An Enthusiast’s guide to cocktails: the Sazerac


Sazerac Bar—Roosevelt Hotel, New Orleans

The Sazerac is one of the oldest cocktails still commonly consumed today. Invented around 1830 in New Orleans (where all the classics seem to have come from) by a Creole apothecary from the West Indies named Antoine Amadie Peychaud, the drink’s original recipe called for cognac, bitters, sugar and a dash of water. Incidentally, this concoction was pretty much the only cocktail recipe back in those days—something now referred to as the Old Fashioned.

Antoine’s particular approach and proprietary bitters were so popular that bars (or “Exchanges”) all over NOLA started serving it. Legend has it that a man named Sewell Taylor, owner of Merchants Exchange Coffeehouse, was serving the drink at his bar when he became the sole importer of Sazerac-du-Forge et fils Cognac. Shortly thereafter Aaron Bird took over the Merchant’s Exchange from Taylor, who had gone full-time into importing, and changed the name to Sazerac House after the liquor in their signature drink. And the first branded cocktail was born.

It wasn’t until the 1870’s that the bar ended up in the hands of Thomas Handy who changed the recipe to include rye—both in reaction to Americans’ taste for whiskey and on account of the phyloxxera outbreak in Europe (which killed off most of the Cognac grapes). At some point his bar also started rinsing the glass with Absinthe, bringing us to the modern incarnation you’ll find today:

1 sugar cube or 1/4oz simple syrup
3-4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
1 small dash Angostura bitters (optional)
2pts. rye whiskey (I really like Bulleit)
Absinthe rinse
Lemon twist

The ritual of making a Sazerac is time-honored and taken very seriously. In playing around with it, I’ve found that following these guidelines does make for a better-balanced drink.

Start with two Old Fashioned glasses (or one O.F. glass and a mixing glass). Cram one Old Fashioned glass with ice (and maybe a little water) to cool it down. Also, you’re going to want a thin layer of water in there for the Absinthe rinsing. Next muddle the sugar cube and the bitters (or mix with the simple syrup) in the other glass until combined. Then add the whiskey and an ice cube or two. Mix for a bit until the drink has cooled, but don’t let too much ice melt or it’ll come out thin.

Dump the ice out of your old fashioned glass and add a few drops of Absinthe (I bought a little dropper and use three solid squirts per-glass). Coat the sides of your glass with Absinthe. Strain the whiskey mixture into the glass. Cut a lemon strand and twist over the glass to get the citrus oils in there. Then rub the rind on the rim. Purists will say that the twist should not actually enter the cocktail, so consider hanging it off the side of the glass, rather than dropping it in.

Finally, sip slowly and enjoy the robust, complex flavors as the whiskey warms and delights. The drink will change slightly as it sits, so it’s nice to take your time and experience the full range it has to offer.

The Sazerac

This amazing drink seems to be experiencing a resurgence in the recent cocktail revolution. In part, I imagine, because of the re-legalization of Absinthe—although Herbsaint was long used as a substitute. I first came across it at a wonderful San Francisco bar named Mr. Lew’s Win Win Sazerac Emporium. Yes, it is as awesome as it sounds (although recent renovations have detracted from the you-have-to-be-in-the-know feel of the place.) After a number of attempts (and asking the Win Win girl how she makes hers) I think I’ve gotten the hang of the drink. Including a nifty trick of throwing the glass in the air to do the Absinthe coating.

In conclusion, you have to give this wonderful cocktail a try. I’m sure it will delight you and anyone you serve it to.


Sazerac Bar image courtesy of MookieLuv, flickr