Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Sazerac

Alamo Drafthouse Beverage Director Bill Norris discusses the classic New Orleans cocktail.

There is no way to fit more molecules of alcohol into a cocktail than a Sazerac.

-Eben Klemm.

“Pssst. Come here. Try this. The first taste is free.” The shadowy figure on the other side of the bar slides a chilled old fashioned glass, lightly coated with condensation and about one third full of a deep, reddish liquid on to the coaster in front of you. There is no adornment, no ice. It looks plain. “What is it?” you ask.

“Just try it.” Through the dim light of the bar room, you see a bottle of rye, an unfamiliar bottle of bitters and what appears to be absinthe on the back bar. “I don’t like whiskey,” you think, but the first taste is free and as you raise the glass to your lips, you are immediately greeted by a burst of pure, clean summer, an olfactory hit of lemon dancing on top of the glass before your first sip unveils whiskey, yes, but bass notes of anise, the slimmest suggestion of sweetness, and something else. Something you can’t quite put your finger on. Something magical. You’ll be having another sip. And another. Before you know it, you’ve finished the first drink and ordered a second, marveling at how it changes in the glass, chasing that magic to the bottom, trying to suss out, What is that flavor?

The Sazerac Cocktail is a gateway drug, the drink that has sent many a cocktail geek down the road to liver damage and bulging liquor cabinets. It is the clearest, best example of how the whole of a seemingly simple drink can be significantly greater than the sum of its parts, where the bartender works alchemy using only a few simple tools and ingredients, and you might just continue to chase that mystery for the rest of your drinking life.

Something That is Demonstrably Not True About Sazeracs

For years, despite its being thoroughly debunked by any and all who have looked into the issue, it has been claimed that the Sazerac is the first cocktail. It is not. That honor, of course, goes to the Old Fashioned, or as it would’ve been called when it originated, a plain whiskey cocktail, which predates the Sazerac by a good five decades or so. But shortly after the whiskey cocktail came on to the scene, bartenders (being bartenders) started making “Improved” versions, which frequently called for a bit of Maraschino, and important for our purposes, a bit of absinthe.

In short, cocktails were first defined in 1806, and the Sazerac makes its first appearance around 1850. The first cocktail it is most definitely not.

What the Sazerac most definitely is, at its core, is a whiskey (or brandy) cocktail that uses a locally produced (if you’re from New Orleans) bitters, “improved” with absinthe (or absinthe substitute), and dressed up with a bit of New Orleans showmanship.

This “first cocktail” myth is stubborn and is largely the result of some questionable marketing done by the Sazerac Company in the early twentieth century when they were selling pre-mixed bottled Sazerac Cocktails, and some questionable work done by amateur linguists based upon verifiable history.

From Whence It Came

Four men loom large in the history of the Sazerac: Sewell T. Taylor, Aaron Bird, Antoine Amedie Peychaud and Thomas Handy (whose name might be familiar to folks who like good whiskey). Taylor, a barman who operated The Merchants Exchange Coffee House on Royal Street in New Orleans (he was serving far more liquor than coffee), sold his business to Bird round about 1850 to go into the liquor business. One of the brands that Taylor imported was a Cognac called Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils. Bird, having renamed the Coffee House as the Sazerac Bar, began offering a house Sazerac Cocktail, made with bitters produced by Peychaud, a creole druggist with a store a few blocks away on Royal, and the Cognac brought in by Taylor. Twenty years later, Handy took over the bar, and before his death in 1889, he divulged the house recipe to someone and it first appears in print in William T. "Cocktail Bill" Boothby's 1908 book, The World's Drinks and How to Mix Them, but it was listed there as whiskey drink, not a Cognac drink.

What’s unclear is who made the first Sazerac. Was the recipe created by Peychaud and given to Taylor? Did they collaborate? Was Taylor just an early locavore, using bitters from down the street instead of the imported versions for his house drink?

We ask, because it is also claimed that Peychaud dispensed a brandy toddy from his store as “medicine,” using his own bitters, and served the drink in the large end of a coquetier or egg cup, with the Anglicized pronunciation of “coquetier” bastardized to “cocktail” over time. Of course, we know that last bit is probably untrue, linguistically, but we do know that some kind of special synergy was happening along a few blocks of Royal Street in the mid-1800s.

Cognac, Whiskey?

There is no doubt that Sazeracs were first made with Cognac and a specific brand at that. So why then is the Sazerac widely known as a whiskey drink today? In short, a louse. Or, more precisely, an aphid.

