On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy is joined by New York-based bartender, consultant, and drinks educator Mimi Burnham to discuss the Vieux Carré. This often overlooked classic cocktail pays homage to its city of origin — New Orleans — through its recipe. What does the build look like for a drink that incorporates rye, Cognac, vermouth, and liqueur? And what are some popular riffs? Tune in to learn more.
Mimi Burnham’s Vieux Carré Recipe
- ¾ ounce 100 proof rye whiskey
- ¾ ounce Cognac
- ¾ ounce sweet vermouth
- ⅓ ounce Benedictine
- 4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
1. Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice.
2. Stir until ice cold and strain into a chilled double rocks glass filled with fresh ice, ideally one large cube.
3. Garnish with an expressed lemon or orange peel.
CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy. Welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” I’m going to kick us off right now by saying we are in the VinePair studio, and we are joined today by Mimi Burnham. Mimi, thank you.
Mimi Burnham: Thank you so much for having me.
T: Thank you so much for joining us on this glorious day here in the Big Apple. You don’t want to see it out there right now. It’s a tad wet. But you know what always helps raise the spirits? It’s a good conversation about a classic cocktail.
T: As has been the case for many episodes before this and for many drinks, we’re headed directly to New Orleans to explore the Vieux Carré.
M: I love it.
T: What a drink.
M: Just a fabulous, really misrepresented and underappreciated cocktail.
T: I’m thinking that’s not going to be the case after our conversation today.
M: OK, here’s hoping.
The History Behind the Vieux Carré
T: Let’s take a trip down there. Let’s go to New Orleans, and let’s dive into the history, first of all, of the Vieux Carré. Can you tell us about that? Is this one of these drinks that we know something about? What can you share with us today about the origins of this drink?
M: So it’s got an interesting origin. Its first recorded cocktail recipe is from 1937, from the Hotel Monteleone, the infamous Hotel Monteleone with its Carousel Bar. Now, this is before the Carousel Bar actually got installed. Before that, it was the head bartender, Walter Bergeron. And he came up with this beautiful blend of a magnificent cocktail, clearly influenced by the golden era of cocktail making from the 1880s pre-Prohibition. This is just about four years after Prohibition ended. There was the disastrous economy. It was just awful with the Great Depression. Maybe five years earlier, FDR finally got elected president. So there was hope. Finally, there was hope, and everybody was turning a corner. So Walter came up with this drink, and what I found was really neat is that he wanted to reflect all the ethnicities in the French Quarter. That is thoroughly represented in this cocktail because he chose the rye or whiskey, because that could be synonymous with for the Americans. And then Cognac for the French influence, as well as the Benedictine. Because there’s a lot of French influence in the French Quarter, it’s the name.
M: There is sweet vermouth for the Italians. And then the choice of bitters, interestingly, with Peychaud’s Bitters and Angostura Bitters was for the Caribbean representation in the community. Which is tenfold.
T: And Peychaud’s has this wonderful deep roots and great history in New Orleans as well. We have done a little bit of a deep dive on that before. I think that might have been in the Sazerac episode — another great New Orleans drink.
T: It’s funny, when you were talking through the first point about rye and whiskey, I don’t think we’ve ever brought this up on the show. But I’ve got a bit of a bone to pick with Don McLean. How are you drinking whiskey and rye?
M: Right? Exactly.
T: Is Don McLean Canadian? Actually, no, sorry. Rye is a synonym for whiskey in Canada, so they definitely don’t appreciate the song either. They’re on my side here.
M: Yes. It’s just a concept. It seems to be a changeable word that’s grossly wrong.
M: I’m with you.
T: Sorry for taking us off track there, but it did immediately just come into my head. This is something that’s always bugged me.
M: It stands to reason and I think it’s easy to say, people like rye.
T: Whiskey and rye worked for this song.
M: One syllable.
T: Yeah. So as you mentioned there, the rye whiskey here again finds its place in many classics from New Orleans. But it represents the Americans there. Cognac, Benedictine for the French, sweet vermouth for the Italian. We’re going to get into all of those. One thing that I was wondering myself is where this cocktail places today. I’m sorry if I’ve cut you short on any of the history, but if not, we can fast-forward to the future. Is this a drink you’ll come across on menus? Are people ordering it? What’s the status of it?
M: Occasionally. It’s known as a sipper, because it is a spirit-forward cocktail. It’s stirred, not shaken. It packs a punch, but it’s very smooth. Hence, the scary aspect of it, if I will, as a responsible adult. Because it goes down really smoothly. But it’s a delightful cocktail. It’s just like a velvet carpet ride. A party in your mouth, if you will. And I love it. Occasionally you see it on menus. And when I do, I’m very excited because I know that there’s skill behind the bar and there was great effort made to find the menu placement. That to me is a terrific nod.
T: Yeah, it’s a great sign that the bartender, or the person that’s come up with that menu, cares about this drink and has put some work into perfecting it, as we will today.
M: Yes, yes, yes, yes. A little side note of the history of this, too. There was pressure to come up with new drinks. This is the Hotel Monteleone, there’s competition. The restaurants are starting to pick back up because the Depression was kind of waning. Money was going into pockets, so the French Quarter was happening. There was one restaurant, specifically La Louisiane, that doesn’t really exist anymore. But it was a very big, beautiful, grand place. There was a guy named Diamond Jim Brady — they made a movie about him. And he came up with a variation of a Vieux Carré at La Louisiane.
M: It is just his own spinoff because Walter was doing really well with this drink at Monteleone bar. So they were all, you know, scampering to Monteleone to have this Vieux Carré. So Diamond Jim came up with this.
T: That’s such a fascinating point that you make there in terms of wanting to come up with something new because that exists throughout time. If you go to bars these days, you want to try the classics, but you also want to see the drinks they’re coming up with. Old Fashioneds might be timeless and trendy again, but probably at this kind of time, that was an old-fashioned drink. You want something that’s new. It’s weird to think of a time where the Vieux Carré does feel new just because it seems like such a classic formula.
