LaFitte’s Blacksmith Shop
By Lars Theriot
They say god looks after drunks and fools… well then I guess it must be divine providence that made vermouth the last of Dave’s bottles because that means Jean LaFitte’s Blacksmith Shop has to be the last of my New Orleans bar posts because the bar’s signature drink, the Obituary Cocktail, contains the mighty V.
So here we are… it’s late and you’re strolling trough a dark, quiet lakeside back alley of the French Quarter… closer to the corner of Esplanade and Rampart than Jackson Square… where much of what you see flutters and flickers in the shifting light of Bourbon Street’s gas lamps. This far away from the sturm and drang of the hardcore party scenes along Bourbon, you can actually hear yourself think, and what you’re thinking is… “I’d like to have a drink in a bar that makes me feel like I might have stumbled into a wormhole back to 1800.”
I’ve spent so much time in the Blacksmith Shop, I feel like Louisiana squatter’s laws might entitle me to a share of the profits. The bar is meant to take you back a couple hundred years… to allow you to sip a tipple as you might have done alongside pirates and young entrepreneurial colonists alike hundreds of years ago. Indeed as I sit here 2,000 miles away seeing the bar in my mind, I can only think of three electric lights in the entire building. The first is the light coming from the lone television above the bar… after all, no self-respecting bar in New Orleans would ever deny its patrons the luxury of live Saints games. The second is the light above the piano player’s keyboard… not many pianists can play blind, even in New Orleans. And the third is the result of a quirk of Louisiana law which requires a lighted EXIT sign even though three of the Blacksmith Shop’s walls open out onto the street. If there’s ever a fire in LaFitte’s and you can’t figure out a way to (even accidentally) stumble out of this open-air bar, it’s quite possible you don’t deserve to survive.
The Blacksmith Shop stands in the second oldest building in New Orleans and dates back to 1772. In her amazing book “Obituary Cocktail”, Kerri McCaffety describes the genesis of the building thusly…
“The Lafittes came to New Orleans around 1800 via the West Indies and operated an ironworks at the corner of Bourbon and St Phillip Streets as a cover for their smuggling operations… here, under the Lafitte coat of arms (A skeleton wearing a pirate’s hat and holding a sword), Jean LaFitte arranged the business dealings of his band of a thousand buccaneers, who lived outside the city in the swamp coast of Barataria.”
The law might have eventually caught up with LaFitte and his pirates, but war would intervene. During the War of 1812, LaFitte definitively chose sides. He smuggled word of an attempted bribe from advancing British troops to Andrew Jackson, and backed-up his actions with an offer of arms, ammunition, troops, and most importantly… the kind of information only Pirates can come by. Jackson’s troops won the Battle of New Orleans in a rout and the British obsession with a nascent Democracy was smashed once and for all.
Although LaFitte’s band of privateers were rumored to prefer an agave-based drink called Pulque (which we now know as Tequila) the bar which bears his name is known for an invention called The Obituary Cocktail… created somewhere around the turn of the Century when a special version of the classic Martini, this one containing Absinthe, was created in Jean LeFitte’s old haunt.
There are a lot of things that might not have survived the 19th Century without the help of the Pirate LaFitte… the very idea of America perhaps being one of them. What we know for sure, is that without Messieurs LaFitte, we would almost certainly have been deprived of one of America’s great bar experiences. And for that, kind sir, we must say thank you.