Ever since I visited New Orleans last summer, I’ve been inordinately fond of two particular bottles in my liquor cabinet: the rich, luscious Sazerac 6-year-old rye whiskey, and New Orleans’ homegrown absinthe substitute, Herbsaint.
There’s something about the younger Sazerac that is just so damn lovable; it’s not as crisp as many Pennsylvania-style ryes like Rittenhouse bonded or Michter’s U.S. 1, and it’s not as mellow and bourbon-like as ryes like Van Winkle Family Reserve. Instead, it’s smooth and round, with a distinct herbaceous dryness matched with tinges of peaches and brown sugar. This rye is downright bosomy.
Herbsaint, of course, started life in New Orleans in 1934 as a stand-in for the banned absinthe, and quickly became the top American-made absinthe substitute. Today, it’s made in Kentucky (by the same company that makes the Sazerac rye), and aficionados say current bottlings aren’t up to the complexity of classic Herbsaint from the ’40s, but it’s distinctive anise character — rougher and more robust than French relations like Pernod and Ricard — is still desirable in a lot of cocktails. (Want more info? Pick up the latest issue of Imbibe, which has an article I wrote about Herbsaint.)
Typically, these two ingredients can be found hobnobbing with a hearty dose of Peychaud’s and a touch of sugar in a Sazerac, a drink that is the natural home for both the Sazerac rye and the Herbsaint. But it’s a shame to only mix these made-for-each-other spirits in one drink; thankfully, there’s another New Orleans cocktail, a kissing cousin of the Sazerac, that uses these ingredients to great effect: the Cocktail a la Louisiane.
In Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, from 1937, Stanley Clisby Arthur writes that this was the house cocktail at the Restaurant de la Louisiane, “one of the famous French restaurants in New Orleans, long the rendezvous of those who appreciate the best in Creole cuisine.” The cocktail uses the Sazerac’s base of rye, Herbsaint and Peychaud’s, then fleshes it out with sweet vermouth and throws cascading layers of complexity into the drink with a mighty measure of Benedictine, a venerable French herbal liqueur. This cocktail is on the sweet side, but not cloying, as you might expect from a cursory glance at the recipe.
Rich and voluptuous, with the flavor of decadence mixed with sin, the Cocktail a la Louisiane is a great reason to break out the rye and pastis. This has become my signature drink of autumn 2006.
Cocktail a la Louisiane
- 3/4 oz. rye whiskey (I like the Sazerac 6-year in this, but it also works well with other brands)
- 3/4 oz. Benedictine
- 3/4 oz. sweet vermouth
- 3 dashes Herbsaint (use another pastis, or better yet absinthe, if you don’t have Herbsaint on hand)
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir with cracked ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.