Monday, January 9, 2012

XXQC - Vieux Carré

Bourbon.  One of my favorite aged spirits, and truth be told, the reason I stumbled into the world of mixology.  Yes, were it not for my interest to branch out and discover what other components played nice with my beloved whiskey, I might still be only sipping the stuff neat or on the rocks...not that there's anything wrong with that at all.  But after my inaugural venture with the preparation of an Old Fashioned (albeit with the high rye bourbon, Basil Hayden), I was hooked.  Naive enough at first that the intended rye whiskey was a foreign spirit, I pressed to discover what other drinks married with this relative of bourbon.  The Manhattan and Sazerac, largely as expected, showcased the spicy rye in all its glory...but in seeking something entirely different, I eventually was introduced to the Vieux Carré (voo kah-ray).  'The what?', I thought.  Thankfully, however, I gathered up the missing components and mixed one up.  Mirroring my inaugural enthusiasm for the interplay of spirits, bitters, and liqueurs, this was a definitely a cocktail that further fueled my interest and inspiration.  The Vieux Carré, a simple yet distinct blend very much worth your time, and another of the XXQC.

Born sometime in the late 1930s in the city of New Orleans, the Vieux Carré derives its name from the same early French term once used to describe 'the Old Square', an area now so well known as the French Quarter.  It was conceived by Walter Bergeron, head bartender at the historic Hotel Monteleone in the heart of the French Quarter.  The hotel itself is steeped in tradition, built in 1886 by Sicilian immigrant Antonio Monteleone, it remains one of the few family owned and operated hotels in America.  Over the past 125 years, four generations have overseen its gradual expansion, including the installation of the extremely popular Carousel Piano Bar in 1949.  Slowly rotating at one full revolution every 15 minutes, it is here that many a patron has been served up one of a number of the Big Easy's own cocktails...the Ramos Fizz, French 75, Sazerac, and of course, the Vieux Carré.  

With a complex blend of two base spirits (rye whiskey/cognac), sweet vermouth, and a dash each of Angostura and Peychaud's, this cocktail garners further distinction by the addition of the Bénédictine.  Although many believe this complex herbal liqueur to have been created by Bénédictine monks during the French Renaissance, the credit may more appropriately fall to Alexandre Le Grand, who is said to have developed the recipe in 1863 after discovering a collection of botanical concoctions in a library affiliated with the monastery.  Together with the aid of a local medicinal chemist, Alexandre apparently developed the cognac-based liqueur, said to carry with it no less than 27 discrete roots, herbs, and other botanicals.  On its own, notes of baking spices (clove, nutmeg, cinnamon) predominate upfront, with a combined herbal syrup (honey, mace, cardamom) and slight savory finish (thyme, tea).  Altogether, when coupled with the canvas of other ingredients and bitters of the Vieux Carré, the Bénédictine lends its unique character in perfect harmony.

 Vieux Carré
1 oz rye whiskey
1 oz cognac (or brandy)
1 oz sweet vermouth
1/4 oz Bénédictine
1 dash Angostura
1 dash Peychaud's

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass and strain into an ice-filled Old Fashioned glass, garnish with a lemon twist.   

Among the few twists on this cocktail, the Nouveau Carré is certainly one of the most popular. While two similar versions have been created (credit out to Kacy Fitch at Zig Zag Café in Seattle for her own recipe, which I've been unable to track down), the one I've often mixed up has been that put forth by Jonny Raglin, formerly of Absinthe in San Francisco (now at Comstock Saloon).  Quite notably, this isn't simply a substitution, as the proportion of  Bénédictine is substantially boosted relative to the novel base spirit of anejo tequila.  The Lillet provides its own light botanicals and synches nicely with the heavy dose of Peychaud's.  

Nouveau Carré
1 1/2 oz tequila anejo
3/4 oz Bénédictine
1/4 oz Lillet blanc
5 dashes Peychaud’s 

Combine all ingredients with ice, stir well, and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe, garnish with a lemon twist.

