While for most people the bite of a Sazerac or the brunch-time fluff of a Ramos Gin Fizz epitomize drinking in the Crescent City, my favorite New Orleans-specific drinking tradition is the “set up.”
The set up—called as much because a bartender simply “sets it up” for you—has zero pomp and minimal fuss, a low-key hybrid of sneaky, BYOB-drinking and bottom shelf bottle service. The set up is for people who take both drinking and socializing very seriously, and aren’t afraid to take such important matters into their own hands.
Ordering a set up involves choosing two things: your favorite liquor (which arrives in a half-pint bottle) and a mixer, like a can of Diet Coke or fruit juice. The trifecta is then rounded out with a big plastic bowl filled with ice and cups. Drinkers play bartender, mixing ice, liquor and mixer in their preferred ratio, right from their barstool, until the bottle is dry.
And there’s always a wild card in play: Sometimes, tongs are provided for plopping ice cubes into drinks. Other times, a side of a pickled pig’s ear is offered for mid-set up snacking. If you’re lucky, someone will have a sample sized bottle of a supremely quirky liquor, like Conjure Cognac (a label co-owned by the rapper Ludacris), for you to try.
The majority of bars participating in this decades-old drinking arrangement are located in either New Orleans’ Seventh Ward or Central City, where gentrification has yet to firmly grab a foothold. These spaces are often also hubs of neighborhood social life and major cultural events, from the Treme Brass Band’s barbecue-fueled weekly gig at the Candlelight Lounge, to second line parades dancing their way to and from Bullet’s Sports Bar. Set-ups encourage drinkers to stay, sip, and celebrate for a while. The set up says, “You don’t have to worry about where your next drink is coming from—just make it yourself.”
“When people drink set ups, they keep the bottle on its side—horizontal—a lot of the time,” said Erica Tome, bartender at Verret’s Lounge in Central City. “Sometimes I try to set it back up for them, but they knock it back down. I guess [they want] to see how much they have left.”
The average set up costs roughly $15, with additional charges for more mixers. The basic mixed drink classics—whiskey and ginger ale, vodka and cranberry juice—anchor the set up cannon, but if you’re feeling courageous you can turn the situation into an opportunity for a little creativity. Verret Lounge’s most popular combination brings together the unlikely bedfellows Crown Royal and Sprite, and my secret set-up pairing is scotch and pineapple juice. It tastes like going on a tropical vacation with the Rat Pack.
Set ups are also curiously popular at senior citizen center socials, mixers at VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Halls, and any event that attracts a crowd that can firmly remember the Reagan era. It’s only a matter of time, though, before this economically priced (and highly boozy) arrangement becomes more popular with a younger set in search of cheap drinks.
“You know why more bars don’t do set ups?” Benny Simmons, owner of the set up stalwart Sandpiper Lounge explained. “It’s because you don’t make much money on it. One person can sip on one set up all night long.”
While some may argue that New Orleans’ TV-famous bars (Candlelight and Bullet’s were both featured on HBO’s Treme) are the best for set-up virgins, my vote goes to The Sandpiper Lounge. Located smack dab in the heart of Central City, the bar’s building is painted a shade of lavender bold enough to make a crocus blush, and technically doesn’t allow anyone under the age of 35. (This seems to be more of a gentle suggestion than a bouncer-enforced rule.) For as dark and sultry as it is on the inside, its exterior is marked by a buzzy, old school neon sign that spans the vertical length of the building with an electric martini glass tippling over into the night. The space oozes effortless cool, with patrons more than eager to loop you into their gossip or help parse through your own. Each time I enter, I imagine that the 1970s hit “Be Thankful For What You Got” by William DeVaughn is soundtracking my arrival. The Sandpiper has the magical ability to make even the most Anne of Green Gables-looking among us (read: me) feel at least momentarily hip.
Throughout the Sandpiper, rough-hewn mosaic tiles line the bar, shaped into craggy butterflies and flourished swirls. In the bar’s far left corner, a (slightly crooked) black-and-white design spells out the name “Lisa” in hunks of tile. Curious about it one afternoon, I bellowed out to Benny.
The entire bar screeched to a halt, their eyes widening. The bartender stopped singing Jill Scott with a gulp, pressed her finger to her lip and hurried over to hush me up.
“Oh girl, Lisa is Benny’s ex-fiancée,” she whispered, leaning in close. “They were together forever then they broke it off. He just didn’t feel like changing it, I guess.”
Change doesn’t come easily for the people who love set ups and the bars that continue to sling them, holding on to a practice that makes little fiscal sense because it’s so deeply important to the community. The set up is rooted in both New Orleans’ social fiber and drinking culture, serving as a way to make long afternoon talks extend into the sunset hours—as long as there’s something left in the bottle.
“We tried to get people to maybe do a set up with some fresh herbs or something where they muddle their own, but that’s just not how folks roll,” said Tome.
Perfect in its simplicity, the set up doesn’t need any gussying up. I’ll continue to happily laze away a Sunday afternoon with a set-up—my trifecta of mixer, liquor and ice spread out on the bar—cutting up, playing darts and holding on to a New Orleans tradition just a little bit longer.