M: Right. And really, I think of its origins. If I could have been there at that time when we were drinking it at the bar, I’ll bet that it tasted old. There’s clearly great influence on the golden-era style of cocktail making in this particular build. There’s no doubt this is a tremendous nod to that movement, which the 13 years of Prohibition kind of wiped out. He was trying to reclaim that space. And I can admire and respect that bartender greatly.
T: Another thing to note, too, is this is a very democratic drink when it comes to rye and Cognac. We see these debates in other classics from that city where people are saying, “Should it be rye or Cognac?” Let’s use both.
M: Right. Why not split base? That’s what we call it now. It’s got this new fun term. Let’s reinvent cocktail terminology. I hear all the kids saying it’s split basing. I’m like, “OK.” So this is a split-based cocktail. This is actually the blueprint for a split-based cocktail.
T: Wonderful. With that new terminology, I can’t leave this moment without asking you, are you familiar with the regal shake?
M: Yes, we could have a whole session about that.
T: From those words alone, I think we’re on the same page with that one.
T: I think people are regal stirring these days as well, too. I’ve recently discovered that.
M: God help us.
T: You did mention before a word you use specifically: velvety. I’m keen to hear what you’re looking for if someone’s making a great version of this. That’s a texture. But also, there are five pretty prominent ingredients in this. They’re pretty strong, pronounced ingredients. So what are you looking for? Are you looking to taste each one of them or is it just a case of balance? What would you expect?
M: There’s a certain harmony that comes from this specific cocktail. A lot of it is equal portions depending on the spirit that you’re using. So the harmony comes from the vermouth not being too pronounced, the Benedictine not being to root. All these little fun flavors — the spiciness of the rye, the pepper, the honey-heat aspect of the Cognac — all blending in together. It’s harmonious and fun; they play well together. Which is really important and a tricky combination for most of us modern bartenders when we’re pressured to make new cocktails for menus. This is what we look for, balance. We need a balanced cocktail and this is just a perfect example. So once you master this cocktail, it’s very much a blueprint to go forward. The world is your oyster once you get the flavor concept and how they all play together.
The Ingredients Used in the Vieux Carré
T: Nice. So let’s dive into those ingredients. Let’s start with Don McLean’s favorite here, the rye. It’s something we’ve spoken about before. But when you look at a drink that’s from the 1930s or even earlier, rye was different then to how it is now. When rye made a resurgence in this country in recent years, thanks very much to the bartending community, a lot of those were being made in Kentucky and maybe didn’t quite have that spice as it did historically. What are you looking for? What style of rye are you looking for when you’re making this drink yourself?
M: Of a modern bartender, I’m not a tremendous fan of overproof spirits. However, because there’s always exceptions, because this is life, I do make an exception with overproof rye for particular cocktails. In this case, I would use an overproof rye for this drink, specifically. I would go with 100 proof, typically a Rittenhouse Rye or even the Wild Turkey Rye, which is really rather good. I really need to give a nod to Allen Katz at New York Distilling. This new spirit category of Empire rye from New York State, which is the Horton rye strand from when Thomas Jefferson planted it, is all making a comeback thanks to Cornell, who kept this hybrid rye. So that’s all going to start hitting shelves, I think, in the next short year. That’s going to be really neat because it’s bottled in bond. It has to be New York State-grown rye. It has to be manufactured, distilled everything in New York State. I think it could be aged out of state or bottled out of state, there’s some weird thing. I’m not super specific about the Empire State rye category. But it’s an exciting time because it’s a brand- new spirit category. And that hasn’t happened in a really long time.
T: When it comes to the mash bill of that, are we talking 100 percent?
M: Pretty close, it’s like 90 percent. It’s very peppery. I was there in the beginning and it was really neat to watch. As a matter of fact, the Russells from Wild Turkey are working with Allen. I was there and it’s just neat because pockets have no coffins, kids. We can’t take this information with us. My God, we have to share. Yes, everybody has to make money, of course. But we have to share. And it was really a beautiful moment to watch everybody joining together to create this new spirit category. It’s really peppery-forward, you really get those pepper notes. And that’s what a rye should be. I’m saddened to see some of these guys that are trying to disguise themselves as bourbons. Stand on your own, be proud of your individuality.
T: Yeah, for sure. That’s something that I’ve noticed over the past couple of years. I see a lot of new distilleries, maybe smaller ones, entering the category where when it comes to rye in particular, we really are tending towards those higher percentages of rye in there. And I think it’s incredible because it does have this wonderful character. Which, like you say, if you’re only using 51 percent of it in the mash bill, it’s just a bourbon, really.
M: Yeah, a bourbon with a slight little kick. Don’t be a scared rye. Be proud of who you are, rye, stand up.
T: But you’re specifically looking for that proof. You say over, you’re talking 100 proof. That’s the sweet spot for you.
M: For this particular build.
T: Why is that specific for this?
M: And Old Fashioned, those are the two. I think that works for me with the sippers, the spirit-forward cocktails. And it’s funny because I’m not necessarily there for a Manhattan personally. I’ll take an 86 proof rye or bourbon for a Manhattan. I swap.
M: I don’t like to be put into any category myself; it’s what mood am I in? But the hundred proof just stand up well. They play well in these kinds of builds because there’s a lot going on when we go through the specs. There’s a lot going on.
T: Next one there would be the next ingredient. Let’s head to France, let’s go to Cognac here. And let’s be honest from the get-go, we’re not really going to be blessed with many options when it comes to proof. Most of them are 80 or 86.
M: Right, pretty much on the button there. And that’s fine.
T: So we’re looking more at age instead.
M: Yeah. Don’t feel like you have to spend a lot of money to buy a bottle of Cognac for your personal bar or even back bar in your establishment. That’s not necessarily where it’s at. It’s really about what flavor pleases you. It’s funny because there are plenty of Cognacs out now. We as Americans haven’t really been making cocktails with them. But thanks to my good buddy Franky Marshall, who’s been at the forefront of this for a long time with her Knack Attack, it’s a great thing. Look, Walter was trying to do something about this in 1937 and we’ve been spinning our wheels. We’re a little late to the party, but here we are. It’s a great moment in time to embrace Cognac and not just for sipping after dinner. Use it as a part of your cocktail build.
T: Rediscovering these classics.
