February 10, 2010
So the Saints finally won a Super Bowl, and while many of you surely pounded Hurricanes to celebrate, here in the Eastern Seaboard, the weather conditions don’t quite call out for something so tropical. In other words, there’s a blizzard happening right outside my door. Of course when it comes to celebrating the storied American city, there’s a more appropriate and more distinctly New Orleans drink to be had than a Hurricane, and that is the Sazerac. In fact, I’ve heard it said that in New Orleans, tourists drink Hurricanes and locals drink Sazeracs. So in honor of the Saints, that’s what we’re drinking tonight!
While the Sazerac is not the first cocktail ever created–despite the popular belief– its history and pedigree indubitably trace back to the origins of the American cocktail. And despite not technically being the first (folks had long been mixing sugar, spirit, water, and if available, some herbal elixir from the medicine cabinet), no other drink has so quintessentially represented this uniquely American invention which we call the cocktail.
Some time around the early to mid-19th century in New Orleans, a man by the name of Sewell Taylor sold his bar, which was so aptly named Merchants Exchange Coffee House, to a man by the name of Aaron Bird, who up until then was working there as a clerk. He changed the name of the joint to Sazerac House after a popular brand of Cognac called Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils, and began hawking (sorry, I had to do it) a drink made from said Cognac, sugar, and a brand of bitters made by a local Apothecary owner, a French Creole man named Antoine Peychaud–the recipe for the Sazerac is attributed by many to Mr. Peychaud as well. This drink became the bar’s specialty, and they were known to have as many as twelve bartenders on hand at any given time whipping up Sazeracs.
Eventually the place was sold to a man by the name of Thomas Handy, who changed the original recipe by replacing the Cognac with Pennsylvania Rye whiskey, and adding a “rinse” of Absinthe to the glass before pouring in the rest of the drink. Although this wasn’t the original version of a Sazerac, you can’t really call it a modern iteration, since this version itself is over 140 years old. And while purists may differ, many cocktail enthusiasts consider the version made with Rye superior, though I recommend you try both and decide for yourself.
Oh, and why did Mr. Handy change the base spirit from Cognac to Rye? Well according to cocktail historian Ted Haigh (aka Dr. Cocktail), around the 1870s (which happen to be around the time that Mr. Handy acquired the Sazerac House) a bug was causing havoc in the vineyards of Europe, and one such casualty was France’s Cognac industry, which noticed a sharp decline in production. As Cognac became increasingly expensive and difficult to acquire in the states, Rye whiskey filled in, and as history has shown, it didn’t miss a beat.
2 1/2 oz Rye whiskey
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters (remember him?)
1 small dash Angostura bitters
1 sugar cube
couple of drops of water
Grab one of the glasses and drop in the sugar cube along with a couple drops of water. Break up the sugar cube and muddle to dissolve it. Pour in the Rye and the bitters along with some cracked ice and stir until well chilled, at least 20 seconds or so. In the other glass, pour in about a teaspoon or so of Absinthe, then rotate the glass to coat the interior of the glass, and pour out the remainder. Strain the stirred cocktail from the other glass into the one rinsed with Absinthe, twist the lemon peel over the drink, and enjoy!
Normally you’d do the mixing in a standard mixing glass, but for the Sazerac there’s a particular ritual to doing it this way—and it’s nothing more than ritual—so that’s the way we’ll do it here.
As far as the whiskey, let’s be clear that it asks for Rye—not Bourbon, Rye. Yes Bourbon is more readily available, but it produces a drink that’s far too sweet for this application. You want the flavor of Rye in there. As for which Rye, you can use a great yet economical one like Old Overholt, something with a bit more spice and just a few bucks more like Rittenhouse, or go all out (if you can find it) and get the Sazerac 18yr Rye Whiskey, which weighs in at around a hundred dollars a bottle, and in my opinion is one of the best whiskeys period (yes, even the Scotch folks are afraid of this one). I use the Sazerac 18yr because I’m a pimp. No, really, it’s that good, and smooth, and good.
Some people like to use simple syrup, but not me. For one, there’s the ritual of muddling the sugar cube, which for some unknown reason I enjoy. But second, and as a matter of function, I like the lack of uniform sweetness in drinks like the Sazerac and the Old Fashioned, and since the sugar cube never completely dissolves, it accomplishes that purpose for me.
To make the original version, simply swap in Cognac for Rye, and withhold the Absinthe and the Angostura. Many like using a blend of both, and I encourage you to experiment with that as well.
Here’s to New Orleans!
*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below.