Summer in New Orleans means not turning on the oven. It means dressing in linen and cotton, and choosing refreshing drinks that double as sources of hydration. Fortunately, the city is full of options to answer that call.
Probably our best-known, low-proof (low-alcohol) drink is the Pimm’s Cup. Chris Montero, general manager of the Napoleon House, recounts how in the early 1900s, founder Giuseppe “Uncle Joe” Impastato encouraged patrons to sip on a Pimm’s Cup as a way of staying cool and (mostly) sober.
The drink features the English product, Pimm’s No. 1, a low proof, gin-based spirit. It may be surprising that a French city embraced an English tipple, but the Pimm’s Cup became the signature cocktail of the Napoleon House. They now sell more Pimm’s than any other bar in the United States. Montero points out the Napoleon House serves the original Pimm’s Cup recipe, featuring only a garnish of cucumber with no additional spirit.
Bars across the city, however, have created their own riffs on that classic. Some add loads of fruit, which Montero describes as “looking like sangria.” Others add gin. At Longway Tavern, also in the Quarter, their Pimm’s Royale is topped with Champagne.
Managing partner Liam Deegan notes that “the inspiration for the Pimm’s Royale comes from the time I spent drinking in the Quarter, especially at the Napoleon House.” As Deegan says, “The Pimm’s Cup is an English drink, that became a French Quarter classic and now gets a French treatment with Champagne.”
At Mid-City’s Twelve Mile Limit, owner Cole Newton offers up the Bartleby, which he calls an inverted Manhattan — bartender-speak to say the ratios of vermouth and whiskey are swapped, creating a less boozy cocktail. He finishes it with a splash of refreshing, locally made Huhu ginger beer.
Newton wryly observes, “One of the things people in New Orleans like is drinking all day, and it’s hard to do that drinking old-fashioned strength cocktails.” The Bartleby is a fine substitute. He notes that summer is also a great time to sip on aromatized wines like vermouth and other aperitifs. “They are well balanced,” he says. “You aren’t losing anything because there’s a full range of flavors at much lower proof.”
Neal Bodenheimer, owner of Cure, Cane & Table and now co-chair of the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, doesn’t see low-proof drinking as a fad. He thinks it’s here to stay, noting that one of the most popular cocktails at Cure has been Champagne mixed with shrub, a flavored drinking vinegar.
Bodenheimer agrees with Newton, saying. “In some ways, vermouth is already a premade cocktail.” In Italy, vermouth on the rocks with a little fruit sits on the tables of cafes across the country. Another Italian drink, which Bodenheimer describes as “one of the greatest drinks in the world,” is the Venetian spritz — perfect for summers in New Orleans.
The origins of the spritz lie in 1919 in Padova, Italy, when the Barbieri Brothers created the aperitivo Aperol. According to Daniel Warrilow, Italian Portfolio Ambassador for Campari USA, by the 1950s, the Aperol spritz — a mixture of Aperol, prosecco and soda water — emerged as a favorite and remains the top-selling cocktail in Italy.
Bartenders interviewed said they drink low-proof throughout the summer, and even beyond. For Bodenheimer, his martini is mostly vermouth. Newton sips on Lacroix, white wine and a twist, Deegan has his Pimm’s, and Warrilow his Aperol Spritz. As Bodenheimer says, “Here in the South, it’s nice to be able to have a big gulp when it’s hot, and not end up under the table.”
One perk of low-proof drinks is they are often cheaper than a cocktail, so the customer can pay less but drink more — another fine reason to lower the proof when you raise a glass.