M: You could go with the V.S or an X.O. and you don’t have to spend a crazy amount of money. Buy some of the small bottles and taste them because they are so radically different. Each brand is incredibly different, even though it’s all pretty much the same. But it’s not. It’s how it’s aged and how it’s treated in the grape and the build. Where does it come from in the specific region of France? That’s a whole session in and of itself. But you need to find the Cognac you like. I like just in the middle spot. I don’t want them to be too boldly flavored, but I don’t want them to be too under-flavored, either. I really am looking for that fine grape.
T: Somewhere right down the middle.
M: Yeah, I’m of the X.O. for this cocktail build, which is quite funny.
T: Yeah. But as you mentioned there, age is one component of it. But definitely different houses have different styles. If I’m going to completely oversimplify things, we’re talking light, fruity, and floral versus more decadent dried fruits, dried nuts, and toffee.
M: Yeah, sometimes. You get really leathery, musky notes. Those are fine and well. But be clever about what you’re doing here. I guess just find something in the middle of the road that’s really a good bottle to have in general because there can be more adaptation with it.
T: And there are those bottles out there that seem custom-designed for bartenders and cocktail creation. Some brands have done a great job of that. Those ones, in my mind, do land right down the middle profile-wise.
M: They do. And they know what we need and that’s helpful. It’s a nice nod to us bartenders.
T: Always bringing things back and pushing things forward to the bartending community. So third one here, sweet vermouth.
M: Such a lovely thing. Sweet vermouth, as you have seen in the past three years, has grown radically in America. Finally, the aperitivo hour is a real thing now. And everybody’s embracing lower alcohol per volume, that’s the hottest new trend. Here at VinePair, as you’re well aware of that.
M: I’m French, so I’ve always drank vermouth and sherries and I’m fond of all of them. But it’s funny because I like to make my own personal blend. That’s just the thing I’ve always done. First, it came from running bar programs in Manhattan and having leftovers. Because as soon as you open up a bottle of vermouth, you put it in the refrigerator. Please, for the love of God, do not leave it out. It’s seasoned wine, if you will, to put in a basic component. So it’s not super stable. It’s only 11 percent alcohol. It starts oxidizing quickly. Left at room temperature, it’s going to oxidize within four days. In the refrigerator, you could have two or three weeks. I like to buy the smaller bottles out of practice.
T: Pro tip.
M: Just because it’s nice and seamless and I have fresh fruit that way. But when I run bar programs, I’d have maybe two or three different brands of vermouth, red vermouth, say. I open it at any given time and I’m like, “Uh oh.” So I would start blending them and making a house blend. It kind of came organically just to please the owners. There’s no loss, please feel free to buy more vermouth. It was really neat because then it became a signature thing. You can’t just throw it all together. You do have to take some care. Personally, I like the di Torino Rosso from Campari. It’s expensive, $17.50, so it’s an expensive vermouth. I like to use 40 percent of that and then 50 percent of Martini & Rossi, really basic.
T: Nice workhorse there.
M: It just punches and they work well together. It doesn’t have to be those specific brands but maybe you have some Carpano Antica — which also is expensive. Go 30 percent with that because that one’s really rich and heavy and sweet.
T: I was going to say, that can overpower as well.
M: Too much. That’s also part of how I found the cocktail builds on our menus and why a house blend was good. Because Carpano Antica became this bartender’s favorite out of nowhere. But it was just so heavy and it was overtaking cocktails.
T: It’s a wonderful way to personalize these classics without straying from the formula. To have your own blend in there is very cool.
M: It’s cool. And you can brag about it on your menu and it’s kind of neat. Because then for those vermouth drinkers, they’re going to have something incredibly unique. They drink it on the rocks before dinner with a twist. So you could do that with your white vermouth, you could do it with your red vermouths. Start playing with it. Don’t throw it out. The kitchen can use it to cook it. Yeah, that’s fine. You can make shrubs out of it too, or vinaigrette. But this is really clever.
T: I think vermouth is also wildly underutilized in the kitchen. I’ve written about that somewhere, you can search for that. I definitely am of that opinion. Also, I’ve done some tastings personally, whether it’s sweet vermouth for Manhattans or dry vermouth for Martinis and am ultimately trying to find out what’s the best. Really the answer is, it just depends on the drink that you want. They’re all very unique, so this is a cool approach.
M: It’s just neat and it’s fun. It makes it your own, you know? You don’t have to be in a commercial establishment. Do it for yourself.
T: Well, I know what I’m doing later on today. This is perfect. I’m making my own vermouth blends.
M: I don’t see why not.
T: As a quick mention, and maybe this is more to the dry vermouth category. But you are looking more at those legacy, classic brands. There has been a trend recently. There are wine producers out on Long Island making these wonderful vermouths even more aromatic, even more flavored than normal ones. But I’ve struggled with those in cocktails personally. Is that something you find, too?
M: Yeah, so like Channing. I was there at the beginning when they started doing that and they were just using what was left over on the farm. So each batch tasted different. I couldn’t buy that commercially because it was too inconsistent. But if you are a vermouth, it was kind of delightful. You can only do these things like straight vermouth or an Americano with club soda. My friend Cory does method vermouth. We worked together at Porchlight. He’s my big older brother, my twin brother. He’s like 7 feet tall. I’m 5 foot 2. We looked like we were related — not really. But his method of making vermouth was coming from a bartender aspect so that, I revered, because he’s very consistent. The flavor is really good. It’s New York-grown spices and blends and grapes from the five Finger Lakes.
T: I think that’s great. I am all for bartender-led vermouths, specifically for these uses.
M: But some of them get too kooky, I’m with you, and I can’t use them in a cocktail.
T: Yeah, right.
M: It’s not what I’m looking for. I appreciate your zeal, if you will. And it’s lovely, but it should almost become a new category.
T: It’s like these wild new gins. But yeah, that’s one for a different day.
M: Those crazy kids.
T: Next one, it’s definitely the first time we’ve spoken about this on this show, Benedictine. What is it? What’s it bringing to the drink? Tell us all about it.