While different in many respects from its predecessor, the Nouveau Carré manages to incorporate a large hit of Bénédictine without throwing the entire cocktail out of balance.  With this as an initial source inspiration, I considered as well the Bénédictine-heavy Chrysanthemum cocktail, a unique concoction from Harry Craddock's The Savoy Cocktail Book.  Distinct with regard to its lack of a true base spirit, dry vermouth fills this role with a pairing of Bénédictine and a few dashes of absinthe.  Certainly a bit on the sweeter side, it is nonetheless an elegant blend of botanicals and marries unexpectedly well with the slight herbal bite of absinthe.

1 1/2 oz dry vermouth
3/4 oz dictine
3 dashes absinthe 

Combine all ingredients with ice, stir well, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass, garnish with a orange twist.

In an attempt to create a cocktail that shared certain aspects of both the Vieux and Nouveau Carré, my initial thoughts were focused on the incorporation of a base spirit that was distinct from the aged cognac, rye, or tequila of the predecessors, and quite naturally/comfortably, that led me to gin.  With a starting point of equal parts of gin, Bénédictine, and Cocchi Americano, I thought the blend of botanicals would pair well, but somewhat as anticipated, it was definitely too much on the sweet side.  With a desire to showcase Bénédictine  I had to come up with something to help balance its inherent sweetness.  At the same time, I wanted to try and stay away from lemon, which I thought might not only overpower some of the more subtle components...but is rather common, and I wanted to try something new.  In doing so, I began to think about an ingredient I'd never used much of in cocktails...vinegar.  While I've had some experience with various herb-infused gastriques (essentially a vinegar-based syrup), using them to provide a flavorful acidic kick, I had never used vinegars straight from the bottle in a cocktail (and in some respects questioned my own sanity for considering as much).  Fortunately, I had a very nice bottle of small batch white peach balsamic vinegar and figured I'd give it a shot.  On its own, this particular vinegar had a very delicate acidity, and certainly wasn't too overwhelming in its own flavor, at least in the right proportion I figured.  Given that, I went with a small addition of this vinegar and it did seem to provide the subtle acidic bite I was looking for.  

1 oz Citadelle gin
1 oz Cocchi Americano
1 oz Bénédictine
1/8 oz white peach balsamic vinegar
1 dash Peychaud's

Combine all ingredients with ice, stir well, and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe, garnish with a lemon twist.


All in all, it was a very interesting experience for me here to use an ingredient with which I wasn't very familiar, and it worked perhaps a bit better than I expected.  I had anticipated a more vinegary nose when sipping the cocktail, but didn't pick up on it much at all.  And while certainly possessing little resemblance at all to the Vieux or Nouveau Carrés which provided sources of inspiration, it was still well worth the venture...sometimes you never know until you try.      


Of course, a couple nights after this post went up I had been messing around with another variation of the Vieux Carré, this one much more akin to the original.  Following some recent insight from John Stanton at Sable Kitchen and Bar in which he mixed up a stellar Brooklyn (subbing Ramazzotti and a few dashes of Angostura for the Amer Picon), I figured I'd give a similar go with the nice pairing of rye whiskey and dry vermouth...this was the result

Bonded Carré
1 oz Rittenhouse rye 
1 oz Laird's apple brandy 
1 oz Dolin dry vermouth 
1/2 oz Benedictine 
1 dash Angostura

Combine all ingredients with ice, stir well, and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe, garnish with a lemon twist.

The combination of rye whiskey and dry vermouth once again works very well here, definitely a concept I haven't spent a lot of time working with...usually deferring to the more traditional use of a sweet vermouth or similar fortified wine (ie. madiera, sherry, etc) with aged spirits.  That being said, cocktails like the Brooklyn and the riff I came up here with give me good reason to spend more time with it.   


  1. Love how you show the versatility of Bendedictine and chose well the varying cocktails it lends its sweet, herbacious characters to. Can't wait to try your Triade once I get some peach balsamic. Cheers!

  2. Thanks Scott, Bénédictine is a great ingredient and can be pretty versatile, but certainly is rather distinct at the same time...let me know how you like the riff with peach balsamic if/when you come by it