The Old Absinthe House
By Lars Theriot
Walk down Bourbon street a ways, past the frat boys slugging sugary weapons-grade daiquiris out of 24 ounce Styrofoam cups, and eventually you’ll get to the corner of Bourbon and Bienville where you’ll find one of the French Quarter’s most famous watering holes… the Old Absinthe House.
The Absinthe House is named, as so many of New Orleans’ most famous bars are, for a drink invented within its walls.
I’ve spent some part of every one of my 38 summers in New Orleans, and the Absinthe House is one of my earliest memories of the Quarter, even though I was underage when I first started going there. Not to drink Absinthe of course… I remember walking through the Quarter and asking my Dad, “can we go see the place with the cards on the wall?”
I don’t know how long patrons have been pinning business cards to the walls of the Absinthe House, but given the bar’s motto –“Everyone you have known or ever will know, eventually ends up at the Old Absinthe House.” — it seems like an appropriate tradition. It was the walls papered with cards from all over the world that first fascinated me, but it’s the atmosphere and the cocktails that keeps bringing me back.
The building where the Absinthe House resides was built over 200 years ago… in 1807. For the first 60 years the building housed a Spanish dry goods store with a coffee bar on the main floor. It was in this coffee house in 1874 where a mixologist named Cayetano Ferer got tired of making coffee and decided to start mixing Absinthe cocktails. His most famous creation became known as The Absinthe Frappe, and soon after, the building was renamed the Old Absinthe House in his honor.
The bar itself has existed on this same spot for most of the ensuing 100 years, although they did have to get a little creative during Prohibition. The ancient copper-covered bar was secreted away to a warehouse to keep it from being ripped out and burned by the Forces of Temperance, the marble fountains that were used to drip water over sugar cubes set atop glasses of the green fairy were scattered hither and yon, and for a time the bar existed at two locations along Bourbon Street.
But the bar and the fountains are back in the wake of a 3 million dollar renovation which sought to return the Absinthe House to its turn-of-the-century ambiance.
There are a lot of bars in the Quarter, but this one is a do-not-miss on your tour. Be sure to bring a business card so you can leave a little bit of yourself behind… it’s only fair, since the one thing I can guarantee is that the bar will certainly send you home with a little bit of itself… even if it’s only a wonderful memory.
ESOTERICA: My Cajun father likes to say that any story worth telling is worth telling well, which is a fancy way of saying that Louisianans are not above a little embellishment if it makes the story more interesting. So in keeping with that tradition, it’s interesting to note that as I researched the history of the Bar, I discovered that the Absinthe House is one of at least two bars which “officially” claim to be the site of a famous meeting between Andrew Jackson and Jean LaFitte wherein the Pirate LaFitte pledged to aid Jackson and his tattered band of Rebels in defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans. I couldn’t help but laugh when I read that little detail because NEITHER of the two establishments that claim the meeting is the bar where I was told it happened. Ah, New Orleans… there’s no place quite like it.