M: There are two variants of Benedictine which often are misunderstood. So Benedictine Dom is the original liqueur, the spirit. It dates back to 1510, and it has really strong origins. Monks made it from an abbey in Normandy. They know a thing or two about spirits up there. They make Calvados. They’ve got it going on. When you think about the timeframe, 1510, they’ve got some lineage there. It’s very similar to the timeframe of Chartreuse. The monks were making the good spirits. Somehow, some way — I don’t exactly know when — they decided to add brandy into the Benedictine. I think it’s 20-plus herbs and spices. It’s a very neat botanical blend and nobody knows them all. Just like there’s the mystery of Chartreuse, it’s very similar. But it’s a delightful liqueur that’s under-appreciated greatly because of its strong floral notes and herbal notes. So somehow somebody decided to add brandy to it. I think maybe in the ’70s, the dark ages of mixology as well. It was some salesperson for Benedictine. We’re going to call it B&B. It is Benedictine, but with brandy. They’re not swappable at all because what they did was cut down the beautiful lushness of the herbs and the spices. There’s saffron in there.
M: It’s really neat. They won’t say everything that’s in there, but there’s angelica root and saffron. We know that for sure. And honey from hives that are on site. There’s great care, so let’s respect the origins of 1510. I’m not going to mess with that. How did they get away with making that B&B? It’s lovely. I’m not shaming it, but they’re not swappable.
T: So that’s not the one. If that’s the bottle that you come across, you understand what it is now but it’s the Benedictine that you do want.
M: It’s a cordial. You can drink that after dinner, that’s fine. But getting the Benedictine Dom is very specific. The bottle looks incredibly different. You could tell it’s grander. The Dom comes from the motto of the Benedictine monks. You could see the seal, it’s really grand. It took me a little bit to find some, actually. We’ll talk about that later. But I had to search really hard. I finally found it at Astor.
T: If you’re in New York here, Astor is the place to go.
M: But it’s not as common. I had a hard time sourcing it.
T: And that’s something that’s interesting, too. Because this is a named ingredient in this drink and we’re talking about one brand, one producer. There’s nothing interchangeable here. There’s no substitute that you can do. It’s a yes or yes.
M: That’s it. It’s got to be Benedictine. Benedictine is really neat because you can have it in a little hip flask in the winter and it’s delightful.
M: There’s something about it, maybe at a baseball game when it’s a little chilly. Let’s go Mets. You could just have a little pop and it’s delightful. It’s just a beautiful under-appreciated spirit.
T: That’s something else to add to my shopping list today later on when I’m buying my vermouth to make my blend. I think I do have a little vial of Benedictine at home, but I’ve been using it for some cocktails. I need to invest in a bottle.
M: You should. It won’t go bad because it’s a very stable spirit.
T: Does it have some sweetener in there, too?
T: That prolongs everything.
M: Yep, and it’s 1510. They know what they’re doing. Leave it on your shelf.
T: I love the idea that in some marketing department or office in the ’70s, they were like, “You know what? We’ve been doing this now for 460 years. I think we can improve on it. I think we can make this better.”
M: Can you believe the audacity?
T: It’s the ’70s. Final component here, but perhaps maybe a number of ingredients. I’ve got it down just as bitters. What’s classic and what’s your preference here?
M: Yeah. So Peychaud’s Bitters is priority No. 1. It’s a Creole bitter. Pretty much everybody knows what Peychaud’s is. If they don’t, please Google it and get knowledge because it’s an important bitter. That’s combined with Angostura regular bitters, the basic bitters. It’s funny how we use both. Really you’re doing double the amount of Peychaud’s to the Angostura aromatic bitters with the yellow cap. You’re only using two drops of those to four drops of the Peychaud’s.
M: So that’s an interesting thing. It’s almost like the sun and earth. It’s grounding the bitters and just giving it a little more complexity.
How to Make the Vieux Carré
T: Again, maybe just a nice little nod of the cap to New Orleans here as well. This cocktail celebrates the city and it’s also from the city. Let’s give a little bit more prominence there to the Peychaud’s, that works for me. I want to dive now into ratios because we were having a little chat before this. I was mentioning how, as always, before coming onto this recording with you, I was looking at different recipes online. I think this may be the classic where it’s very hard to find consistent recipes even among very reputable sources. So let’s dive into that. What can you tell us about the proportions for this drink?
M: Let’s talk about the ratios and how if you just go and search on the internet, different websites that I admire and respect, have incredibly different ratios for this cocktail. That just says a lot in and of itself. It goes everywhere from quarter-ounce of equal measurements of the Benedictine, Cognac, rye and then only a quarter-ounce of vermouth. Then the International Bartender Association, who I admire and respect greatly, are kind of like the blueprint in my world. They’re the ones.
T: This is the standard.
M: The official cocktail of the world. They have an incredibly large one, they have it at 30 milliliters, which is a little over an ounce of the rye, Cognac, and sweet vermouth in all equal measurements. I’m like, “Wow, that’s not it.” That’s not a fun drink anymore. I think that’s going to plow you under the table. I’m a little surprised that they felt that that was OK.
T: That’s interesting.
M: It’s very bizarre to me. And they’re only using a bar spoon of Benedictine, which really is one-eighth of an ounce if you really want to get super technical. I’m a little bit surprised by their ratios. They also don’t even include Angostura Bitters.
M: Only two dashes of Peychaud’s. They also include an orange twist and a cherry and have it served up in stemware in a cocktail glass. Everywhere else, we’re serving it on the rocks.
M: That’s kind of my preferred method. See, Diamond Jim Brady wanted to be different than Walter by serving his La Louisiane up in cocktail glass with Maraschino cherries. Walter’s was served on the rocks with a lemon twist, no cherry.
T: This is interesting. I really wonder why they went so off-piste there.
M: It’s a little bizarre. I looked at Difford’s guide, which is another good place to source, and they were a little bit more in my realm. They were pretty spot on with their a three-quarter-ounce straight down the line of equal portions of bourbon, Remy Martin Cognac — which is what I like for this particular build — sweet vermouth, and a third of an ounce of Benedictine. I do 10 milliliters, but I could go with this. And they have Peychaud’s and Ango, but they only have two dashes of Peychaud’s and one dash of Ango when I go four dashes of Peychaud’s and two of Ango.
