It all started at Pegu Club in New York. My husband came home with the tale of a chance meeting with Ted Breaux, a chemist from Louisiana who was creating an artisanal liqueur from a rare tobacco called Perique, a tobacco that could only be grown in one small area of Louisiana. Being a great romantic at heart, I was immediately intrigued by something so remote and mysterious. I wanted a bottle.
Eventually we acquired this liqueur, which only increased my interest in the cultivation of this rare crop, its planting and harvesting methods passed down to the French from the Native Americans who were in Louisiana at the time. Finally, last summer, with tobacco season in full swing, I set off with my cousin and a friend to St. James Parish, to a small town nestled against the Mississippi River, just an hour away from New Orleans. There, near the end of a dead end road, lay an ancient story, a living history with only a toehold in the present.
We were greeted by Jimmy LeBlanc, a Cajun with a deeply tanned, permanently etched neck and an accent so thick that it required careful listening, who told us the story of this tobacco, his family's passion and livelihood for generations. They were down to harvesting just a few barrels of Perique a year, striving more to keep the tradition alive than to turning a profit.
It was hot and I was sweating in the intense humidity, but the scent of mystery hung low in the air. The barn, with its many tobacco leaves hanging, drying in various stages, smelled sweet and warm. The scent was pleasant, though heady, and we were warned that we might feel sick if we spent too much time in the barn. It happened to each of the workers throughout the season, as they bundled and stripped each tobacco leaf by hand, a labor-intensive process that led to a small amount of the finest, rarest tobacco in the world.
We all had our roles, my cousin asking the right questions, one man of the land to another, my friend capturing the beauty of the details with her camera, and myself, simply listening and observing for future distillation. A small moment in time, a glimpse of the past, a heartbeat in the middle of nowhere. I love this wild, tangled land I'm lucky enough to live in.
This year, the story came full circle and my husband created a cocktail using Perique and tobacco bitters, along with rum, velvet falernum (a clove liqueur), and a drop of chocolate bitters. It's an incredibly smooth, complex drink that's perfect for the gentleman (or cocktail snob) in your life. The ingredients aren't readily accessible, but I wanted to post this cocktail anyway (for the intrepid hunters and gatherers) and because when I drink this cocktail it takes me back to the end of a dead end road where tobacco leaves rustle in the occasional breeze and history lives on.
Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Stir to chill. Strain into a chilled coupe or old-fashioned glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
Note: My husband took creative license with the naming of this cocktail, since Tobacco Road actually refers to the tobacco producing area of North Carolina. I mention this for the know-it-alls who will write to tell me that he got it wrong.