerac and the Ramos Gin Fizz were created here. You can even visit the original bars where everything was created.

tikis and labels

In the tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room

Like the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, there is quite a lot of text, but instead of large panels, here it is broken up into easily digestible chunks. Many of the objects have text on them (bottle labels, ads, newspapers), but for those who don’t want to read all day, the labels do a great job of condensing the most interesting information. All in all, it’s a rollicking tour of the American drinking scene, though it ends rather abruptly at the Tiki craze. There’s still so much more to the history of the cocktail, what with the rise of major multinational corporations like Diageo, and the renaissance of bitters and mixologists.

We still have a complicated history with drinking here in America, with a love-hate relationship to hard liquor especially. The museum takes a frank look at the evolution of our drinking culture, made all the more fascinating by its location — tucked away in a building within a building, within one of the most drink-friendly cities in the world. Even if you’re not a big drinker, it’s well worth a visit to understand this part of American culture.

  • Hours: Mon-Sat 10am – 7pm; Sun 12pm – 6pm
  • Location: Inside the Southern Food and Beverage Museum at Riverwalk Marketplace, suite 196, 1 Poydras St, New Orleans, LA.
  • Admission: $10 (although I don’t recall paying for entry, perhaps because I’d paid for the SFBM)
  • Check the website for seminars, events and online exhibitions: http://www.museumoftheamericancocktail.org/default.aspx

* Here’s the breakdown: a traditional punch has 5 ingredients (water, sugar, tea, lemon or lime, arrack); a flip has 4 (ale, sugar, brandy or rum, nutmeg) and is stirred with a red-hot loggerhead; a sling has 3 (spirit, sugar, water); a sangria is wine, spirit and fruit. There are a ton of variations, like toddies and grog, and they’re each technically a cocktail as long as they contain a spirit.

** The technical definition of a cocktail is a mixed drink with two or more ingredients where at least one of those ingredients is a spirit, meaning a distilled beverage. Distillation is the process of concentrating the ethanol (i.e., alcohol) produced by fermented grain, fruit, vegetables, etc. The photo below is an example of a still for concentrating the ethanol. Beer, wine and cider, no matter how lovely they may be, don’t count as spirits because they never go trough this process. Liqueurs, on the other hand, are distilled spirits (aka “hard liquor”) with extra sugar or flavoring added (think Grand Marnier, Kahlua, or Frangelico). All clear?

old timey still

A miniature still. One can only guess that it distills a shot-glass worth of spirit at a time

Speakeasy photo retrieved from http://www.huffenglish.com/gatsby/speakeasies.html

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