M: But, you know.
T: It is notable, too, I’ve seen that recipe and they go bourbon instead of rye.
M: That’s correct.
T: That’s right.
M: But is it weird? No. Because the adaptation of this cocktail is great.
M: I think that in the ’30s, we weren’t really paying as much attention to new cocktails that were happening that ended up becoming classics, because they were happening in a moment in time that was a little bit sketchy.
M: There is a dust bowl happening and it was the worst possible depression ever known to mankind. And the war was coming, World War II was coming. So there was a lot of fascism happening. It was dark days, even though everybody’s like, “FDR and the New Deal, we’re going to be fine.” But I wondered if these things weren’t written down really properly and categorized and immortalized in proper books. I’m sure that there is a book with Walter’s specs in it. I haven’t done that deep of a recon. My collection of cocktail books are more of the golden era from the 1880s to 1910. That’s what I have in my personal library. So I’m a little bit weak in the ’30s and pre-World War II.
T: Also like in that Difford’s recipe, maybe it purely comes down to when he was immortalizing his own (Simon Difford). We maybe assumed that this was the dark ages for rye. It was hard enough to get a good-quality bottle here in the States. But they’re based over there in the U.K. So maybe nothing was coming over. And they’re like, “Actually the quality of bourbon’s better and makes a better drink at this point.”
M: I can understand that. And I could respect that greatly because I think that you’re absolutely right. I think that there is probably a dearth and a great chasm of not-quality rye. It’s not Seagram’s 7. I’m sorry, Canada, but it’s not rye. This was a reality. So he went with the bourbon. I agree.
T: I’m sure that maybe did factor into that there. Just to go over this again, your specs would be three-quarters rye, three-quarters Cognac, three-quarters sweet vermouth. It could be a third Benedictine, but you prefer 10 milliliters. What’s that, metric?
M: Yes, sorry.
T: And then you would go 4 to 2 dashes of Peychaud’s to Angostura?
T: Now can you describe to us as if you were making that drink here in front of us? Can you give us an explanation of how you would do that? And perhaps also maybe share any techniques when it comes to ice along the way or any quirks that you have when it comes to stirring.
M: Absolutely. I’m from the school where I add my quality ingredients first. I know that’s very shamed these days. Everybody’s putting the cheap stuff in first in case you make a mistake. But you know what? I live on the edge, so I want to respect my cocktail. I grab whoever is the star of the show and they get first nods. That’s just me, personal choices aside. I like to build it with the rye and then the Cognac and then Benedictine and then the sweet vermouth. I don’t put the Benedictine in the end, I do the sweet vermouth in the end. That’s just me.
T: This is the way you do it.
M: This is my beret, my French beret doing that. And then I add my bitters. This is in a mixing glass, a really good one. If you don’t have a proper mixing glass, you really should buy one. It’s a great thing to have for your own personal bar. But really a pint beer glass would do, just have it dedicated for that. Don’t keep swapping to drink beer out of it, make it a dedicated glass and buy yourself a quality bar spoon because this is key, perhaps some jiggers, too. In my mixing glass, I’m going to have all the basics of my cocktail. Everything is included into the glass without the garnish. Then I’m going to add ice. Now this is an important factor. We all have ice in our house. I don’t know why, but at home, we don’t use enough ice. It’s the difference between a professional bartending cocktail and a house-made cocktail. You have to use a lot of ice. So I like to have at least two-thirds higher amount of ice-to-liquid value in the glass. This is very key to me. If I’m using what we call cloudy ice, whatever comes out of your ice maker, that’s fine. But I still crack some.
M: Some of us have those silicone molds with the two-inch cubes. Those are great, too. But you have to crack some. You can’t just use those two-inch cubes straight. Really, you shouldn’t use your ice straight. I’m not saying to crush it. Just tap it or whack them in half with your bar spoon. This is key because it’ll fit into the glass better, and it’s going to dilute and chill the cocktail properly. Don’t just use straight ice, take a little bit of effort. I like to do at least 30 rotations. You’re not agitating the glass. The stirred drink needs to be blended. There’s no agitation, there’s no aeration. That’s a shaken cocktail, it’s a different build. So you just put your bar spoon against the edge of the glass and stir. I do clockwise rotations, like I said, 30 to 40 rotations. I’m looking for it to get properly chilled because that’s really important. And it adds some dilution. All of these spirits are lovely, drunk neat or on the rocks, but we’re making a cocktail, so we need dilution. Especially for the bitters. Bitters are key and you need to dilute them — and the sweet vermouth. This is a critical aspect of this cocktail that needs to be diluted because it can overpower. Even with all these grand spirits that we have, it can take over. So you just need to bring it down a little bit. We’re looking to get at least an ounce of water. That’s what I like in stirring. And by cracking some ice, you’re going to get that.
M: Then just strain it into fresh glassware. Never use your used ice that you used to stir. My God, we’re civilized people. Use fresh ice and pour it into a glass of the fresh cube and then express a lemon twist.
T: A lemon twist?
M: Sometimes I alternate. Sometimes I want an orange twist. I’m really fond of orange oils and the difference between the two is so radical. It really depends, are you feeling frisky? If you’re feeling frisky, go with the orange. If you’re feeling like, “Wow, I worked really hard and I need a treat,” go with the lemon.
M: It’s as simple as that. And then just sit back, enjoy, put your phone down. Take 15 minutes for yourself. We work hard.
T: This is a sipper.
M: This is a sipper. Have a glass of water, too.
T: Nice. What a wonderful drink. There are just some really great tips in there, especially cracking the ice. It’s something I know I should be doing. I always worry about over dilution.
M: No, it won’t. I’m not asking you to get a loose bag or smashing it in the head. We’re not making tiki here. We just want a couple of cracked cubes. Not a tremendous amount for a mixing glass, I would say maybe crack three or four. That’s it.
