The appropriately muddled history of the Sazerac cocktail in New Orleans
Even before the mix of rye whiskey, sugar, Herbsaint and Peychaud’s bitters was named New Orleans’ official cocktail by the state Legislature in 2008, for more than a century it had already been synonymous with the city. In 1909, the Atlanta Constitution called it the “all-conquering Sazerac” and the author O. Henry was a dedicated drinker of the New Orleans libation.
As bartenders across the country have dusted off pre-Prohibition cocktails, it’s possible to get a competently made Sazerac in any major city. But New Orleans was the place that sheltered the antique drink while the rest of America moved on to martinis, Manhattans and eventually dubious flavored-vodka concoctions. The city continues to drink more Sazeracs per capita than anywhere else.
- The more that cocktail scholars examine the Sazerac’s history, the murkier its origins become. Claims that the Sazerac was the original cocktail have been debunked. Rather, it is recognized as a variation of one of the earliest cocktails — a mix of liquor, bitters and sugar now called an Old Fashioned. The crucial difference is the use of New Orleans-born Peychaud’s bitters and a touch of absinthe (or a substitute such as Herbsaint).
- The Sazerac Co., the New Orleans-based distiller, can trace its roots to the Sazerac Coffee House, where the Sazerac was popularized. Today, the Sazerac Co. makes both Peychaud’s bitters and Herbsaint.
- Tales of the Cocktail, the annual convention of bartenders and spirits professionals, awards a Seal of the Sazerac to New Orleans bars that can properly make the drink.
- In a 2011 scene from the HBO series “Treme” — one particularly relished by many locals — fictional chef Janette Desautel (played by Kim Dickens) encounters real-life restaurant critic Alan Richman (played by himself) in a restaurant. Fuming over the 2006 post-Katrina bashing he gave New Orleans in real life, Desautel orders a Sazerac from the bar, takes a sip — then strolls over and throws it in Richman’s face.
- According to the Sazerac company’s website, a proper Sazerac is made by packing an old-fashioned glass with ice then, leaving it to chill, muddling a sugar cube with three drops of Peychaud’s bitters in another old-fashioned glass and adding 1 ½ ounces Sazerac rye whiskey. Discard the ice from the first glass, then pour ¼ ounce Herbsaint in the now-chilled glass, rolling it around to coat the inside of the glass. Discard any remaining Herbsaint, then add the sugar/bitters/whiskey mixture to the chilled, coated glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.
New Orleans has long been in love with its libations. From the Ramos Gin Fizz, invented in New Orleans before Prohibition, to the Hurricane, created in the 1940s, and even the frozen daiquiri in a go-cup, booze is as much a part of the Crescent City’s identity as towering oak trees, French Quarter architecture and the Saints. In the pantheon of local pours, however, the Sazerac stands above all others as something of a mixological metaphor for the city with which it is so closely assoicated: It is complex, elegant, indulgent — and certainly not for the weak-livered.