Unraveling the Roffignac Cocktail (Pt. 1)

In which I'm stymied by the mysterious Red Hembarig

By Robert F. Moss

Maylie's Restaurant, New Orleans
Maylie's Restaurant, New Orleans
I am currently neck deep in research on the classic cocktails of New Orleans, and along the way stumbled upon a bit of a mystery. The Sazerac, the Ramos gin fizz, even the absisnthe frappe: these I was familiar with. But not too long ago, while working through old newspaper archives from around the turn of the 20th century, I came across a cocktail that I had never heard of before. It was highlighted as one of the signature drinks of New Orleans, and it had a splendidly rich, dramatic-sounding name: the Roffignac Cocktail.

That name came from a man known in New Orleans as Joseph Roffignac but who bore the even more grandiloquent full name of Count Louis Phillipe Joseph de Roffignac. Roffignac fled France during the Revolution and established himself as a leading merchant in New Orleans.

He served as mayor of the city from 1820 to 1828, inaugurating under his watch the first paving and lighting of streets, and was by all accounts a bon vivant and all-around great guy.

While it isn't likely that Roffignac himself ever tasted the drink named in his honor (he died in 1846, long before I can find any trace of the cocktail in print), it had become one of the city's signature drinks by the 1890s.

Mannessier's Confectionary—a Royal Street shop known for its coffee, ice cream, and pastries—was also famous for its Roffignac cocktails. In its 1899 guide for carnival visitors, the New Orleans weekly Harlequinincluded included Mannessier's along with the Sazerac, the Imperial Cabinet, and the Old Absinthe house as drinking spots not to be missed, noting that "the Mannessier has a great reputation for its roffignacs."

Mannessier's closed in 1914, but the Roffignac lived on at Maylie’s Restaurant on Poydras Street. Originally named Maylie and Esparbe, the restaurant dated back to 1876 and catered initially to the butchers of the Poydras market. By the turn of the 20th century it was considered second only to Antoine's among the city's restaurants. Its classic dishes included its soups, eggs Remoulade, panned veal, and pan-fried trout, and the Roffignac was the house cocktail.

So what kind of cocktail was it?

Famous Drinks and How to Mix 'Em
Famous Drinks and How to Mix 'Em

Googling up some basic information on the Roffignac was easy, since it has appeared on several cocktail enthusiast blogs recently. All of the recipes seem to trace back to a single source: Stanley Clisby Arthur, whose slim 1937 volume Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em is an indispensable guide to historic New Orleans libations. Here is Arthur's recipe for the Roffignac, which is essentially a whiskey soda with raspberry syrup:
1 jigger whiskey
1 pony sirup
seltzer or soda water
raspberry sirup

Arthur's instructions have you mix the whiskey, "sirup," and soda water in a highball glass and add ice. He notes that you could replace the whiskey with cognac, which was used in the original version of the drink, and instead of raspberry syrup use something called "red Hembarig," which he describes as "a popular syrup when old New Orleans was young."

Down in the Historical Cocktail Testing Facility (a.k.a. my kitchen), I easily mixed up a whiskey-and-raspberry syrup version of the Roffignac, since, thanks to a bag of raspberries in my freezer, I had all the necessary ingredients on hand.

Quick and Simple Raspberry Syrup
This would be better with fresh raspberries, but if they're out of season or you are in a historically-driven cocktail research rush, you can limp by with frozen.

2 cups raspberries
1-1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water

Combine raspberries, sugar, and water in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce heat and simmer five minutes or so, then remove from heat and allow to cool. Pour through a strainer, squeezing all the juice from the berries, and bottle. Refrigerate and use as needed.

Raspberry syrup and a bottle of Old Overholt rye in hand, I proceeded by Arthur's instructions to construct my first Roffignac. The resulting cocktail had a brilliant red color and was pretty tasty but, I would have to admit, nothing to make a big fuss about--just a raspberry-tinged whiskey soda.

The next step, of course, was to try to recreate the original version hinted at in Arthur's recipe. The Cognac made perfect sense: it was the liquor of choice in New Orleans cocktails up until the 1870s, when, in part because of the phylloxera outbreak in France, Cognac and other real French brandies became rare and expensive and the city's bartenders began substituting whiskey. The original Sazerac, in fact, was made not with rye whiskey but with Cognac, and its name comes from Sazerac de Forge et Fils,a much-esteemed brand of Cognac in the mid-19th century.

But what about that other ingredient, Red Hembarig? My efforts to track it down hit a brick wall very quickly.The term seems to appear only in the work of Stanley Clisby Arthur, and all the references I could find on the Interwebs (like cocktail blogs) pointed ultimately back to Arthur's book as their source. Searches through digital book, newspaper, and magazine archives came up dry. It seems a word invented by Arthur himsel.

For a few days I was stuck fast. What on earth was Red Hembarig?

And then came a lucky break . . . which I'll tell all about in Part 2.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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