Water and Wellness in New Orleans: Ports, cocktails, and medicine

Walk into any grocery store in New Orleans and there will be beer, wine, and liquor (possibly all three). Yet, liquor sales in grocery stores are not commonplace, contrary to New Orleans citizen’s popular belief.  In fact, in more than half of the states within America selling liquor in grocery stores is illegal, but to a New Orleanian, this is common practice.  New Orleans, founded in 1718, has never shied away from the art of casual drinking.  Commonly known as the liquor capital of America, New Orleans has contributed its fair share to the many cocktails we know and love today.  But why was New Orleans such a hub for booze, drinking, and infamous cocktails?  The answer lies in the creation and use of the Port of New Orleans, allowing New Orleans to become a prominent port city, which is reflected in the medicinal advertisements of 1841.

The Port of New Orleans was created the same year the city was founded, in 1718, one may even argue that the founding of the port was the creation of the city itself.  New Orleans soon became a bustling port city, first under the rule of France, then Spain, and eventually the United States after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.  The Europeans whom the city was initially composed of had no problem incorporating alcohol into their lives.  European drinking habits consisted of drinking with nearly every meal, especially ones involving religious practices.  Wine was especially common among these rights and rituals.  The humid and wet climate of the deep south made it difficult to grow grapes.  New Orleanians had to rely on the import of wine from European countries, such as France, Italy, and Spain.  Not only did Europeans drink alcohol in many facets of their lives, they also used liquor such as brandy and vodka, as well as derivatives of liquor such as bitters to remedy many afflictions; this translated to the people of New Orleans.

Piece from Times-Picayune archives of May, 1841

Within the Times-Picayune (May issues in 1841), numerous advertisements list medicines, such as sarsaparilla syrup and pills, claiming to remedy many ailments including headaches.  Some of the medicines promoted were clearly supplied via imports from other places such as India and Boston.  Sarsaparilla, for example, is an Indian herb found in South Asia that claims to treat a multitude of diseases.  The Times-Picayune advertises Sarsaparilla syrup and pills, claiming that “they are exceedingly mild in their operation, producing neither nausea, griping, or debility.”  Another advertisement lists the Indian’s Panacea, another medicinal fix brought to New Orleans via import.  The advertisement for Botanic Medicines details Thomsonian medicine from Boston, Massachusetts.  Many of the listings for medicinal treatments are often listed as exotic, botanical, and foreign, reflecting New Orleans’ prominence as a port city, incorporating global imports into its citizens’ everyday lives.

By 1840, the Port of New Orleans was the fourth busiest port in the entire world. 

Piece from Times-Picayune archives of May, 1841

Louisiana itself almost entirely exported cotton and tobacco.  To New Orleans, France imported many liquors such as fancy cognac and wines.  The West Indies sent fresh exotic fruit and bitters never seen in the United States.  Kentucky, just up the Mississippi River, supplied New Orleans with a variety of whiskeys.  The Caribbean sent rum, sugar, and fresh fruits as well.  The ships arriving at the Port of New Orleans brought a conglomerate of materials that created many cocktails we know today such as the Sazerac invented in the 1840s and the rum-based Hurricane created in the 1940s.

With the creation of the port New Orleans not only imported goods but people as well, who brought their differing alcohol preferences and tastes.  The port was a huge hub for immigration, second only to New York. These immigrants contributed to New Orleans’ growing reputation as the liquor capital of the United States just as much as the material goods did.  During the 1840s, a large Irish and German population immigrated into the city, bringing with them their own alcoholic tendencies.  Up until then, there was rarely beer in the city of New Orleans, as the population was mainly drinking imported liquors and wines.  The German and Irish immigrants quickly laid change to that, with them they brought beer and began to incorporate beer into the drinking scene of New Orleans.  The mix of imports paired with the immigration of many citizens made New Orleans a hodgepodge of liquor, beer, wine, and other ingredients, allowing for the creation of some world-renowned cocktails.

The use of alcohol as medicine also contributed to the growth of liquor consumption within the city.  Bitters, which are an alcoholic preparation, infused with many fruits, herbs, and flavors, were often used to treat disease in the 1800s.  In the Times-Picayune, we see an advertisement for Richardson’s Bitters.  The ad claims that the bitters are “a most superior and efficacious tonic at all times, and through an extensive variety of complaints, exercising a most beneficial influence upon the system”.  Many of these bitters were created using fresh fruit and liquor imported from other countries and eventually fueled the creation of the first cocktail, due to people’s trust in medicine allowing for trust in alcohol.

Piece from the Times-Picayune archives of May, 1841

The first cocktail is a story mixed with immigration, imports, and bitters all tied together.  It begins because of political unrest in Haiti.  Many French colonists, in response to revolts in Haiti, took refuge and fled to the Americas.  By 1809, nearly 10,000 French refugees made a home in New Orleans, one of whom was a young man by the name of Antoine Amedee Peychaud.  In the 1830s, Peychaud set up his own apothecary shop called Pharmacie Peychaud where he began distributing his own home remedies for many illnesses.  Peychaund would mix different bitters, sugar, and brandy to relieve clients of all sorts of ailments.  What we now know as Peychaunds Bitters was originally one of Peychauds home remedies known for treating headaches.  One night Peychaund created the Sazerac.  Legend has it that he served the first Sazerac to his fellow Masons in an egg cup also known as a coquetier.  This led to the birth of the name “cocktail” and many consider Peychaud’s Sazerac to be the first cocktail ever made.

Piece from the Times-Picayune archives of May, 1841

Around 1840, Sewell Taylor established Merchants Exchange Coffee House just down the road from Pharmacie Peychaud.  Taylor began to sell Peychaud’s Sazerac cocktail and helped the drink sail toward infamy.  Peychaud’s Sazerac was just the first, we now know and love the Hurricane, Brandy Milk Punch, and the Vieux Carré to name a few.

The Port of New Orleans was the catalyst for the transformation from medicine to alcohol.  The use of alcohol for medicinal purposes normalized alcohol’s ability to be viewed as useful rather than a toxic substance.  This combined with the people, ingredients, and liquors brought in from the port created many of the cocktails New Orleans is known for today.  People trust in medicine, it is made to make you feel better.  Alcohol’s connection to medicine in the 1840s, allowed people to trust in alcohol as well and eventually transformed New Orleans into the drinking city it is known to be today.



This piece was edited by Ethan Meisler as part of Professor Kelley Crawford’s Digital Civic Engagement course at Tulane University.


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