You may be thinking, “Hmm, the world’s oldest cocktail? We’ve been perfecting cocktails for so long, this must be horrible!” You could not be more wrong, my friend. The Sazerac is a wonderful blend of flavour, history, and craftsmanship, and it’s high time that you learned all about it.
The Sazerac was first concocted in New Orleans in the 1850’s. As the story goes, a liquor importer named Sewell T. Taylor had, amongst his inventory, a Cognac brandy called Sazerac de Forge et Fils. He supplied this to a local bar called the Merchant’s Exchange Coffee House, whose owner took a fancy to it and started including it in a cocktail.
Now, cocktails traditionally follow the following formula: Spirit + Bitters + Sugar. Historically, they were ordered the morning after a long night of drinking the straight stuff, when you needed to come down easy via the good-old “hair of the dog”. As time went on, the term “cocktail” gradually took on a less specific definition to include almost any type of mixed drink (which is how we use the term here on FMMS). Therefore, when people say that the Sazerac is the oldest cocktail, they really mean that it’s the oldest known named cocktail.
Naturally, it got that name from Taylor’s imported Cognac, but it also has another key ingredient: Peychaud’s bitters. These bitters were made down the street from the Merchant’s Exchange by an apothecary named Antoine Peychaud, and like most bitters, are based on gentian root (which lends the bitterness) and various other herbs, flowers, and spices. It has a very distinct pink colour and an almost medicinal aroma to it (that probably doesn’t sound very good, but I promise it is!), which makes sense since most bitters were historically used as cure-alls… but that’s a post for another day.
The final key ingredient is absinthe, which FMMS has posted about already. Unlike other stories, the focus here is not on absinthe’s more well-known hallucinogenic properties, since you use very little in the Sazerac. In this application, it adds a nice subtle anise smell and aftertaste to the cocktail.
Combining all of this with sugar made the original Sazerac cocktail; it became popular enough that the Merchant’s Exchange Coffee House changed their name to The Sazerac House.
Unfortunately, it was 10 years later that France experienced the Great French Wine Blight, an insect infestation that decimated the country’s vineyards, and thus cut off the supply of Cognac. By contrast, rye whiskey was available in abundance so it quickly replaced the Cognac, and even became the preferred spirit. Ever since then, a typical Sazerac is made with rye by default.
1 sugar cube
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 oz rye whiskey
¼ oz absinthe (or Herbsaint)
Fill a short glass with ice and set it aside. In a second glass, add the sugar cube and the bitters, making sure to soak the cube well. Muddle the sugar and bitters together until the sugar is dissolved, then add rye and stir. Discard the ice from the first glass, then add the absinthe to it and swirl it around (coating the inside of the glass). Pour out the excess absinthe (or just leave it in, if you like it!). Pour the mix from the second glass into the chilled glass. Twist the lemon peel over the glass, but don’t add it to the drink.
I know that seems like a bunch of steps, but when you make it for the first time, you’ll find it’s pretty simple. If you’re planning to make more than one, just re-use the second mixing glass each time.Also, while the drink is meant to be enjoyed at around room temperature, if you must have some ice, go for a single large cube or sphere to minimize water dilution.
As I mentioned above, the original recipe actually used Cognac, so if you want to make an Original Sazerac, just use Cognac instead of rye in the recipe above. But remember, if you plan to order this at a bar, you’ll need to specify that you want Cognac and you’ll also want to be prepared to pay more for the privilege!
As the name implies, swap the rye for your favourite bourbon for a warmer, slightly sweeter-tasting cocktail. With real rye (eg. a whiskey made with at least 51% rye mash) being somewhat less commonly available these days, and bourbon surging in popularity, you may find it easier to get one of these. Though if you’re at an establishment that doesn’t have a real rye available, I would also strongly doubt that they’re going to have the Peychaud’s, so you’re probably out of luck anyways. That being said, I’ve lately found myself preferring to use bourbon in my Sazerac’s, even when I’ve got rye available.
A Note on Bitters and Absinthe
Peychaud’s and absinthe are not two of the most commonly available ingredients, as you may have guessed, so if you’re willing to be flexible, you do have some options. I’ll start with the least palatable of them: using Angostura instead of Peychaud’s. These bitters are the most common in the world and I’ve never been to a bar or grocery store that didn’t have a bottle somewhere. While there’s nothing inherently bad about them, the Sazerac is really not a Sazerac without the very distinct Peychaud’s flavour, colour, and aroma, so tread carefully (or better yet, just order something else).
Secondly, if you don’t have absinthe handy, Herbsaint is the best alternative. Further down the list would be any other anise-based liquor, such as Pernod, Ouzo, or Sambuca, though these will both make the already sweet cocktail slightly more so.
In 2008, the Louisiana House of Representatives voted to declare the Sazerac the official cocktail of New Orleans, so if you’re in the area, you should definitely try it, but you won’t need to travel far to enjoy one. It’s popular enough that most reputable cocktail bars won’t have a problem making it and now that you’ve read this article, neither will you. Take your time to enjoy the colours, the aromas, and the warm flavours. Cheers to the original cocktail!
Mr. Boston’s Official Bartender’s Guide