At the Table

The Crusta Comeback

By: The Local Palate


n: An influential but once-forgotten cocktail that’s being revived in New Orleans

You’ve probably never heard of the original New Orleans cocktail, the first to be named in the city now credited with inventing some dozen classics. Made with various base spirits but defined by its sugared rim and balance of maraschino, orange curaçao, and lemon juice, the crusta was the brainchild of Italian immigrant and bartender Joseph Santini, who, around 1850, was working the bar at New Orleans’ City Exchange in the French Quarter. A few years later, he opened his own watering hole in the adjacent American Quarter (now the Central Business District) called Jewel of the South. At one of these he invented the crusta, a “fancy variation on the cocktail,” reports David Wondrich in Imbibe! (Perigee, 2007).

Now, the crusta’s significance lies not in its popularity—it was always a niche drink, Wondrich notes—but its contribution to the cocktail canon. You see, prior to the crusta, the beverage world was clearly divided into two categories: punches (long drinks with citrus) and cocktails (short drinks with bitters). Santini’s recipe was revolutionary because it cross-pollinated them: It introduced lemon juice to the cocktail. “The crusta was the first sour,” says New Orleans bartender Chris Hannah. “It lead to the daisy, which lead to the margarita, then the sidecar and, eventually, the cosmopolitan.” Hannah has been on a mission to revive the legacy of Santini and his influential tipple since an encounter at the start of his drink-slinging career. In 2004, a Belgian tourist asked for a brandy crusta, having read about it in a French guidebook. The only problem: He’d had never heard of such a drink; no one in the city was making it. The experience stuck with him. “I didn’t want to be a bartender here who didn’t know how to make a New Orleans drink.” So he learned.

He schooled himself on the proper way to make not only a crusta, but each of the city’s great drinks, becoming something of a gatekeeper for the classics in the process. Last year, the story came full circle—and the crusta finally came home—when he partnered with fellow cocktail heavyweight Nick Detrich to open a new Jewel of the South in a Creole Cottage at the edge of the French Quarter.

Brandy Crusta Recipe

The crusta’s legacy—and the cocktail family tree—might have looked entirely different had Jerry Thomas not included it in his 1862 bartending classic How to Mix Drinks: or, the Bon-Vivant’s Companion. Significantly, Hannah notes, Santini is the only bartender mentioned in the book by name (though Thomas did spell it “Santina” and call him a Spaniard). 

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