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A Spirited Education

On a recent Saturday evening, my husband and I came in from the bracing cold that whipped through New Orleans’ French Quarter and collapsed into seats at the Hotel Monteleone’s revolving Carousel Bar. Where I come from, 5 o’clock means only one thing, and it was no mistake that we’d made ourselves winter nomads in a city where some of the country’s most creative bartenders have invented drinks like the Ramos Gin Fizz and rye whiskey-based Sazerac.

My husband ordered a Pimm’s Cup for himself and one of those Ramos Gin Fizzes for me, and we watched the bartender expertly finish the concoctions in one woozy rotation of the bar, our stools pulling up in front of him again just as he topped the milky Fizz with club soda. It’s no wonder that the town known for beloved bars like the Carousel, a Hemingway and Capote haunt, honors the craft with what may be the country’s most curious cocktail destination.

To Learn More

To find out more about visiting MOTAC, to become a museum member or to shop at its online store, go to www.museumoftheamerican

There, you can also take a virtual tour of the museum or find out about its monthly Monday Mixology series as well as upcoming events like World Cocktail Week (May 6–18, 2010) and the Manhattan Cocktail Classic (May 14–18, 2010).

To learn more about Dale DeGroff, or to order "The Craft of the Cocktail" (Clarkson Potter, 2002) or "The Essential Cocktail", go

To find it, walk to the south end of the city’s tourist-centric Riverwalk Marketplace, pass the neon food court and don’t blink. There, in what was formerly a dress shop, is the one-of-a-kind Museum of the American Cocktail (MOTAC). Opened in 2004 and originally housed in the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, MOTAC is the brainchild of an impressive group: Dale DeGroff, America’s premier mixologist and author of “The Essential Cocktail” (Clarkson Potter, 2008); his wife, Jill, an artist; Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh; creator Robert Hess; cocktail historian David Wondrich; Phil Greene, a descendent of the famous Peychaud bitters family; and New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian, and his wife, Laura, among others. The mind-blowing, one-room collection, curated by Haigh, tracks more than 200 years of American mixology and showcases DeGroff’s and Haigh’s personal cocktail relics along with treasures loaned or donated by private collectors around the country.

Glamorous bar menus from giants like New York’s Rainbow Room, where DeGroff tended bar in the late 1980s, and New Orleans’ own Roosevelt Hotel line the glass cases alongside dusty bottles of medicinal bitters, iconic liquor memorabilia like a Coates & Co. (producers of Plymouth Gin) match striker, yellowed newspaper headlines, bar-ware patents and curiosities such as a grand 1927 Prohibition-era silver trophy whose four pieces could be disassembled and rearranged into a fully functioning cocktail shaker when the law wasn’t around.

If visitors have doubts about their knowledge going in, they soon learn to tell a roemer from a pub rummer, and a sling from a flip. MOTAC’s holy grail is the oldest piece in its collection: a 1790 edition of “The Practical Distiller,” donated by DeGroff. “It’s probably the same edition George Washington used,” he points out. “You know, he was a whiskey distiller.” The museum also displays two extremely rare copies of Jerry Thomas’ “Bar-Tender’s Guide” (Dick & Fitzgerald, 1862), the first cocktail manual ever published. With illustrations of long-ago gems like the Brandy Crusta, served in a lemon peel-lined wine glass, these alone are worth the price of admission.

After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Commander’s Palace Restaurant invited DeGroff and Haigh to relocate MOTAC inside their Las Vegas eatery. So the two boxed up the museum’s contents and headed west. “But it was always our dream to get back to New Orleans,” says DeGroff. In 2008, MOTAC returned to the Crescent City, settling into its current location inside the quirky Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

DeGroff still hopes to find a permanent home for the museum that could also house a cocktail library. “We don’t have a big angel that’s ready to buy us a building, so we’ll see” he says. Meanwhile, DeGroff and his co-founders plug away at preserving America’s cocktail history and elevating its culture. “The cocktail is a uniquely American metaphor,” DeGroff says. “But some people still joke about the museum.” With a chuckle he adds, “They ask who our members are.”


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MOTAC's entrance, where visitors are greeted by a likeness of Jerry Thomas, author of the first cocktail manual ever published. Dale DeGroff

Zester Daily contributor Liz Pearson is a writer, consultant, food stylist and contributor to the Los Angeles Times, “Every Day With Rachael Ray” and Saveur. She lives in Texas.

Photo: Dale DeGroff


Zester Daily contributor Liz Pearson is a writer, consultant, food stylist and contributor to the Los Angeles Times, "Every Day With Rachael Ray" and Saveur. She lives in Texas.