T: Here’s a question, and I think we may have touched on this in a previous episode. But I had this experience where I was at a bar recently and the bartender built the drinks. They were Martinis that were stirred, obviously. They built the drinks, had the ice, and then had to go and do something. Someone came in, they’d lost their bag the night before. This happens in bars. And they left them there, but they hadn’t agitated the mixture in the mixing glass at all yet. They were also using very good-quality ice. I was worried that maybe we might have been getting an over-dilution situation going there, but is that something we should be wary of? Or I’m imagining, say you’re preparing an order of six stirred drinks at the bar and they’re all different drinks. Can you start them chilling and you can leave them like that? Or is it best to just wait and add the ice when you’re ready to stir?
M: I’m from a school where I like to wait because I come from commercial establishments and yes, things happen. Suddenly, like this guest says, “I need to go right now. Can I close my check?” And that’s really important. Well wait, I have to stir these six drinks, sir. That’s never going to happen. I’m closing him out. So I’m thinking about that concept, I always have my ice on the side. I am very old school when it comes to that. With these new cubes, these very large formats that you mentioned, sitting there on the bar top even for four minutes, is it getting really over-diluted? Probably not, because the melting ratio on those is really slow. But it’s getting cold. And I wonder if they took the effort to understand that it was sitting there and only gave it like two or three or maybe five rotations at most. That’s all I would do. If caught in that situation, I would barely stir them.
T: There was a lot of intention behind the preparation, even as I say, with this slight hiccup of the bag situation. I think the guest themselves actually then seemed to think we were in the space next door. It was all very strange. This was a Sunday. Saturday nights can get like that. I mean, I’m only making probably two or three drinks at home, for other people as well as myself. But I’m always thinking about that and always trying to never over-dilute.
M: When I train bartenders, especially in shaking situations it’s really more important. Not that stirring over-dilution doesn’t happen, but it’s not as rapid as when you shake a cocktail. Especially when we’re using metal tins, which we predominantly have in most cocktail bars. I always have them have the ice in the separate of the two shaking vessels, because things happen. Only attach them together when you’re ready. You’re locked and loaded, right? So that’s how I like to deal with that. With the stirred cocktail, if I have it built in the glass and I get distracted, I’m going to wait. I have to wait to add the ice, if I can. In that situation, I think they did the right thing.
T: Yeah, it came out well. It was delicious.
M: It’s kind of like, “Uh oh.”
T: You mentioned something earlier on here where we’re talking about split base. Now we know we’re in the split-base realm here. We’ve spoken a little bit about ratios, too, or recipes. But this is not a template that has been covered or used as the base for modern classics. Not in the same way that a Negroni has or an Old Fashioned or some of these other wonderful shaken whiskey drinks. Do you think we’re missing a trick here? Is this something you’ve ever explored yourself when it comes to a riff on this cocktail?
M: Well, let’s face the reality that there’s four grand ingredients in this cocktail. I’m going to call vermouth a spirit for our purposes here. And that’s a lot. That’s really one too many, I would say. So we need to understand that once you make this cocktail and you have it and it’s served properly and created properly, it is a game changer. It’s going to turn you out. I’m sorry to say that once you have a Vieux Carré, you probably can’t look back. You’re just going to be seeking it like a unicorn everywhere. Where can I get this unicorn? And it’s the reality of that.
M: There’s something about the blend and how they all play just so well together. It’s a magnificent cocktail that’s under-appreciated. I don’t know why. There are so many riffs that you can do with it, which we’ll probably get to in a little bit.
Riffs on the Vieux Carré
T: That’s what I was thinking there, just when it comes to those riffs. Another thing, too, is the three-quarter ounces. In my mind I also think, “Maybe this is an opportunity where you get to pull out some of those more expensive bottles.” If you are going into different categories because it’s only three-quarters of an ounce, it’s not 2 ounces. Bring out the big guns.
M: Here it is. I am of the school that, as in Old Fashioned, it doesn’t have to be bourbon or rye. What’s your favorite bottle that you have? It could be your favorite single malt. Do an Old Fashioned with it because you’re going to get flavor notes you never experienced, whether it’s neat or on the rocks. It’s an interesting thing. With the Vieux Carré, you could do riffs. I did one back in June. I called it the Middle Quarter Carré and made it with Appleton Estate 8-year-old rum. Because that rum drinks like a bourbon. The Appleton portfolio in general and some of these beautiful aged rums that are coming out of the Caribbean are delightful. They very much are drinking like bourbons and again, an unappreciated category. But people are starting to understand. I’m not speaking about Rhum Agricole. That’s a separate category in itself with the more salinization notes. We’re just talking about aged rums.
M: Molasses, that’s right. And it’s just delightful. They drink really great. So I happen to have an 8-year-old bottle, which is really nice. But the regular brand label, the less expensive one, is equally magnificent. With that, I increased it to an ounce. I felt like I needed it to stand up more because I was using 101 rye right with the rum. Basically what I did was I substituted the rum for the Cognac.
M: So I swapped out the Cognac for aged rum and I still did my 10 milliliters of the Benedictine liqueur. But I did something a little bit different in that I sprayed the inside of my glass with yellow Chartreuse.
M: Not absinthe, and not green Chartreuse, which is lovely. But I really like yellow Chartreuse. It is an underutilized liqueur and I like to put it in spray bottles and treat it. You could also do the old spin where you put a bar spoon worth and you coat the inside of the glass. It will cling to the interior of the glass. It’s just a really, really nice thing because it’s like an extra garnish, an extra flavor layer. We drink with our ears, our eyes and our nose before our mouth. Our brain’s already decided if we’re going to like this or not. It comes up because the yellow Chartreuse has its beautiful soft, floral notes. And I felt that really played well with the Benedictine.
T: Did you keep the sweet vermouth in there?
M: I did. I have the sweet vermouth. I have the Benedictine, I have rye. But I simply substituted aged rum for Cognac and increased the value just a little. The aged rums are very smooth, they’re delightful. So they don’t really pack that punch. I needed to up it just a little bit. I tried it at three-quarters and it wasn’t as bold as it needed to be. So by spraying the inside of the glass with the Chartreuse, that’s great. And I only used Peychaud’s Bitters and no Angostura because the flavor notes for the Caribbean were already represented in the rum.
T: There you go, very nice.
