Some might describe Ella Brennan, owner of Brennan’s restaurant empire in New Orleans, as the Forrest Gump of cocktail culture. Brennan, now 87, has seemingly seen it all—including the current cocktail revolution going down in NOLA.
What’s your earliest cocktail memory?
During Prohibition, I had an uncle who would make bathtub gin. I loved putting the cork in the jar when I was little.
You were making drinks as a kid?
That was my job when people came to visit my parents.
What’s your favorite cocktail?
Sazerac. But I drink Old-Fashioneds… Don’t dare anyone put water in them!
How did your family get into the bar business?
My brother [Owen Brennan] bought a bar. My mother was disturbed that it was in the French Quarter!
Do you remember when the drink The Hurricane was invented at Pat O’Brien’s?
It was during World War II. I was purchasing whiskey for Absinthe House—women couldn’t work on Bourbon Street. I bought a carload of rum and Scotch. We kept the Scotch. Pat bought some of the rum and made it into this successful drink.
You met tiki legend Trader Vic, yes?
We met him. He walked in the restaurant. We went to San Francisco, and he became my guide and flew us around California.
Tell us some more rum stories.
We used to go to Cuba, I think I went four or five times. We drank daiquiris at La Floridita. We brought back the rum, the sugar, the limes, even the ice—we always wondered, “Why does it taste so magnificent? Why aren’t ours as good?” We never figured it out.
NOLA has come a long way from the days when women weren’t allowed to work in bars. What do you think of the current crop of female bartenders?
They are wonderful. They teach me a lot. They’ve earned the respect of people. I just think they’re fabulous. It’s not a job anymore—it’s a career.
Recipe courtesy Ella Brennan
Although Commander’s Palace serves “Miss Ella” Old-Fashioneds made with rye whiskey these days, Brennan firmly prefers hers made with Bourbon, because “they turned to Bourbon when I was growing up.” Here’s her preferred recipe and method.
2 ounces Bourbon
2–3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
One half-cube sugar
Lemon peel, for garnish
Fill a rocks glass with ice and a little water, and set it aside.
In a second rocks glass, muddle the half sugar cube with Peychaud’s bitters (made in New Orleans, of course), then add the Bourbon.
Swirl the ice in the first glass to chill it, then discard the ice and water. Pour the drink into the now-chilled glass. Run the lemon peel around the rim of the glass, then add the peel to the drink for garnish.
Recipe courtesy Commander’s Palace, New Orleans
This (big) easy but well-calibrated drink features three ingredients with ties to New Orleans—Peychaud’s, Herbsaint (an anise-flavored liquor) and Sazerac Rye, made in Kentucky but named for NOLA’s iconic Sazerac cocktail.
¾ ounce Sazerac Rye
¾ ounce Benedictine
¾ ounce sweet vermouth
2–3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 drops Herbsaint
Stir together all ingredients with ice, and serve in a rocks glass.