The Sazerac Cocktail

This is widely acknowledged to be the quintessential New Orleans cocktail (even though some believe that honor arguably belongs to the Ramos Gin Fizz), and as of 2008 it is the Official Cocktail of the City of New Orleans (thank you, state legislature … keep throwing those chicken bones at each other too).

There are also still those who say this is the first cocktail ever, period. Alas, this is sadly untrue.

It is said that this drink was invented by Antoine Amadie Peychaud, a Creole apothecary who moved to New Orleans from the West Indies and set up shop in the French Quarter in the early part of the 19th Century. He dispensed a proprietary mix of aromatic bitters from an old family recipe, to relieve the ails of his clients (Peychaud’s Bitters are still made in New Orleans and sold today, and are an essential component of any truly complete bar), and around the 1830s he became famous for a toddy he made for his friends. It consisted of French brandy mixed with his secret blend of bitters, a splash of water and a bit of sugar. According to legend he served his drink in the large end of an egg cup that was called a coquetier in French, and some say that the Americanized pronunciation of this as “cocktail” gave this type of drink its name.

That’s all it is, too — legend, and a good yarn that locals like to spin. Nowadays we know for a fact that the word “cocktail” predated this by decades, first appearing in print in 1803 and first defined in print in 1806 as “a mixture of spirits of any kind, water, sugar and bitters, vulgarly called a bittered sling.” Research has also shown that brandy-based cocktails were being served in New Orleans before M. Peychaud began dispensing his concoction, and were most probably spiked with Stoughton’s Bitters, a medicinal stomach bitters which didn’t survivethe 19th Century. This is, of course, not to say that M. Peychaud’s cocktail wasn’t popular locally — it was, and became much more so as its fame spread.

Before long, the demand for this drink led to its being served in bars throughout the city (euphemistically called “coffee houses” in those days). One of these, a large bar on Exchange Alley owned by a gentleman named Sewell Taylor, was named the Merchants Exchange Coffeehouse. Not long after, Mr. Taylor started a new business as a liquor importer, with one of his most popular products being a particular brand of Cognac called Sazerac-du-Forge et fils for which Mr. Taylor was the sole importer. Someone else took over the bar, changed its name to the Sazerac Coffee House, and history was made. Apparently the bar was big enough to accommodate 12 bartenders, all mixing “Sazeracs” for their patrons, and people began to refer to the drink with the name of the coffeehouse where it was most popular.

Around 1870, a gentleman by the name of Thomas Handy took over as proprietor of the Sazerac House, and the primary ingredient was changed from cognac to rye whiskey due to popular American tastes. It was surmised that this switch also had something to do with the difficulty of obtaining Cognac at the time — the phyloxxera epidemic in Europe had devastated France’s wine grape crops, which would take years to recover. Howeve, Phil Greene reports seeing ads for Sazerac-du-Forge Cognac well into the late 1880s, long after the epidemic was over, so that idea can be discounted.

Somewhere along the line a dash of absinthe was added, usually used to coat the glass with the excess discarded. Eventually absinthe was banned and was replaced by the locally-produced pastis called Herbsaint, which is ideal in a Sazerac and with which you’ll find them made in New Orleans most often, although absinthe is making a strong comeback.

The bar moved to the Roosevelt Hotel in 1949, where the Sazerac Bar and Restaurant still stands. The Roosevelt became the Fairmont, and as of summer 2009 was renovated and reopened as the Roosevelt once again, featuring a spectacularly redone Sazerac Bar that hearkens back to the bar’s glory days. Since those days the hotel paid an annual fee to the Sazerac Company for the use of the name. The company, which produces, imports and distributes many different liquors, was founded in 1870 by the gentleman who bought the Sazerac Coffeehouse and the Peychaud family’s secret recipe for the bitters.

This is an absolutely exquisite cocktail. As you sip it, you come across layer after layer of flavor — the warmth and glowing burn of the rye, effused with the flavors of spice and honey, the bite of the bitters balanced with the sweetness of the sugar, with the subtle yet complex flavor of the anise underneath and the perfume of the lemon oil from the twist feel like a symphony inside your mouth. This is also a drink that warms up well, revealing even more flavors. Sip it very slowly. Savor it. Take your time with it.

Now that absinthe is legal in the United States again, use that if at all possible for an extra bit of historical authenticity. Lucid and Kübler are readily available now, as is St. George from San Francisco, Marteau and Pacifique from the Pacific Northwest, Leopold Bros. from Colorado and all of Ted Breaux’s absinthes from Jade Liqueurs to name but a few. However, if you do use absinthe instead of Herbsaint in your Sazerac, avoid brands from the Czech Republic, as they taste nothing like the type of absinthe that was historically drunk in New Orleans and used in early Sazeracs). Also avoid Le Tourment Vert, a “nouveau” post-ban liqueur that calls itself an absinthe but bears no resemblance to historical absinthes (and is pretty nasty besides).

