The history of cocktails has much in common with those who share an excessive fondness for such libations: It’s cloudy on details; foggy rumors and half-baked theories are frequently stated as absolute fact; flights of boastful table-thumping are not uncommon; and, more often than not, large swaths of vital information are simply lost in a confused blackout. These failings aside, there are happily a few drinks the origins of which we are privileged to know.
Take the Sazerac. I won’t venture into a long survey of cocktail history here–for that, pick up William Grimes’ indispensable Straight Up or On the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail–but the Sazerac is a signature New Orleans drink, and was one of the first true, honest-to-God cocktails. Grimes writes, “The Sazerac was born at 13 Exchange Alley, in a bar owned by John B. Schiller, the local agent for the brandies of Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils in Angouleme. In 1859 Schiller opened his bar, naming it the Sazerac Coffee House and prominently featuring brandy cocktails. In time, rye or bourbon replaced the cognac and a dash of absinthe was added for interest.”
But while drinks of the Sazerac’s vintage–and there are a few, albeit a very few still around–can seem dated in the glass, the Sazerac is as bracing and engaging today as it must have been in mid-19th century New Orleans. True, absinthe is mostly a thing of the past–unless you’ve conveniently forgotten to declare a bottle or two to customs upon returning from a European vacation–but a hearty dose of sharp rye whiskey, backed up by the jazzy notes of Peychaud’s bitters and surrounded by a fragrant, enigmatic cloud of pastis, all contribute to making a drink that can hold its own against any upstart concoction that’s sullied a glass in the past 150 years.
The Sazerac is not just a good cocktail–it’s downright swoon-worthy. Key to the Sazerac’s flavor, not to mention its history and longevity, is Peychaud’s Bitters. These are another New Orleans invention, the history of which I will now ignore (curious? Buy a copy of Mixologist: The Journal of the American Cocktail, and read the chapter by Phil Greene–and while you’re at it (shameless self-promotion here), read my chapter on the Gimlet). Suffice it to say that they’re worth the effort required to track them down–vividly red in the bottle, assertively aromatic in the glass, soft and sweet on the palate. While they’re at their finest in a Sazerac, Peychaud’s also works well in a number of different drinks, including the Gansevoort Fizz.
While early recipes call for the exclusive use of Peychaud’s bitters, some modern recipes and bartenders back up the Peychaud’s with a dash of Angostura or Fee’s Old-Fashioned Aromatic Bitters. Some purists may cough, but I find the results quite pleasing–Peychaud’s, being a rather soft bitters in the glass, works well when paired with the deeper base notes of Angostura.
And then there’s the matter of the pastis. As mentioned previously, early recipes called for the tumbler to be rinsed with a touch of absinthe. I recently had the good fortune to try a Sazerac mixed with this original touch, and the result was outstanding: Accustomed to the soft sweetness of Pernod, I was surprised how much more assertive the absinthe behaved in the drink. With a higher alcohol content than most legal substitutes, the absinthe not only had a much more noticable fragrance–I could smell the anise from several feet away–but the overall flavor of the drink was more pointed and complex, with the whiskey backed by the more serious and vaguely menacing touch of absinthe, versus the gentle sweetness of Pernod. While no modern substitute can match this unique quality, those pursuing authenticity in their Sazerac experience should look into buying a bottle of Herbsaint, the New Orleans-manufactured pastis that has played a significant role in the Sazerac since absinthe was declared illegal nearly a century ago.
I’m currently going through a love affair with the Sazerac; I think it may become my autumn standby drink. If you can track down the various ingredients, give this old-timer a few spins.
- 2 ounces rye whiskey (cognac works well, too)
- 1 tsp bar sugar or rich simple syrup
- 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- Absinthe or legal substitute (Pernod, Ricard, Herbsaint, etc.)
- lemon twist
Chill a short tumbler or old-fashioned glass. Put the sugar in your mixing glass; add the bitters (and a couple of drops of water, if using bar sugar), and mix until the sugar is dissolved. Add the whiskey and a good dose of ice, and stir briefly. Remove your chilled glass from the freezer, and pour a small amount (less than 1 tsp) of absinthe-type liquor into it; twist and turn the glass to coat the inside with the pastis, and discard the excess (if you find throwing away good booze to be a reprehensible practice, your mouth makes a fine receptacle). Strain the whiskey mixture into your coated glass; twist a piece of lemon peel over your glass, briefly run it around the rim, then drop it into your drink.
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