If you don’t live in the South, then bless your heart! But even visitors who stay only a short while in our neck of the woods quickly discover that everything we do — from the way we talk, to the way we cook, to the cocktails we serve — everything is steeped in deep rooted, homespun tradition. While many of the following classic cocktails can now be found in restaurants and bars across the country, they are easy to make at home and, while a front porch swing might be the perfect place to sip these sweet Southern libations, they can be enjoyed absolutely anywhere.
Brandy Milk Punch
Once considered the perfect hangover cure, you no longer need to be suffering from last night’s festivities in order to enjoy this traditional brunch-time beverage. The sweet frothy bliss of a classic brandy milk punch is often considered a Christmas drink, mainly due to its close kinship with eggnog, but can be relished year round. Thought to herald from Scotland in the late 1600s, this silky concoction eventually made its way to the American Colonies. There, even Benjamin Franklin became a fan of this smooth nurturing nectar. Thinking it an excellent cure for whatever ailed them, Colonists used whiskey or rum as the original base to their medicinal morning brew. Around the Civil War, when Southern gentlemen were discouraged from drinking whiskey, brandy became the primary spirited ingredient in the preparation of a boozy milk punch.
In the original recipe, the milk or cream was left to curdle with the brandy, then strained into a large bowl and bottled. However, dairy will not curdle if the beverage is consumed immediately, so shaken versions of this decadently delicious beverage are now a mainstay at many brunches. And, as every true Southerner knows, brunch without brandy is just a bleak, belated breakfast.
2 ounces brandy
1/2 cup half and half or whole milk
2 teaspoons powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Nutmeg, freshly grated
Add all but the nutmeg into a cocktail shaker, fill the shaker with ice and shake vigorously for at least 30 seconds. Strain into a tall Collins glass or large wine glass filled with ice, sprinkle with nutmeg, and enjoy immediately.
This is not a throw-it-back, guzzle-it-down type of cocktail, so if that is what you are in the mood for, reach for a beer instead. The Sazerac is made to be sipped, long after the dinner dishes are done, and care should be taken when imbibing or you will be needing that brandy milk punch in the morning.
Antoine Amédée Peychaud, an 1830s New Orleans apothecarist, is credited with creating the first Sazerac using bitters concocted from an old family recipe. The cocktail eventually made its way to The Coffee House Bar in the French Quarter. It was so hugely popular there that in 1870 the name of the establishment was changed to the Sazerac Coffee House, then later abbreviated to the Sazerac Bar, and finally, in 1949, it found its forever home in the Roosevelt Hotel.
The lure of its deep, dark intoxicating flavor actually helped change an archaic local custom that prohibited women from entering the bar 364 days a year; Mardi Gras’s Fat Tuesday was the only exception. Soon after the lounge set up residence in the Roosevelt, a group of ladies stormed the bar, refusing to leave until they were properly served, and women have been year-round welcome additions ever since.
An 1870s pest epidemic made cognac, the original Sazerac base, almost impossible to obtain, so quick thinking bartenders replaced cognac with a combination of rye whiskey and absinthe. Absinthe was banned from 1915 until 2007, so herbsaint liqueur was used as a substitute. While herbsaint is still frequently used, absinthe is making a literally strong comeback.
The Sazerac isn’t for everyone, but if you want to try this strong, vintage nightcap, use two chilled glasses to prepare it, take time to twirl the herbsaint or absinthe, and choose a good quality cognac or rye whiskey for the base. Remember that tradition is important, so unless you want to raise a few Southern eyebrows, never, ever make a Sazerac with bourbon.
2 ounces rye whiskey
1 1/2 teaspoons herbsaint or 1/2 teaspoon absinthe (not both)
3 to 4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
1 cube of sugar
1 thin strip of lemon peel
1/2 teaspoon water
Fill an old fashioned glass with ice and water to chill. In another old fashioned glass, combine the sugar, bitters, and water, muddling until sugar has completely dissolved. Add the whiskey to the sugar and bitters glass then stir until combined. Remove and discard the ice and water from the first glass and add the herbsaint or absinthe. Hold the glass horizontally while twirling until the liquid completely coats the glass, then discard any excess. Strain the whiskey, sugar, and bitters from the second glass into the coated and chilled first glass. Twist the lemon peel over the drink to express the essential oils before dropping it in the drink and serve.
If there ever was a quintessentially Southern drink, one that conjures up images of finely dressed ladies and gentlemen strolling along a freshly cut rolling green lawn, the smell of magnolias in the air with crickets and katydids buzzing in the background, the mint julep is it.
