Welcome to the Hops & Spirits Friday Five, where we ask five questions to interesting people in the alcohol world.
This week’s spotlight is on Sue Strachan, a veteran journalist who has written about New Orleans culture, history, and current events for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, New Orleans Advocate, and New Orleans Magazine, and author of the New Orleans Cocktail series book “The Café Brûlot.” Sue originally came to New Orleans as a Tulane University student. After graduation, she moved to New York City, where she lived for six years before returning to New Orleans. She currently works at Benzinga, a financial media company, as an editor. And, she’s trying to figure out her next project!
1) What was it like to write about a beloved New Orleans cocktail?
It was a lot of fun! The food and drink community in the city is so generous, and when I contacted restaurants or other food and cocktail writers, they all loved the idea of the LSU Press series about New Orleans cocktails, and were really thrilled about me writing about Café Brûlot. It is such a celebratory drink and such a tradition in the city’s old-line restaurants to end a meal with it — it conjures great memories for people. Plus, it is made tableside, so there is a great theater in making the flaming drink!
It was also fun — and ultimately essential — to taste-test various ingredients of the drink: I noted the differences in coffees (dark French Roast vs. Coffee with chicory) by sampling them as coffee and then how they each tasted in the final drink; the different orange liqueurs, again, like coffee, sampling them on their own, then in the final drink. I also did taste-tests without the orange liqueur, and another one that used kirschwasser in its place.
2) What was the most interesting thing you learned about the Café Brûlot when working on the book?
There were quite a few, so it’s hard to pinpoint one! That said, tracking down the drink’s likely origins in the Armagnac region of France was part luck, part detective story, plus the power of email.
Most origin stories for the drink say it was invented in New Orleans by either pirates Jean Lafitte or Dominque You in the early 19th century; or by Jules Alciatore at Antoine’s in the 1880s; or during Prohibition to mask the smell of alcohol, which didn’t make sense because you needed the alcohol to light it on fire (unless they did it in the kitchen and brought it in already complete.)
So as these origin stores were all over the place, I asked around and found out about the Armagnac region in France as a possible source.
Because I wrote this during the pandemic, most correspondences were via email — and one of the city’s food writers, Wayne Curtis, said he had heard a while ago about the link of the drink to the Armagnac region of France from another writer who had since moved to another city. Tracked that writer, John DeMers, down, who confirmed it. I then needed to get in touch with a liquor representative in France, and contacted a friend, Kimberly Noelle Charles, who handles liquor PR, who put me in touch with representatives in France, including Amanda Garham of the Bureau National Interprofessional de l’Armagnac. She confirmed that the distillers make a brûlot during the distillation period known as “La Flamme de l’Armagnac.”
So, an interesting fact is that the restaurants, who gave me recipes, use brandy or Cognac, not Armagnac in the drink!
3) In addition to your book “The Cafe Brulot”, you’ve also contributed to several other New Orleans-based culture books. What keeps drawing you to those types of books and New Orleans?
Every city, town and region of the U.S. has its unique foods and drinks, but I think New Orleans stands out because it has somehow maintained its traditions despite wars, pandemics, and changing tastes. I mean, Mardi Gras has been going on in the city in one form or another pretty much after it was founded in the early 18th century. Also, the number of old-line restaurants that still exist with menus items from the late 19th century or ones that they invented.
Ultimately, it is the reverence for tradition with a dose of frivolity!
4) How fun it is to be immersed in the culture, entertainment and food scene of New Orleans?
I feel really, really lucky I was able to work in New Orleans as writer and editor, jobs that immersed me in the scenes and allowed me to meet people and really learn about and enjoy the experiences. But the great thing about New Orleans is that you can also discover all of this on your own.
5) You’ve lived in New Orleans for many years, what are some drinks or foods that people must try if they visit?
Now that is a tough — and good — question. It depends on what you are in the mood for.
Of course try the Cafe Brûlot — but since you probably can’t go to every old-line restaurant, I will give a pro-tip based on my research: try the one at one of the restaurants mentioned in the book — Antoine’s, Broussard’s, Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace or Galatoire’s, but Arnaud’s is the only one that uses coffee and chicory, which really creates a different flavor. They also do a fun flaming presentation with the orange peel and cloves.
Though some quick picks from the old-line restaurants: Antoine’s: Eggs Sardou (invented here!); Arnaud’s: Oysters Bienville (invented here!): Brennan’s: Bananas Foster (invented here!); Broussard’s: Creole Turtle soup; Commander’s Palace: shrimp and tasso Henican (invented here!); Galatoire’s: the Galatoire Goute, an appetizer sample with crab maison and shrimp remoulade.
• Clancy’s: Great food, great atmosphere. Very clubby, in the sense it seems like everyone knows everyone. Everything is good here, but I love the veal Annunciation.
• Lilly’s Cafe: There is a large Vietnamese population in the city. I always get the pho ga.
• Dooky Chase Restaurant: Get the red beans and rice that is served with the best fried chicken in town
• R & O’s: Go for the po–boys — my order is fried oysters, dressed and no pickle. (Dressed is a New Orleans term for : lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise)
• Herbsaint: Housemade spaghetti topped with guanciale topped with a fried-poached egg
• Pascal’s Manale: Barbecue shrimp
• The Sazerac, a New Orleans-invented drink, at the Sazerac in the Roosevelt Hotel. The Sazerac is also another book in the LSU Press series.
• Cure: Any of the drinks, but love their version of an old-fashioned
• Pat O’Briens: If you are coming to New Orleans, you have to try a Hurricane at least once!
• Fat Harry’s: A neighborhood bar that also serves great food!
And I could go on and on…
The Café Brûlot examines the cocktail that was born of a legend and has endured through the centuries, showcasing New Orleans’s love of flavored drama. A combination of coffee, liquor, and fire, Café Brûlot also goes by the name Café Brûlot Diabolique, “devilishly incendiary coffee.”