M: And it was delightful. I did that with orange oils. I stirred that and served that on the rocks. But my point is that you can play with other spirits. This is just a really good blueprint. Your Vieux Carré opens up many doors.
T: Would you advise keeping the sweet vermouth, keeping the Benedictine, and maybe playing around with the bitters? Look at those two base spirits as the opportunities there for a bit of experimentation?
M: Yeah. Your grand spirit is key, whether it be corn-, molasses- or rye-based. Use that with the Benedictine, the sweet vermouth, and add bitters.
T: You mentioned Calvados earlier. We spoke about that. I’d love to see that work its way into this drink somehow.
M: I don’t see why it couldn’t be, because Calvados and Benedictine play really well together. They’re very underutilized. Why they didn’t add Calvados to the Benedictine brandy is beyond me because I think that would have become very popular. .
M: Yeah, there we go.
T: If they’re listening.
M: Missed mission.
T: Amazing. I just want to double check here. We are talking Old Fashioned-style glass for this?
M: Yeah, I like a double rocks glass. And a big cube or little cubes, that’s up to you. What do you have handy? God bless that you have ice. This is great.
T: Just make sure it’s on the rocks. Mimi, any final thoughts on the Vieux Carré?
M: Just embrace it and revisit this because it is a magnificent cocktail. Every time I have friends, especially industry friends, they are always like, “Wow.” It knocks our socks off. And we’re just like, “Why haven’t we been drinking these?” Why aren’t we ordering these? Why aren’t we making these? I’m here to bang the bell for your Vieux Carré. Get all aboard the Vieux Carré street car.
T: Or the carousel.
M: Even better, I like circles.
T: Hotel Monteleone. I was reading, and I don’t know whether this continues to be true, but I was reading that that thing is powered by just a quarter-horsepower.
T: I’m not sure how that works, but I’ve been on it. There’s what, 21 seats or something on there?
M: Yeah, and it doesn’t go very fast.
M: That can be a little tricky.
T: The local tourism board though do claim that it’s the drink itself that makes you dizzy and not the carousel. But maybe that’s why they limited it to a quarter-horsepower.
M: Slow goes better.
T: A wonderful place to enjoy a drink, though, if you have not.
M: Yes, I’m going to Tales of the Cocktail coming up. Got my plane ticket. Got my hotel.
T: Very nice.
M: July in New Orleans is such a pleasure. Hotter than Hades.
Getting to Know Mimi Burnham
T: Really nice, refreshing time of the year to be down there. Well, that’s been wonderful. I’ve taken so much away from this, the vermouth blends and so many things that I now want to do as an enthusiast. Little projects for me to work on here and all thanks to the Vieux Carré. Let’s now dive into the next section of the show where our listeners get to know you a little bit more, Mimi, as a bartender, a drinks enthusiast and a drinker. Let’s kick it off with question No. 1 here.
T: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
M: That’s precious space. I like double-duty spirits, so I like spirits that I can count on people might want neat or on the rocks, but I can also use in cocktails. I’m also very fond of liqueurs. You can’t have all the liqueurs; you have to be really clever about your back bar. But I do really appreciate any bottle that gets on the back bar. I always have multiple purposes for it. I feel that’s only fair.
T: It needs to justify its place there.
M: It can’t just be like a one-note Annie; nobody likes her.
T: Sorry, Benedictine, you’re out. You’re not making the final cut, I’m afraid. Question No. 2 here. Which ingredient or two is the most undervalued, in your opinion, in a bartender’s arsenal?
M: I thought long and hard about this because you were like, “Here’s a question that may give you a pause.” And you’re right. Of course, tools are really essential to any bartender. If you don’t have the right tools and really in any work, you can’t get the job done. I will say that when I had to start using food-grade metal tweezers, that turned my world upside down because suddenly now I can’t touch garnishes without them.
T: Interesting. You’re speaking to a skeptic over here, so sell it to me.
M: For a particular proprietor, Chef Jose Andrés, at Little Spain when I was on the opening team at Barcelona, we had these really cool metal tweezers. So I was like, “Oh, you know, what’s this?” They were like, “Oh, you have to touch all your garnishes. You can’t touch them by hand.” I like that, and they look really neat. They’re kind of cool. They have a little curve to them, so they’re very friendly in the hand. And I got so used to using them that I now own eight pairs — eight sets — of food-grade tweezers. I take it with me everywhere I can, almost like chopsticks. They’re like another appendage. I just can’t touch garnishes anymore without them. I’ve seen some of the fancier Martini bars in London. There’s a fella that does it with spoons where he twists lemon twists with spoons, which is fascinating. I can’t do that lemon twist yet with tweezers.
T: That was going to be my next question.
M: Yeah, that’s a skillset that I haven’t practiced.
T: So how do you express a lemon twist then?
M: With my fingers. But I will use the tweezers to place it in the glass.
T: If this is a garnish that someone’s going to eat, say it’s an olive, then it really does make a lot of sense there.
M: When people see that happening, I can see them relaxing.
M: I’m a food safety expert and not touching things is key. My hands are clean. Oh, my God. I can’t even count how many times I wash them during a shift. It’s incredible. But not touching these things is really nice. I’m not seeing pre-packaged olives on a skewer. I’m not fond of that, either. I think that’s really gauche. There’s no effort made, don’t do that. But with the tweezers, you can hold the olives and spear them. They’re not so wild and wooly, you got control. And these things fit in your aprons. They’re very flat. So I’m a huge proponent of the food-grade tweezers.
T: It’s interesting. Add that to the shopping list for later. I’m racking up a bit of a bill here.
M: I’m sorry.
T: Question No. 3: what’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
M: Be true to yourself. Be absolutely true to who you are. Do not think for a minute that you should change your ethos or your business acumen or yourself to please someone else. Get as much knowledge and education as you can, yes. I still take classes all the time. I just got certified in Canadian whisky.
M: Thank you. That was it. That was a little tough. That was a deep dive. I was a little surprised.
T: If I wanted to be harsh. I would have been like, “Yeah. How long did it take? A couple of hours. There are no rules.”
