Words by: Simon Difford
Traditionally based on cognac or rye whiskey, as David A. Embury says of the Sazerac in his seminal 1948 Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, “essentially it is merely an Old Fashioned made with Peychaud bitters instead of Angostura and flavoured with a dash of absinthe.” Created in New Orleans it is the city’s official cocktail and is one of America’s oldest cocktails.
The Sazerac was originally made with cognac but due to the phylloxera plague hitting cognac supplies in the 1870s (see history below) rye whiskey was substituted. As bourbon started to dominate American whiskey so many bartenders started making Sazeracs with bourbon rather than rye. However, there are many who fervently object to the use of bourbon, including Legendary New Orleans bartender, Stanley Clisby Arthur, who in his 1937 Famous New Orleans Drinks & how to mix'em wrote "for while Bourbon may do for a julep it just won't do for a real Sazerac."
I like Sazeracs made with rye whisky. I also like them made with bourbon and/or cognac. All three spirits make a good Sazerac, each very different. The rye is obviously more robust and spicier while the bourbon is softer and cognac softer still. After trying all three I profess to preferring rye or a combination of all three - equal parts of each - a tad schizo perhaps, but each spirit contributes some of their personality resulting in a very complex Sazerac.
A Sazerac is simply not a Sazerac without Peychaud Bitters but many recipes, including Stanley Clisby Arthur's also call for a dash of Angostura Aromatic Bitters. I have been guilty of using three dashes of Angostura in the past, but I was also guilty of making my Sazeracs with a blend of bourbon and cognac, and a Sazerac made with these softer spirits can benefit from heavy bittering. However, one dash will suffice, especially when using rye as your base spirit. Don't be tempted to forgo the Angostura altogether as it adds a special something to the drink.
Regular Difford's Guide readers will know my bias towards sugar syrup over granulated sugar, let alone a sugar cube and for support I turn to Embury who writes, "Traditionally, the Sazerac, like the Old-Fashioned, is made by first saturating a lump of sugar with bitters and then muddling it. In the interest of simplicity and better drinks, however, we have abandoned loaf sugar in favour of sugar syrup."
The action of dampening a sugar cube with a splash of water and bitters then muddling creates a syrup, albeit one with crystals of undissolved sugar for the drinker to crunch upon. Surely Embury is right and using a quality, homemade sugar syrup makes more sense and a better Sazerac.
The balance of sugar and bitters makes or breaks a Sazerac. The sugar should just take the edge of the spirit and the bitters but not produce a sweet drink.
To again quote Embury, "The Sazerac is a sharp, pungent, thoroughly dry cocktail. To most people, however, the combination of absinthe and whisky [sic] is not particularly pleasing. While whisky lovers do not like the sharp, biting taste that the absinthe imparts, absinthe lovers prefer their absinthe straight, dripped, frappéed, or mixed with gin rather than whisky. Even among my various New Orleans friends I have yet to find a Sazerac addict."
Made using the classical proportions and methods the Sazerac can indeed be a "thoroughly dry cocktail", perhaps a tad too dry and punchy. Achieving the correct fine balance of sugar and bitters is crucial but so is the dilution. Over stir or use wet ice and the drink will be too dilute. Use double frozen ice straight from the freezer and even with a prolonged stir you are unlikely to achieve spot on dilution. Therefore, to be certain of controlled consistent dilution, I prescribe stirring with double frozen ice and half a shot of chilled water.
The oils from a twist of lemon make this drink, a fine spray is enough. Too much and lemon starts to overpower the flavour. I don't drop the zest into the drink as there is something off-putting about the lemon touching your lips as you sip the drink. As Stanley Clisby Arthur says, "do not commit the sacrilege of dropping the peel into the drink." He goes on to say, "some bartenders put a cherry in a Sazerac; very pretty but not necessary."
Although considered a sacrilege by many and classically a misdemeanour, I believe this drink great served shaken rather than stirred. However, bowing to peer pressure I have formerly stirred my Sazeracs. I now sit between both camps and instead throw rather than stir my Sazeracs. Throwing aerates and opens but does not leave the unattractive foamy top that shaking does.
Brandy-based cocktails were being served in New Orleans before the Sazerac was created and these early mixed drinks almost certainly included bitters, possibly Stoughton's Bitters, a long extinct medicinal stomach bitters. The ingredients for the Sazerac have varied over the years, however, its flavour has remained distinctive due to one essential ingredient: Peychaud's aromatic bitters, created by one Antoine Amedee Peychaud.
His story starts in 1795 when he arrives in New Orleans as a refugee after his father was forced to flee the island of San Domingo, and his family's coffee plantation, after the slaves rebelled. Antoine grew up to become a pharmacist and bought his own drug and apothecary store at 437 Rue Royale (then No. 123 Royal Street) in 1834. Here he created an 'American Aromatic Bitter Cordial' and marketed it as a medicinal tonic. Such potions were fashionable at the time and there were many similar products.