A mint julep, classically prepared with bourbon, sugar, mint leaf, and water, should always be made with shaved or crushed ice. Silver cups, traditionally used to show that the hostess had both hat and cattle, will also keep the ice from melting too quickly, although a pewter mug will serve the same purpose. Properly made and properly handled, a mint julep will stay cool even on a hot Southern afternoon, so be sure to hold your julep cup only at the rim to keep the frost on the chalice and your drink nicely iced.
While the mint julep may have had its genesis as a rose water drink called a julab, the more familiar version first became popular during the American Revolution. While the citizens of the new United States claimed to drink their mint juleps purely for “medicinal purposes,” they managed to manufacture a remedial use nearly every morning. By 1796, all pretenses were dropped, and the mint julep became what it is today: a sweet and delightful beverage.
At the Kentucky Derby, held every May in Louisville, sponsors serve around 120,000 mint juleps each year to the “Run for the Roses” enthusiasts. Using a cool 6,000 pounds of ice and a mind muddling 1,000 pounds of mint, those Derby drinks can cost anywhere from $10 to $2,500 per cup. However, you can make your own mint julep and enjoy it with or without a derby hat on your own front porch.
5 mint sprigs (leaves only) plus additional for garnish
2 ounces bourbon
1/2 ounce simple syrup or 2 sugar cubes
In a silver or pewter julep cup, muddle the mint and simple syrup (or sugar cubes) to dissolve the sugar and release the oil from the mint. Pack the cup tightly with crushed ice, then pour in the bourbon. Insert a straw and place mint leaf so that the drinker gets the mint aroma with every sip. Serve immediately.
Scarlet O’Hara Cocktail
Perhaps not as well known as other Southern cocktails, this drink, made with a familiar and favorite comfortable base, guarantees that you will never go thirsty again. Originally crafted in 1939 to coincide with the release of Gone with the Wind, it combines Southern Comfort, cranberry juice, and lime to make the perfect refresher. While it looks innocent enough, this cocktail, like its namesake, is deceptively strong and a tad duplicitous, and if given free reign, you could end up like Rhett Butler: very drunk, with the intention of getting still drunker before the evening’s over.
So if this drink doesn’t make you want to try it today, or at the very least, think about it tomorrow, then frankly, my dear …
2 1/2 ounces Southern Comfort
6 ounces cranberry juice
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Lime wedge for garnish
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and pour in the Southern Comfort, cranberry juice, and lime juice. Shake several times, and then strain into a chilled, ice-filled Collins glass. Garnish with lime wedge and enjoy immediately.
Variation: You can change Scarlett into Rhett Butler by keeping the Southern Comfort and lime juice, but replacing the cranberry juice with 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice and 1 1/2 tablespoons of orange Curacao. Rhett is best garnished with a lemon wedge or twist of lemon peel. There is an Ashley Wilkes cocktail, but it naturally has a completely different base and character.
While this drink may have been ranked the best-selling cocktail in the United States four years running, it is particularly popular in the South, where a love of tradition and a devotion to whiskey make it a local favorite. When first conceived in 1806, it was called a whiskey cocktail. It contained a combination of sugar, bitters, whiskey, and ice and was frequently consumed first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, the method and ratios of the ingredients varied so much from barkeep to barkeep, customers started demanding that their whiskey cocktail be made “the old fashioned way” and hence, a somewhat standardized version was born. The secret to a perfectly prepared Old-Fashioned is to keep it simple and use a good whiskey for the base.
Sadly, towards the end of the 20th century, its very name began to invoke negative connotations for younger, more adventuresome drinkers, and the Old-Fashioned seemed destined to be too old fashioned even to order. Attempts were made to bring it back to nightclub prominence, but the drink’s celebrity status only reemerged alongside Don Draper. This early 2000s fictional character from the TV series Mad Men was rarely without an Old-Fashioned in hand, which helped propel the cocktail back into the popular lineup. The Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., serves an Old-Fashioned cocktail for a mere $1,500, using some of the most expensive ingredients available, but you can make your own every-bit-as-delicious, but considerably cheaper, Old-Fashioned concoction.
2 1/2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey
1 sugar cube
2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 orange peel
2 maraschino cherries
Place the sugar cube in the bottom of an old fashioned glass and muddle with a splash of water. Add the bitters and muddle again. Fill the glass with ice, add the bourbon or whiskey, and stir well. Squeeze the orange peel over the glass to extract oils, rub it along the rim, and add peel to glass. Garnish with cherries and enjoy!