M: Five weeks. I’m a grateful graduate of that, but really do seek education but be true to yourself. You are the only person that will look in the mirror and see who you are. And it’s good to be reflective in how you come across to people, too. It breaks my heart when I see people trying to change for their owner or establishment. It’s very shallow, and you don’t realize it because you’re in it. But I can’t implore bartenders or people in general enough just to be true to themselves. March to the beat of your drum, because I can assure you it’s beautiful music.
T: Nice. That’s a very nice way of putting it right there. Penultimate question here. If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
M: Well, there would be tears in my eyes. I would go to the bar where all my friends would be. If you can’t tell, I like to laugh and have a good time and I have lots of friends. Bars always change, but really it’s about, who are you with? In the end it’s the shared experience. So it would have to be a bar where all my friends are.
T: Just enjoying the company.
M: Yeah, pouring back a couple.
M: Or 10.
M: If it’s my last visit, there’s no risk of being barred after that. I’m kidding.
T: Final question for you today. If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
M: Whew. This changes, too. I’m a kook, because I realized that because A) I’m a social drinker. I enjoy drinking with people, not at home. Covid lockdown taught me that. And, B) I’m seasonal. I live in a four-season environment in New York. What I’m drinking in the winter is not what I’m drinking in spring, let alone summer. But I would probably say one of the cocktails that stands out are Gin Martinis. But I’m very, very specific about it. I’m probably a pain in the ass to whatever bartender I go to. I’m like, “May I please have a Martini and…?” I need it this way.
T: Tell me the “and,” I got to know.
T: You’re splitting the vermouth?
M: Yeah. Again, I come back to where I am with a combination of flavors. I just really like it. And not every bar is going to have multiple brands of dry vermouth. But if this is my last drink, then therefore they’re going to have exactly what I want. It would be a combination of the blanc de blancs and the blanc and extra dry. Because the blanc de blancs is a little too floral. But I really enjoy it. The extra dry can be fun. But those two together, it’s magnificent. It would be a third of the value to two-thirds gin, crazy cold. And I also like a little pinch of salt. Not dirty — don’t give me that broth. I shouldn’t say that because guests ask for it all the time. I’m like, “It’s delightful.” Just a little pinch of salt, just for a little flavor component to really help the vermouth. And expressed lemon oils, I don’t even need an olive.
T: Express and discard?
M: I could see it there. It depends how it’s cut.
M: Again, that bartender loves me. Nope.
T: I love it. I love a very specific Martini order. I have one myself.
M: And what’s yours?
T: It changes. But at the moment, I would say for the last 18 months and people might call me a bit of a philistine here. But I’m down to a 7 to 1 ratio at the moment. That’s where I find my sweet spot at the moment.
M: How bold.
T: I don’t like the 50-50 Martini. I don’t like this trend that we’re seeing where people think that they are holier than thou just because they’re upping it. And they’re like, “You know what? You can also use sherry.” Great, I love Sherry in a Martini. Don’t get me wrong, I love that variation. But when I’m having my Martini, I’m 7 to 1 at the moment. I will go for a classic London Dry style for the gin and dry vermouth. And these days I am going towards lemon and discard.
M: Oh, look at you.
T: At the moment, just at the moment.
M: You get real radical. Look at him living on the edge, just chucking it in the gutter.
T: Speaking of the gutter, I’ll be honest. To make my life easier, I do have these almost six-ounce cocktail glasses. We’re not talking three ounces. It’s a little bit more than that. I’m a home bartender, so I’m allowed to break those rules.
M: I like a little pop. A tremendous disservice happened when somebody designed these Martini glasses in the ’70s that are 200 ounces. OK, that’s a gross exaggeration. But you get my point. Martinis were meant to be little pops. It was in a pitcher. It was a glass pitcher on purpose because you’re only supposed to have a two-ounce pop.
T: Yeah, but I like to sip a Martini if it’s not too hot. And also another thing, if we’re getting into this, I would never drink a Martini outdoors. I don’t care about the setting. I don’t care if I’m in the nicest square in the oldest city in Europe and I’ve got shade and I’ve got A/C. No, a Martini is an indoor drink.
M: Unless it’s 20 degrees out because then that’s perfect weather for a Martini.
T: I mean, I was doing that in the pandemic when we were at that stage. I was pinched up outside Long Island Bar. And I tell you, it was a tough one to drink. It was delicious. But it is hard.
M: It’s kind of like drinking in a walk-in. Would you do that, either?
T: I don’t know, either. But I think there are these unofficial rules. We were speaking earlier, maybe someone who’s listening will be able to get in touch with us about this. But I would like to get something special — not just business cards made that you can hand out with that order on there — but I’m thinking maybe getting one in metal or solid silver with that etched on. It might be tough because the Martini order does change.
M: Yeah, well, there’s dedication.
T: Yup. If a guest handed their drink order printed on a business card to you, would you feel offended as a bartender?
M: It’s delightful. I’ve had guests do that in the past. And they became regulars because I admired and respected it. It just makes things simpler. It’s so much easier. Any bartender that gets offended by that, you probably need to change careers. This is not for you. It’s all about being a hospitality professional. It’s not your party. You are providing the party tools. Let’s remember that. You’re there to create an environment, a safe environment, if you will. In doing so, it’s not all about you. It’s about the guest. It’s all about the guest. Whatever makes them happy and if that makes them happy, it makes my job a hill of beans easier. I know exactly what they want. So the drink doesn’t come back five times.
M: Thank you. Can I get more of these guests?
T: They get it how they want it.
M: I have a concept of what they want, but not really. If you’re like us and you really want your one specific drink to be a specific way, why not? I’m down.
T: Amazing. Well, Mimi, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a blast.
M: This is lovely.
T: Maybe we’ll see each other in New Orleans. Who knows?
M: I think so.
T: Hopefully. I’ll see you on the carousel.
M: Please buy your tickets. Also, if you want to find me on Instagram, you can always find me @smartolivenyc. If you have any questions, you can always shoot me a DM. I’ll get back to you.
M: You know, we’re just.
T: There with the hot takes and the wonderful advice.
M: Indeed. I’m always here for you, hospitality professionals as we are.
T: Thank you.
M: Thank you so much, Tim. That’s been delightful.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.