Antoine also served his bitters mixed with brandy and other liquors and it has been falsely claimed that the word 'cocktail' originated with Antoine and the measure, known as a 'coquetier', he used to prepare drinks. However, the term cocktail first appeared in print in an upstate New York newspaper in 1806 when Antoine was but a child.
Meanwhile, sometime around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor, another New Orleans entrepreneur gave up being a bar owner to move into the liquor business, becoming the local agent for a French cognac company, 'Sazerac-du-Forge et Fils' of Limoges. His bar, the Merchant's Exchange Coffee House at 13 Exchange Alley, was taken over by either a Aaron Bird or John B. Schiller.
Exchange Alley used to run between Royal Street and Exchange Place in the French Quarter where the Wyndham Hotel now stands. A service road under the hotel still links the two streets. It is here, at the Exchange Coffee House, sometime between 1850 and 1859, that the Sazerac Cocktail was created, based on and named after Taylor's Sazerac cognac with Peychaud's aromatic bitters and sugar. The cocktail became the bar's main specialty.
In 1869/70, Thomas H. Handy, the bar's bookkeeper, took over the Sazerac Coffeehouse and renamed it the Sazerac Coffeehouse after its house cocktail. Meanwhile Antoine Peychaud fell upon hard times and sold his pharmacy store, along with the formula and brand name of his bitters which Handy acquired in 1873. Having purchased the bar and the bitters required to make its house cocktail Handy then faced a predicament as cognac, the main ingredient to the Sazerac Cocktail, became hard to obtain.
The phylloxera aphid, a bug which attacks the roots of vines, devastated French vineyards in the late 1860s-1870s and so practically halted cognac production, forcing Handy to change the recipe of the Sazerac Cocktail. He still used the all-important Peychaud's bitters but substituted American distilled Maryland Club rye whiskey, retaining a dash of cognac. Around this time, perhaps before the change to rye whiskey, a splash of the newly fashionable absinthe was added to the Sazerac. As the cognac became more scarce, so it gradually disappeared from the drink.
To quote from Stanley Clisby Arthur's 1937 Famous New Orleans Drinks & how to mix'em, "The absinthe innovation has been credited to Leon Lamothe who in 1858 was a bartender for Emile Seignouret, Charles Cavaroc & Co., a wine importing firm located in the old Seignouret mansion still standing at 520 Royal Street. More likely it was about 1870, when Lamothe was employed at Pina's restaurant in Burgundy Street that he experimented with absinthe and made the Sazerac what it is today."
Before his death in 1889, Handy disclosed the recipe for his house cocktail to William T. 'Cocktail Bill' Boothby who published it in his 1908 book, The World's Drinks and How to Mix Them.
Sazerac (Boothby's recipe)
¾ jigger Whiskey
2 dashes Peychaud
Absinthe to wet glass
½ spoon Sugar syrup
1 slice Lemon peel
Chill cocktail glass, wet with few drops absinthe and toss out. Stir other ingredients well with ice, strain into prepared glass and serve with ice water chaser.
In the 1890s, the Sazerac Company began to bottle and market the Sazerac Cocktail, now made with rye whiskey instead of cognac. The cocktail, which continued to be served at the Sazerac Bar was further adapted in 1912 when absinthe was banned in the US. The Sazerac company started to produce a product called Herbsaint as an absinthe substitute and although absinthe is once again legal in the USA, most bars in New Orleans continue to make their Sazerac Cocktails with Herbsaint rather than absinthe.
The Sazerac Bar reopened after Prohibition at 300 Carondelet Street. In 1949, Seymour Weiss, the Vice President and Managing Director of the nearby Roosevelt Hotel purchased the rights to use the name Sazerac Bar from the Sazerac Company. He renovated a former Wine and Spirits store on Baronne Street and on 26th September 1949 opened the new Sazerac Bar. Weiss published that the new bar would abolish its 'men only' rule and welcome. The move was marketing genius and women flocked to the launch, leading to the event becoming known as 'Storming the Sazerac'.
In 1959, the Sazerac Bar on Baronne Street was closed and the name transferred to the hotel's Main Bar which had opened 1938. Here the Sazerac Bar remains popular and can be considered the spiritual and actual home of the Sazerac with around 40,000 Sazeracs served there every year. (To allay confusion, the hotel originally opened in 1893 as The Hotel Grunewald, then became The Fairmont, then The Roosevelt before reopening after Hurricane Katrina as The Fairmont.)
In 2007, Ann Tuennerman, of The New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society, lobbied the Louisiana legislature to "Save the Sazerac". The following March, state senator Edwin R. Murray filed a Senate Bill designating the Sazerac as Louisiana's official state cocktail. The bill was defeated on 8 April 2008 but after further debate and lobbying, on 23 June 2008, the Louisiana Legislature passed a bill proclaiming the Sazerac as New Orleans official cocktail.