Ewan McDonald sips the flavours of the Old South in Texas and New Orleans.

If I told you who told me about this place, someone would have to kill me.

You walk down a street full of shopfront taverns until you get to No. 313, an anonymous door with a panel of buttons, the sort you buzz to be let into the apartments upstairs.

If the red lightbulb is shining above the door you press a certain button and tell the woman who answers you've come to see Harry. She will go to see if he's home. Of course, you have to know that Harry Craddock is the guy whose button you want to push.

Welcome to Midnight Cowboy in Austin, Texas. Until 2008 it was the Midnight Cowboy Oriental massage parlour, until someone rubbed someone up the wrong way, and Austin's best-known nudgenudge wink-wink bordello was busted.


A couple of local hospitality entrepreneurs commandeered the long, narrow building, with its gorgeous deco pressedsteel ceiling and, ah, suitably sized private booths, in 2012. They kept the name and changed the services to high-end cocktail mixing. With the theme of a little-known nudge-nudge wink-wink Prohibition-era speakeasy.

Once inside, customers are allocated two hours at one of the booths - it's okay, the leather seats have been re-upholstered since their previous occupation - and given a menu of cocktails. Highly priced by local standards, around $US12 ($NZ18.50). They don't serve food.

For most of the drinks a mixologist wheels his mobile bar to the table and lectures on the provenance and tasting notes for each of the eight or more ingredients and flavours. It can sound like "chemistry lecture meets brand-liquor snob" but I guess that's a little rich coming from someone who's picky about their wines and cheeses.

Late on a Texas evening exotic, quixotic cocktails with names like Courting Two Sisters, Kalamazoo Julep and Carmine Swizzle, are sipped, in the half-light, to Etta James crying I'd Rather Go Blind. The Roaring 20s could never have been this much fun.

Why Harry Craddock? Possibly the world's most influential cocktail shaker, the Brit wrote the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) and worked in New York until Prohibition, then at London's Savoy and Dorchester hotels.

Tim turned his car into a suburban strip mall. He's an old mate: we worked together in Auckland some years back, now he lives in Houston with his Louisiana-born wife and their Texas-born son, he works for an IT firm.

"We often come here for a wine and a meal," he said, before bursting into laughter as my glasses fogged up in 150% humidity and I stumbled into Max's Wine Bar in what the Americans call 100 degrees and we call 38C.

The bar was suitably dark and the patrons suitably be-jeaned and, well, comfortably proportioned. So is the food, Tim said: "We order one meal and share it, and then I take the rest to work for lunch next day."

A bartender works his magic at Midnight Cowboy in Austin, Texas. Photo / Supplied
A bartender works his magic at Midnight Cowboy in Austin, Texas. Photo / Supplied

Wonder of wonders for a Texas bar, they also served decent California reds and half-decent French ones. So we perched on two high stools at a table, asked the obliging, suitably bearded and black T-shirted and tubby publican for a couple of his best, my good man, and started to catch up on the past eight years.

There was a pause in the conversation and I caught the music on the jukebox. It didn't seem, well, just plain right to be sipping red wine in a bar in Texas when Willie Nelson was singing. I flagged down the bar keep and asked him about the local beers.

"Y'all wants t'try them craft beers, yer won't find 'em around here," he said. "Y'all needs to go up Austin way fer that." As Creedence Clearwater stomped into Who'll Stop the Rain? in the middle of a Houston heatwave, Tim and I continued our catch-up over several Lone Star beers. Till it was time to head for my hotel downtown. I pointed out that the only thing missing from the classic scene seemed to be a Confederate flag. "I wouldn't joke about that these days," he said, a trifle nervously, and pointed to the sign on the door banning the carrying of concealed weapons in the bar.

The businessman at the next banquette made a phone call. Within moments he was joined by an attractive younger woman who'd almost remembered to wear her little black cocktail dress.

Four of us looked at the drinks menu but for me there was no choice: this was the Sazerac Bar in the ornately deco Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, and the only option was a Sazerac.

Mojito mavens and Cosmopolitan queens may be unaware, but their favourite tipples allegedly owe their origin to this overly sweet concoction of bourbon (originally brandy), absinthe and bitters.

In 1838, the legend goes, local apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud mixed "brandy toddies" for his friends in a double-ended egg cup or coquetier (pronounced "ko-k-tay"). Voila! If you choose to believe the legend, the word and the style "cocktail" were born. In later years American rye whiskey replaced brandy and the local Herbsaint pastis replaced absinthe. By 1933 the cocktail was bottled and marketed by the Sazerac Company.

The bar's history is even more colourful than its bright orange namesake. It opened in a rough alley in 1853 and stayed in the same location for about 100 years before some enterprising businessman bought Peychaud's recipe and moved the bar to the Roosevelt.  A couple of hotel name changes, a move within the hotel and Hurricane Katrina later, the Sazerac bar, its massive walnut bar, tiled floors, giant mirrors and chandeliers are beside the re-christened Roosevelt's jaw-dropping lobby.

The walls are covered in 1930s' artist Paul Ninas' murals of Louisiana life from sharecroppers in the cottonfields to the era's celebrities, possibly Wallis Simpson and certainly the bar's most famous patron.

That would be former Louisiana Governor and US Senator Huey P. Long. The "Kingfish" (if you know your Randy Newman, the very same) has been described as "one part circus ringleader, one part frat boy and one part Don Corleone", he wheeled, dealed and held court in the bar that became known as "Huey's office." Time for our second drink: Huey's favourite Gin Fizz.

The man and woman left, having successfully negotiated her attentions, if not her affections.


Getting there: Air New Zealand begins direct flights to Houston in December.

For more information: Visit DiscoverAmerica.com
The writer travelled to Texas and New Orleans with Air New Zealand.