The Louisiana House of Representatives ratified a momentous bill in March, 2008: Sixty-two wise and enlightened members of the House won a majority vote over 33 daft, senseless, borderline psychotic individuals, thus affirming that the Sazerac – the renowned blend of rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe – is New Orleans’ official cocktail. Well done.
So, is it just me or is the Sazerac an Old-Fashioned spiffied up with some fancy bitters and an absinthe rinse? It would seem so, wouldn’t it? Digging a bit deeper, one finds that the history of this drink is, as David Wondrich has said, both “intricate and entangled in myth”. Firstly, let’s dispatch with the myths:
- The Sazerac was the first cocktail. Hogwash.
- The word “cocktail” originated from the butchering of the French word for egg cups, i.e. les coquetiers, which a certain Antoine Amedie Peychaud used to serve his proprietary bitters in. Complete malarkey.
Alright then. Moving on. It turns out that the Sazerac actually began life as a Cognac-based drink rather than the rye drink that we’ve come to know and love. The most popular Cognac in New Orleans at the time happened to be Sazerac de Forge et Fils, which was imported by a bartender by the name of Sewell Taylor. For reasons that remain a mystery to me, Taylor sold his bar to a John Schiller in 1850 or thereabouts. Or was it Aaron Bird? There seems to be some disagreement concerning this. No Matter. For the purpose of this meandering narrative, let’s say that the new proprietor was Aarohn Schirder. Okay, so Mr… Schirder… changed the name of the place to “Sazerac Coffee House,” and came up with a house cocktail using the bar’s namesake Cognac.
There is some discussion as to whether the absinthe wash was included at this time, but it’s not really important. What’s important is that the Sazerac Cocktail was a massive hit with New Orleanians.
But then phylloxera fucked it all up. A scourge of grapevine killing pestilence swept across Europe leaving vitis vinifera utterly ravaged in its wake. I would have interpreted this wine plague as the arrival of the First Horseman of the Apocalypse, but no one seems to have drawn this conclusion in the
exhaustive brief literature review that I have conducted. Although phylloxera may not have been the harbinger of Armageddon, it was the catalyst that precipitated the rise of rye whiskey to the center of the American drinkscape. When Thomas H. Handy took the reins of the Sazerac Coffee House in 1869, he replaced the Cognac with rye, which was by then both fashionable and abundant. This formula remains intact today, as does its popularity in New Orleans. I know I love it; it ranks among my favs – I would most certainly flash a horny mob of Mardi Grasers for a Sazerac far before I’d debase myself for some cheap plastic beads.
- 1½ oz. Pierre Ferrand 1840 1er Cru de Cognac Grande Champagne Cognac
- ½ oz. Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whiskey
- ½ tsp. Demerara sugar
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s Aromatic bitters
- 2 dashes Angostura Aromatic bitters
- Fils du Roy La Courailleuse Spiritueux à Absinthe for rinse
Add the absinthe to an Old-Fashioned glass, or something like it. Toss the glass into the air, being sure to put plenty of English on it such that the absinthe coats the inside of the glass. Don’t forget to catch it when it comes back down. Discard excess absinthe into your mouth and place glass in freezer for chilling. In another Old-Fashioned-esque glass place a dollop of sugar and saturate with the bitters. Muddle the mixture, then add your spirits. Give it a swirl with your barspoon to help the sugar liquesce. Add some cubes and stir until cold; strain into the absinthe-rinsed glass thusly. Garnish with a broad swatch of lemon peel twisted smartly, and discard onto the floor behind you. Consign the peel’s earlier presence in your hand to oblivion. My daughter does this with all manner of things she happens to nonchalantly discard in the course of a day. Why can’t I? It’s my house isn’t it? Isn’t it? Goddamn, right it is.
As you can see, I’ve followed Dale DeGroff’s lead and mashed the original and evolved recipes together, i.e. used a mix of Cognac and rye. King Cocktail uses a 1:1 ratio of Cognac to rye, but I went with a more Cognac-heavy 3:1 ratio, as seen above. This was the first time I’ve had a Cognac-based Sazerac and, I must say, it is an entirely palatable tipple. Exceptional, actually. The fresh, floral aroma of lemon oil is delivered to your nose, along with a hint of anise, as you bring the drink to your mouth. The spiciness that I’ve come to expect from a Sazerac is still there, which is a pleasant surprise, but is accompanied by some rich, honey flavours and almost tannic notes. The absinthe contributes its distinguishing mark as you would expect.
The combination of the Pierre Ferrand 1840, Rittenhouse, and Peychaud’s is actually quite phenomenal. In fact, I’d say it’s the best conjoining of elements since Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz made out in that Woody Allen movie. If you can get ahold of a bottle of the Pierre Ferrand, I emphatically urge you to give this version a go.
Now… “throw me something, Mister!“