The drink has been enjoyed this way for over 130 years, and over 150 if you include the original version made with Cognac.

There are recipes that call for Angostura bitters as well as Peychaud’s bitters for this cocktail. For the longest time I was against this, primarly due to watching too many bartenders grab both bottles of bitters and shake equal amounts into the drink, which is just wrong. I decided to be a traditionalst, saying that it wasn’t invented that way — M. Peychaud didn’t make it that way.

However, Thomas Handy’s bartenders at the Sazerac Coffeehouse are the ones who added the absinthe, now an integral component of the drink, and they’re the ones who started using a bit of Angostura as well. I love the flavor of Peychaud’s bitters — the Sazerac is a showcase for that unique flavor, and always should be. However, Jeff Morgenthaler recently pointed out that a single drop of Angostura will leave you “surprised [at] how much it opens up the flavors.” Make it just a drop, and make it optional if you want to be a staunch purist … but 130 years is still long enough for something to be a tradition! As Jeff advises, “While it may enrage some purists, you can always counter with, ‘If it was good enough for Thomas Handy, it’s good enough for me.'”

I go both ways on this. I still love an all-Peychaud’s Sazerac, but try a little drop of Angostura and see what you think. If it’s not to your taste, by all means leave it out. But for God’s sake, don’t make the mistake that, sadly, so many New Orleans bartenders make — grabbing each bottle by the neck and putting four or five dashes of each. This is a Sazerac, not a Seelbach, dammit!

Although I love a Sazerac made with rye whiskey, you can also make a truly wonderful drink by substituting a fine Cognac for the rye, making the drink as it first was in the old days, or with a mixture of the two, maybe 1-1/2 ounces rye to 1/2 ounce Cognac. If you have real absinthe, use that to coat the glass, too.

And speaking of rye … get rye whiskey for this drink. Do not use Bourbon. Don’t get me wrong, I love Bourbon. It’s simply wrong for this drink — too much sweetness, not enough spice. It has never been made this way traditionally, and until recently would never be made this way in New Orleans, and that’s enough. I believe that if you’ve got something that’s wonderful, that’s real, and right, and true … you leave it alone.

As Stanley Clisby Arthur, author of Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, in print since 1937, said in his classic tome, “While Bourbon may do for a julep it just won’t do for a real Sazerac. This comes directly from a bartender who used to mix Sazeracs for Tom Handy, so it bears some authority.” Try them both ways yourself, and you’ll immediately realize that the sweetness of Bourbon is completely wrong for this drink, and only the spiciness of rye (or Cognac, or a mix of both) will do.

For years the typical rye whiskey used for Sazeracs in New Orleans was Old Overholt, a 4-year-old rye that’s got a crisp, complex flavor … spicy with a touch of honey. It’s an 86-proof whiskey, which is eminently sippable. These days more often you’ll see Sazerac Rye, the six-year-old known among bartenders as “baby Saz,” which has a great funky characteristic (and that’s a compliment).

However, if you like a drink with a bit more of a kick to it, Rittenhouse Bonded Straight Rye Whiskey at 100 proof makes a truly outstanding drink that’ll give you a boot in the butt as well. Back in the pre-Katrina days the Sazerac Bar at the former Fairmont used Wild Turkey 101 Rye.

In an ideal world, my whiskey of choice for this drink is the magnificent Sazerac 18-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, one of America’s great whiskeys produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery, owned by the Sazerac Company. If you can find it, grab it — it’s a limited edition release, and as supplies dwindle the price is shooting up. (As of January 2004 it had already gone up from $34.95 a bottle to $42.95 at Martin Wine Cellar, and the extremely limited, once-a-year releases are now seen at $80-100 a bottle). There’s some new Sazerac 18-Year Rye in the works apparently, but it’ll take a while to make. Fortunately, there’s also the 6-Year-Old Sazerac Rye, which is quite delicious, much more readily available and very reasonably priced at about $22-24 per bottle.

Other ryes I favor for Sazeracs Thomas Handy Sazerac Rye (although at 126 proof it’s a bit strong; use it half-and-half with baby Saz) and Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 13-Year-Old Rye at 95.6 proof. That one makes a spectacular drink as well.

After writing in Looka! about my 2000 trip home for Jazzfest and my rediscovery of the Sazerac as being my favorite cocktail of all time, a gentleman wrote in to ask why I didn’t talk about having any Hurricanes during my visit home.

I replied, “Hurricanes are for tourists. Sazeracs are for natives.” That said, we want every visitor to the city (and everybody else, around the world, at their local bar or at home) to join us. Here’s how you make one.

