Falling in the Apples
A lesser-known New Orleans classic gets the fall treatment
by way of France
New Orleans is the birthplace of some dozen classic cocktails, due at least in part to myriad cultural influences thanks to its position as a port city. While not as prolific in the craft cocktail renaissance as, say, the sazerac or hurricane, the vieux carré is perhaps the most emblematic of the Crescent City’s French roots.
“It’s my favorite classic cocktail,” Stephen Blackmon, a mixologist at cozy cocktail bar Doar Bros. in downtown Charleston, says of the Creole-influenced drink that originated at New Orleans’ famed Carousel Bar. “Next to a gin and tonic, it’s my go-to when I want something light and refreshing.”
Blackmon embraces the trendy moniker of bar chef, noting that his curiosity for flavors and ingredients starts in the kitchen. While he’s heavily inspired by French culture, he took some global liberties to craft the ultimate vieux carré and two apple-inflected iterations that evoke autumn in a glass—and every ingredient is carefully chosen for both its flavor and its story.
This honey crisp apple punch brings fall flavors to a whole new level. It starts with lemon peels macerated in demerara sugar—used instead of white sugar for its molasses notes—to create a lemon oleo, a typical punch base. Corse Blanc is a quinquina, meaning it’s flavored with cinchona bark, or quinine, which brings more spice and depth of flavor plus a dry finish similar to apple on the palate. “The base of most punches, historically, is a tea. Instead of using straight tea as the liquid volume component here, I used it as a sweetener and accent flavor,” Blackmon says of the addition of a masala chai syrup.
Blackmon crafts the classic vieux carré into a version where a sip transports you to an apple orchard, or perhaps a kitchen with apples stewing on the stove. Calvados, a French apple brandy, steps in for the cognac, while the same rye brings a spice-driven punch. A homemade shrub with honey crisp apples and apple cider vinegar does a lot of the heavy lifting–and it’s easier than you think. The secret ingredient, though, is the cardamom bitters. “It’s a very French-driven ingredient. When I was in France, I definitely got the feeling that they love using cardamom,” Blackmon says. But use with caution: A few drops are plenty per cocktail to bring a herbaceous touch without overwhelming the other delicate flavors for a savory, punchy take on apple pie.
Rittenhouse is the choice of rye for most bartenders for bottled-in-bond high proof, but Blackmon tapped the Philadelphia liquor for its baking spice notes to make a version of the vieux carré that’s perfect for fall sipping. Punt e Mes, an Italian vermouth, replaces the typical French variety and plays well with Benedictine, an herbal liqueur. The result is something of an old fashioned-meets-negroni: A little lighter and sweeter, milder than your typical dark liquor drink, but still deep and complex.