The Vieux Carré is a classic, complex standard bearer of New Orleans cocktails. It’s made with a potent and beguiling blend of brandy and rye, bitters, Benedictine, and vermouth — a combination that warms your blood and enlivens your spirit.
Strong and rich in flavor, with a rosy hue, this is a fine-featured statement of a cocktail, a must-have and must-perfect for any home bartender.
Typically pronounced “voo-kah-ray” in New Orleans, the Vieux Carré is full-flavored and boozy. It’s made with a nearly equal parts mix of rye whiskey, cognac, and vermouth, all elevated by the herbal, spiced, dark honey taste of Benedictine. Dashes of both Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters – the two most iconic and foundational aromatics – add notes of anise, clove, and even nutmeg; these are sensed more than tasted, but indispensable all-the-same.
The Vieux Carré is one of the strongest cocktails you could mix up (nearly 58 proof, when all is said and stirred), and it’s also one of the more soulful, with the best qualities of the Manhattan, Sazerac, and Old-Fashioned stirred into one.
In the 1930s, Walter Bergeron was the head bartender at the Monteleone Hotel, in New Orleans, when he created this variation on the Sazerac (New Orleans’s other, and original, cocktail). Bergeron gave it the French name for the “old square” we refer to as the French Quarter, adding brandy, or cognac, to the Sazerac’s rye and bitters blend.
It was the introduction of brandy that truly made this an international drink, with the French brandy now introduced to the upstart American rye, sharing a glass with Italian vermouth and Caribbean bitters. The brandy (cognac, particularly) also commemorates a very specific moment in time when, following a phylloxera outbreak in France which destroyed brandy production, the focus began to shift toward rye whiskey as a base. In this drink, both eras swim together in the same glass.
Deciding whether to use rye whiskey or bourbon should have less to do with tradition than taste: The corn-based bourbon will have a soft sweetness and full-bodied flavor that pairs well with the cognac, while the rye whiskey’s crisp, spicy tones and drier taste truly complement (and make more interesting) the supple, fruity, rounded taste of the cognac.
Rye is recommended here for just that reason, with the added benefit of its higher proof contributing to the strength and full-flavored potency the drink has long been known for.
Could you use a generic brandy in your Vieux Carré? Assuming you are in a pinch, you absolutely could, though it might be best to keep this fact a secret. Cognac is a double-distilled blend of several grapes from the Cognac region of France, all aged in an oak that lends the spirit its own subtly spicy notes.
Traditionally, your Vieux Carré would be made with a standard sweet vermouth. In this recipe we’re recommending (if you can find it) Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth. This vermouth is a slightly bitter and more full-bodied mixer, with notes of fig, cacao, and caramel in addition to the vanilla for which it’s famous.
Like absinthe is to a Sazerac – the forebear of the Vieux Carré – Benedictine is a brandy-based liqueur that adds deep notes of herbs, spices, and dark honey. While using much more than a scant quarter ounce will risk making your drink far too sweet, that amount goes a long way, and perfectly so.
Benedictine helps to balance everything, not only your bitterness and sweetness, but the many complexities on the palate. It is indeed indispensable.
Vary this drink too much and you’re off in the weeds, far outside of the French Quarter. That’s not to say that there isn’t some room to play, however.