Sazerac Cocktail

1/2 teaspoon absinthe, or Herbsaint (a New Orleans brand of anise liqueur)
1 teaspoon of simple syrup (or 1 sugar cube or 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar)
4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 ounces rye whiskey.
Strip of lemon peel

The traditional method: Pack a 3-1/2 ounce Old Fashioned (rocks) glass with ice. In another Old Fashioned glass, moisten the sugar cube with just enough water to saturate it, then crush. Blend with the whiskey and bitters. Add a few cubes of ice and stir to chill. Discard the ice from the first glass and pour in the Herbsaint. Coat the inside of the entire glass, pouring out the excess. Strain the whiskey into the Herbsaint coated glass. Twist the lemon peel over the glass so that the lemon oil cascades into the drink, then rub the peel over the rim of the glass; do not put the twist in the drink. Or, as Stanley Clisby Arthur says, “Do not commit the sacrilege of dropping the peel into the drink.”

My preferred method: Always use a nice big rocks or Old-Fashioned glass for this drink. Wes and I have managed to slowly and painstakingly acquire a set of eight heavy-bottomed Old Fashioned glasses from the old Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, emblazoned with the hotel’s name and the word “SAZERAC” in large letters. We’ve become very fond of these glasses, as you can imagine!

I also recommend the use of a prepared rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water) for this and most other cocktails involving sugar that don’t involve muddling. I don’t like adding granulated or lump sugar to a drink unless I’m muddling, because it never quite dissolves completely. In simple syrup the sugar is already dissolved, so there’s no chance of serving a gritty drink to your guests. As Herbsaint may be difficult to find in your area, you may substitute another pastis for the Herbsaint; however, I find that the flavor of Herbsaint is far superior to that of Pernod (the usual Herbsaint substitute), so it’s worth your while to seek it out. Actually, it’s worth your while to get a bottle of good absinthe, as it’s easy enough nowadays.

Add the absinthe or Herbsaint to the glass, then swirl it around to coat the entire sides and bottom of the glass. Discard the excess, although if you enjoy a bit more of the flavor of the absinthe or Herbsaint you may wish to leave a small amount of it in the bottom. Remember that the flavor of the absinthe should be there, but in the background — it should not dominate. In a cocktail shaker (I use the glass portion of my Boston shaker), add the sugar syrup, whiskey and bitters. Add ice and tir gently for about 30 seconds (and for God’s sake don’t shake it — you don’t want a frothy Sazerac) or until the drink is cold, then strain into the Herbsaint-coated glass. Twist lemon peel over the drink, and try to watch carefully to make sure a cascade of tiny lemon oil droplets actually strike the surface of the drink; this is one of my favorite parts of the preparation ritual. Rub the twist over the rim of the glass, then add as garnish. (No, I’m not a slavish adherent to S. C. Arthur’s admonitions; I’ll do this drink in a very acceptably traditional manner, with my own tastes taken into account. Leave the peel out if you wish.)

Sit back, relax and enjoy one of the greatest cocktails in the world.

Let’s watch Chris McMillian make one.

To take a trip back in time with the original, really lovely version of the Sazerac, substitute a fine Cognac for the rye. Better yet, use a mixture of rye and Cognac, as is the preferred technique of Dale Degroff, LeNell Smothers and Jamie Boudreau among many other mixologists; proportions vary from equal parts to 1-1/2 Cognac and 1/2 rye, so play around and see what you like. Also try it with real absinthe if it’s available near you; it’s like hopping into the Wayback Machine! Just a reminder — while most bars in New Orleans still make Overholt Sazeracs, think outside the box. Sazerac 6 Year rye is wonderful, Rittenhouse is fantastic, and if you’re feeling extravagant the limited edition Sazerac 18-Year-Old Straight Kentucky Rye Whiskey might just make the best Sazerac in the world. It’s truly marvelous, if you can find it — and it’s hard to find..

3 Responses to “The Sazerac Cocktail”

  1. erik_flannestad said:

    Feb 04, 10 at 9:56 am

    While Americans’ taste for whiskey isn’t to be underestimated, I’ve always thought Handy’s switch to Rye in the Sazerac probably had more to do with cost than actual availability. He was, after all, an accountant, not a bartender!

  2. Mike S. said:

    Feb 14, 10 at 9:34 pm

    I love this drink. Love. It. Rye usually for me, but lately I’ve been venturing into brandy-based Sazeracs. Tonight might be one of the best I’ve had — made with Germain-Robin “Old Havana” (which just might be my very favorite brandy in the world). Sublime is the only word for it.

  3. Mardi Gras Party Ideas | GigMasters: the life of the party blog said:

    Mar 28, 11 at 2:35 pm

    […] recommend making a few authentic New Orleans cocktails. Check out these recipes for Hurricanes and Sazeracs – two of the city’s […]