One of the things about being a cocktail hobbyist is more about the crafting of drinks instead of sitting around and downing them. I finally understand all my bartender friends who end their shifts with something as simple as a shot and a beer. I came to this conclusion after making my first Sazerac, a classic drink that serves as the official cocktail of New Orleans.
Along with being The Big Easy’s official drink, the Sazerac is also framed as America’s oldest cocktail. The story behind the drink has been told several ways, much like many classics of lore. The New Orleans tourism website gave what’s typically regarded as the most accurate version of the cocktail’s origin.
The story goes that back in 1838, Creole apothecary Antoine Peychaud invented the Sazerac in his shop at 437 Royal Street. They say he first served it to his fellow Masons after hours in an egg cup –a coquetier—a word that some insist morphed into “cocktail.” The name of the drink comes from Peychaud’s favorite French brandy, Sazerac-de-Forge et fils. Somewhere along the line, American Rye-whiskey was substituted for the cognac, and, in 1873, bartender Leon Lamothe added a dash of Absinthe. Called the “Green Fairy” for its color and the “Black Death” for its licorice flavor, Absinthe was banned in1912 for allegedly causing hallucinations. Soon after, Peychaud’s special bitters were substituted in its place.
Given New Orleans’ prominence in the cocktail and culinary scenes then and now, this angle clears all the checks based on the research I’ve done. I’ve had the drink both at the famed Roosevelt Hotel’s Sazerac Bar in the Crescent City, which was decidedly better than anywhere else I’ve had it in the world. I had the drink first at the sadly-shuttered Church & State bar in Washington, D.C., and I immediately fell in love with what I thought was a simple drink.
Creating this bad boy isn’t a simple task, reminding me of those in the service industry who have to do this for hours a day. I was moved to attempt to make one after sipping a pastis made with Pernod Paris, a liqueur that mimics some of the flavors of absinthe but isn’t framed as such. After enjoying the pastis (which I’ll discuss in a later post), I began googling if I could replace the preferred Pernod Absinthe Superieure and found that the Paris version would serve my needs.
For the spirit base, I decided to try the old-school path of using a cognac I was recently gifted, Martell’s Blue Swift expression, which is cognac finished in American Oak casks. The flavor is probably best suited for those who enjoy bourbon, as the cognac’s usual sweetness and sharpness is mellowed via the storing process.
I followed the recipe from NewOrleans.com for my version as well, again using Martell’s instead of rye whiskey and Pernod Paris instead of the big boy version.
1 cube sugar
1½ oz. Sazerac Rye Whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon
¼ oz. Herbsaint
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Once complete, your drink should look something like this…
Pack an old-fashioned glass with ice. In a second old-fashioned glass place the sugar cube and add the Peychaud’s Bitters to it, then crush the sugar cube. Add the Sazerac Rye Whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon to the second glass containing the Peychaud’s Bitters and sugar. Remove the ice from the first glass and coat the glass with the Herbsaint, then discard the remaining Herbsaint. Empty the whiskey/bitters/sugar mixture from the second glass into the first glass and garnish with lemon peel.
I have to admit that this drink is a joy to make if you’re into building drinks and admiring your finished product. Comparing the cognac I used to rye whiskey versions I’ve had in the past, this Sazerac was sweeter, smoother, and impressive enough that I made another right after the first one, a choice I regretted somewhat the next morning. Swap out the cognac for rye whiskey if you want a spicier profile or bourbon if you’re partial to sweeter flavors.
As always, sip safely, friends.
–Photo: D.L. Chandler