Toasting an Old Fashioned to Ella Brennan, Grande Dame of New Orleans

Ella Brennan tasting in kitchen next to Old Fashioned

In July of 2014, I perched in a wicker chair in Ella Brennan’s living room, the New Orleans afternoon sun muted by the leafy plants that dappled the room. I was there to interview Brennan—“Miss Ella,” to everyone who knew her. But first, drinks.

“An Old Fashioned for Miss Ella,” said the uniformed server who ferried the drinks from the bar at Commander’s Palace across the lush green lawn to Brennan’s home next door.

Every day, at around 4 pm, the silver tray would appear. The drinks were made with rye whiskey, sweetened with just half a cube of sugar soaked with New Orleans-made Peychaud’s bitters (never Angostura) and garnished with a genteel curl of lemon peel. However, Brennan confided she really preferred Bourbon, saying “they turned to Bourbon when I was growing up.”

That day, the silver tray included an Old Fashioned for me, too. We sipped and talked about her remarkable life at the center of the city’s restaurant and bar culture; one of her earliest memories was watching her uncle make bathtub gin during the Prohibition years (“I loved putting the cork in the jar.”). She entered the hospitality business at age 18 while working in her brother Owen’s bar, the Olde Absinthe House. She would go on to preside as the matriarch of Commander’s Palace and launch the careers of celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme.

Miss Ella passed away on Thursday, May 31, 2018, at the age of 92. Her family captured her legacy in a memoir, Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace, and a documentary, Ella Brennan: Commmanding the Table, available on Netflix.

In celebration of this luminary, try your hand at this recipe for Miss Ella’s Old Fashioned, and raise your glass to a culinary icon.

The Queen of New Orleans

Miss Ella’s Old Fashioned

  • 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.

Published on June 2, 2018