We’ve all seen the quote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” plastered on car bumpers and T-shirts. It was originally part of an article lamenting the fact that so many women are historically overlooked, however, its modern interpretation is that women who live boldly become unforgettable. The women who stormed the Sazerac Bar in 1949 demanding to be served a stiff drink alongside their male counterparts certainly come to mind in this context.
Prohibition was repealed in December of 1933, so beer, wine and spirits could be (legally) consumed without care. On the heels of the repeal, the Roosevelt Hotel opened its first bar, and five years later opened a bar that would become a legendary New Orleans icon and is still a focal point of the hotel today.
Seymour Weiss, the Roosevelt’s owner, constructed a bar that was a masterpiece of elegant deco curves, paneled in walnut and lined with Paul Ninas murals. The bar was a favorite of local celebrities like Huey Long, then governor of Louisiana, who would order a Ramos gin fizz and hold court with his constituents. (In fact, he even famously sent a bartender to New York City to get a tutorial on how to make his favorite drink.) The Roosevelt’s bar is now named the Sazerac Bar, but at that time, it was simply called the Main Bar.
While plenty of establishments post-Prohibition allowed drinkers of both sexes, certain bars banned women under the assumption that an unaccompanied woman was a prostitute. Women had earned the right to vote decades before, but couldn’t get a drink in many places, including the Roosevelt Hotel’s swanky Main Bar, which only allowed women entry on Mardi Gras. Though women could legally drink, in practice, many bars across the country were boys-only clubs.
Weiss wanted to create a second bar in the hotel and name it after the city’s signature cocktail, the Sazerac, created by Antoine Paychaud a century before, who made the bitters used in the drink at his nearby apothecary. The Sazerac is considered to be the oldest American cocktail, originating before the Civil War. It’s named after the cognac that was once used as its base, the Sazerac de Forge et Fils brand, though it was replaced with rye whiskey when cognac became difficult to procure. It combines sugar, cognac or rye, absinthe or Herbsaint (since absinthe was illegal at the time), and Peychaud’s Bitters, garnished with a lemon peel and served in an Old Fashioned glass.
In 1949, Weiss bought the rights to the name “Sazerac Bar” from the Sazerac Company. The Sazerac Bar had been in operation in various locales throughout the city for almost a century, most recently at 300 Carondelet St. Weiss renovated a store front on Baronne Street that previously was wine and spirits shop, naming it the Sazerac Bar, slated to open on Sept. 26, 1949.
When it came time to officially open the Roosevelt Hotel’s iteration of the Sazerac Bar, Weiss had a plan to make a splash in the local press. A perpetual go-getter, Weiss started his career as the hotel barber shop’s manager and worked his way through every managerial position before his group, the New Orleans Roosevelt Corporation, took ownership of the hotel in 1934.
Weiss was known for his innovative and showy marketing ploys, and the opening of the Sazerac Bar was no exception. The new bar would be open to women, he decided, breaking with tradition. He recruited the pretty counter girls working at nearby Godchaux’s department store to be present at the opening and announced to the news media that the new Sazerac Bar would abolish the “men-only” rule. While the move may have been more to get ink in the morning papers than a rallying cry for feminists, it certainly sparked something. Despite it being a planned publicity event, for the women of New Orleans, it was also a sign of progress.
On that Monday in September, scores of women showed up at the Sazerac Bar, dressed to the nines, and demanded New Orleans’ namesake drink in its eponymous bar. Women three rows deep rushed to sip the classic cocktail, courageously taking their place at the bar and starting a trend of other venues opening their doors to women.
Today, the annual “stormin’ of the Sazerac” draws notable New Orleans women, dressed in vintage 1940s attire, to the Roosevelt Hotel for a fashion show, luncheon and of course, a trek into the Sazerac Bar for a cocktail. But it’s more than just a ladies’ lunch. One outstanding woman is honored with the “Reigning Spirit of the Sazerac” award, given to a woman who challenges the status quo and influences positive change in her community. Like the brave and determined women who stormed the Sazerac years ago, the honorees epitomize what makes the women of New Orleans so exemplary. Though a simple act of demanding a cocktail may not seem so courageous today, the women who have followed through the years have risen to the occasion to improve their communities — and make history.
Courtesy of the Sazerac Company of New Orleans
Makes: 1 cocktail
1 cube sugar
1 ½ oz. Sazerac Rye Whiskey
¼ oz. Herbsaint
3 dashed Paychaud’s Bitters
Fill one Old Fashioned glass with ice. In another, muddle the sugar cube and bitters. Add rye whiskey. Empty the ice from the first glass and add the Herbsaint, swirling it to coat the sides of the glass. Discard any excess Herbsaint. Add the rye, sugar and bitters mixture is poured into the Herbsaint coated glass and garnish with the lemon peel.
Rebecca Treon is a Denver-based freelance food, travel, and lifestyles writer who has written for publications like 5280, DiningOut,American Bungalow, Reign, Denver Hotel, The Coastal Table, the Huffington Post, Tasting Table, Food 52, Time Out, BBC Travel, Livability, The Cape Cod Travel Guide, Edible Cape Cod,Edible Denver, Edible Lower Alabama, Alabama Journey, The Denver Post, and DRAFT magazine. She is the proud mother of two tiny globetrotters.