With half of LUPEC Boston in NOLA for the Tales of the Cocktail festival this week, it only seemed right to raise a glass to the Sazerac, the city’s official cocktail. It’s not just a tag line you know: last month the Louisiana House of Representatives proclaimed the Sazerac New Orleans’ official cocktail in a 62-33 vote. (Did those 33 other legislators vote for the Ramos Gin Fizz?)
But you can’t write casually about the Sazerac. The history of the cocktail is complex and much debated, “so intricate and entangled in myth,” writes David Wondrich in Imbibe!, “it requires a monograph of its own.” Wondrich reached page sixteen of his Sazerac treatise before his editor made him stop, and if this historian-come-cocktail authority won’t try for encyclopedic in his coverage of Sazerac, neither will we. However, we can guide you to a few fun sources that sketch the lore of the Sazerac. Below are a few facets of the Sazerac myth which may or may not be true, but should absolutely be embellished to provide the most exciting story possible.
The Sazerac is the original cocktail. That’s likely false, as Wondrich argues rather compellingly in Imbibe!:
“There is in fact no written record of [the Sazerac] before the first decade of the twentieth century, which is perfectly understandable: When all is said and done, the Sazerac is merely a plain Whiskey (or Brandy)…Cocktail made with Peychaud’s bitters and finished with a dash of absinthe. A generation earlier, you could have ordered the same thing in any bar in America that served mixed drinks.”
As Wondrich’s research reveals, written record of that elusive noun, “cocktail” appears as early as 1803 in a tiny little newspaper produced in a tiny little town called Amherst, New Hampshire (which is coincidentally, where I grew up.) The debate goes on and on, but the nomenclature and the execution of such a drink with such a name likely predate Peychaud’s home tippling.
The Sazerac was originally served in an egg cup. On The Gumbo Pages, Chuck Taggart provides an excellent overview of the history of the Sazerac. Here we learn that Creole apothecary Antoine Amadie Peychaud moved to NOLA in the early 1800s, set up shop in the French Quarter, and began selling his signature tincture to “relieve the ails of all his clients.” After hours Peychaud mixed that magic tincture with a little cognac, water, and sugar for his friends. He served the drink in the large end of an egg cup — a coquetier en Francais — and the improper American pronunciation of this term led to the eventual appellation “cocktail”. In that version of the myth, the Sazerac is thus the original cocktail, Peychaud its father, and New Orleans its cradle. It’s as likely as landing a dinner meeting with the Easter bunny, but a good tale nonetheless.
The Sazerac became the Sazerac at the Sazerac Coffee House on Royal Street. Sewell Taylor christened the “Sazerac Cocktail” as the signature drink of his Sazerac Coffee House on Exchange alley in 1853 . The drink was to be made only with Sazerac de Forge et Fils brandy, a popular brand of cognac of which he was the sole importer. Or was it John Schiller who opened the Sazerac Coffee House in 1859, and christened the Sazerac Cocktail its signature drink to be made with Sazerac brand cognac, for which he was the sole importer?
In any case, it was at the Sazerac Coffee House that an innovative barkeep introduced the step of rinsing a glass with absinthe, and it was here, under new owner Thomas H. Handy (or was it John Handy, as cited in The Craft of the Cocktail?) that the principal spirit was changed from cognac to rye whiskey, circa 1870. Reasons for that switch are clear, at least: the phylloxera epidemic in France made cognac hard to come by…or was it simply that the American palate favored rye? Maybe it was a little of both.
Sazerac de Forge et Fils perished in the 1880s, but as one brand dies, another is born: a decade later the Sazerac bar had grown into a Sazerac company who began to bottle and sell the rye-based version of the drink. That same company sells a six-year-old Sazerac brand rye today, as well as many other spirits.
Oh, what a tangled web history becomes when its scribes hit the bottlet! The beauty of these modern times is that all of these ingredients (save the Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac) are available today — event absinthe! We suggest experimenting with the ingredients, ratios, and recipes you like the best, and matching it to your favorite foggy detailed story while mixing one up to impress your friends. Here are a few variations to get you started.
Exhibit A: Original(ish) Sazerac
from Imbibe! by David Wondrich
This recipe is the first one in print for the whiskey-based version. Reprinted in David Wonderich’s Imbibe!, it was first published by William Boothby as the late Tom Handy’s recipe in an undated supplement to THE WORLD’S DRINKS AND HOW TO MIX THEM:
Frappe [chill] an old-fashioned flat bar-glass; then take a mixing glass and muddle half a cube of sugar with a little water; add some ice, a jigger of good whiskey, two dashes of Peychaud bitters, and a piece of twisted lemon peel; stir well until cold, then throw the ice out of the bar-glass, dash several drops of Absinthe into the same, and rinse well with the Absinthe. Now strain the Cocktail into frozen glass, and serve with ice water on the side.
A free copy of the LITTLE BLACK BOOK OF COCKTAILS goes to the first reader to try this with a good cognac and an egg cup and report back with pictures!
Exhibit B: King Cocktail’s Sazerac Cocktail
from The Craft of the Cocktail by Dale DeGroff
Dale DeGroff’s version calls for a little bit of everything. The plot thickens…
Splash of Ricard or Herbsaint
1 oz. VS cognac
1 oz. rye whiskey
1/2 oz. simple syrup
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
lemon peel for garnish
Chill one rocks glass while preparing the drink in another. Splash the Ricard into another glass and swirl it, then pour it out. Add the cognac, rye, simple syrup, and the two kinds of bitters. Stir with ice cubes to chill. Strain into the chilled rocks glass and garnish with lemon peel.
Exhibit C: NOLA Gals Weigh In
from In the Land of Cocktails by Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan
This modern recipe calls for both Peychaud’s & Angostura bitters in uneven ratios, Herbsaint, the local pastis that served as absinthe’s understudy during the ban, and shaking, not stirring, the ingredients. Makes 1 cocktail.
1 tablespoon Herbsaint
1.5 ounces rye whiskey, preferably Old Overholt or Sazerac rye
.5 teaspoon simple syrup
4 to 5 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 lemon twist with the white pith removed, for garnish
Pour the Herbsaint into a rocks glass and swirl to coat the inside. Discard any excess Herbsaint. Fill the glass with ice to chill. Combine the rye, simple syrup and Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters in a cocktail shaker with ice. Cover and shake vigorously. Discard the ice from the glass and strain the shaker mixture into the glass. Rub the rim of the glass with the lemon twist, add to the drink and serve immediately. Enjoy your Sazerac, and Happy Tales to you!