At about the same time that Taylor was turning his bar over to Bird, a group of British botanists brought some American grape vines back to England for study. Phylloxera, a sap sucking aphid native to North America with a larval stage that destroys grape vine roots, hitched a ride across the ocean and almost immediately decimated the British vineyards before hopping across the channel and ripping through the continent. American grape varieties had developed natural resistance to the bug, but European vineyards were helpless. By 1863, the bug had started to appear in France, with devastating consequence over the next decades. In 1875, France produced 84.5 million hectoliters of wine. By 1889, that number was down to 23.4 million hectoliters. One of the regions hit hardest by the Phylloxera epidemic was Cognac, and with grape production down, cognac became scarce. Scarcity breeds expense, and any number of drinks previously made with cognac became whiskey based, including the Sazerac.

So which to use? All things being equal, a good quality rye and a nice cognac will both make a pleasing Sazerac. The cognac based drink will be lighter, perhaps more elegant and historically correct. The rye will be more muscular, more brooding and interesting. Or you can do as Dale DeGroff likes to do, and use both.  Whatever you do, choose a good quality base spirit. It drives the drink and it is critical. For Rye, the Sazerac 6 Year Old is always a good choice, as is the Rittenhouse Bonded 100 proof. Most New Orleans bars use Old Overholt, and it will do, but is not ideal. Do not use Bourbon. For Cognac, seek out the Pierre Ferrand 1840, a newish release which is designed to replicate the flavor of young, pre-Phylloxera cognacs and should be similar to what would’ve been used back in the day.

As an interesting aside, European grape vines were saved by grafting the root stock from native Texas grapes to European grape varieties. At one point, at least, one can assume Texans enjoyed a better reputation in France.

The Licorice Flavored Stuff

When making a Sazerac, the procedure calls for the serving glass to be rinsed with absinthe before pouring in the rest of the cocktail. Unlike other “improved” cocktails which have their modifying spirits in the actual mixing glass, the rinsing of the glass seasons the whole drink, but without diluting the flavor of the absinthe. When done properly, it leaves a lingering, barely perceptible sense of anise - there, but fleeting, and integral to the drink.

With absinthe banned in the US from 1912 until 2007, Sazerac seekers had to make do with one of the myriad pastis or absinthe substitutes on the market. The standard in New Orleans has been, for years, Herbsaint, a product launched upon the repeal of prohibition in 1934. Originally bottled at 100 proof, the current Herbsaint is produced at 90 proof, but as of a few years ago, the 100 proof was re-released as Herbsaint Original.

Unlike Pernod or Ricard, Herbsaint was never meant to be a Pastis, but rather was always intended as an absinthe substitute, and it works well in Sazeracs indeed, with the 100 proof version better than the 90 proof. A good quality absinthe (avoid anything produced in Eastern Europe) works better, as absinthe is generally less sweet and more complex that the 90 proof version of Herbsaint in particular. That said, Herbsaint in either version is significantly cheaper than good absinthe, and is perfectly acceptable.

The Bitters

Dashable bitters in cocktails are used in the same way that chefs use spices to bridge and punch up flavors. They are usually made by infusing various herbs, roots and barks into a high proof base spirit and, like salt and pepper when cooking, should be used with a judicious hand, lest they overwhelm the finished product. The Peychaud’s Bitters used in the Sazerac are lightly floral, with Christmas spice notes and a hint of anise. Other bitters simply don’t work in this drink, as those anise notes link hands with the absinthe rinse and those spice notes grab a hold of the whiskey, bringing the two together in harmony. That mystery flavor lurking in your Sazerac? Could it be from the floral notes in the bitters? Perhaps. Let’s mix up a Sazerac or four and find out.

A Recipe

A Classic Sazerac
2 oz. Sazerac 6 Year Old Rye or Rittenhouse Bonded Rye
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
1 Sugar Cube (or ½ oz. rich simple syrup or gum syrup)
¼ oz. Absinthe or Herbsaint Original

Take two old fashioned glasses and fill one with crushed ice or ice and water. Place the sugar cube in the other glass and moisten with the dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters and a teaspoon or two of water. Using a muddler, break up the sugar cube and stir the sugar and bitters mix until the sugar is dissolved. Add cracked ice and the rye and stir for a good twenty seconds until the drink is very cool.

Dump the ice from the first old fashioned glass and pour in the absinthe. Swirl the absinthe around the glass to coat the inside and discard the excess. If you’re feeling fancy, toss the glass into the air with some English on it to coat the glass.

Strain the rye mixture off the mixing ice into the seasoned glass. Cut a wide swath of peel from a lemon and flame the peel over the glass and discard.


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