The Sazerac, which is a close cousin to the Old Fashioned, has been kicking around in one form or another since as early as 1838 (with other reports pegging its invention closer to the late-1800s) and was trademarked in 1900 by Sazerac Co. The Sazerac was crowned the official cocktail of New Orleans in 2008, a designation more suited to marketers than drink mixers. The truth is the Sazerac has always belonged to the Crescent City.
New Orleans is a bibulous city, and the French Quarter is a non-stop party where the distinction between bar patrons and revelers who are between venues becomes increasingly blurred as day slips into night. Cocktails have a cultural prominence there that they have achieved in a few other places, and while Day-Glo plastic yard glasses of icy fruit syrup and rectified spirits rule the streets, some of the bars are still serving elegant concoctions that pre-date the first collection of cocktail recipes. The Sazerac – the first branded cocktail, and the official cocktail of New Orleans – is such a drink.
Eventually, that French brandy was replaced with American Rye Whiskey, a spirit that grew in both popularity and availability during the 19th century. Brandy or cognac, which are distilled from grapes, yield a Sazerac that is fruity and floral, different than today’s rye-based versions, which feature the grain spirit’s trademark spice notes.
Absinthe, to rinse
1 sugar cube
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
30ml rye whiskey
30ml ounces cognac
Garnish: lemon peel
- Rinse a chilled rocks glass with absinthe, discarding any excess, and set aside.
- In a mixing glass, muddle the sugar cube, water and the Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters.
- Add the rye and cognac, fill the mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled.
- Strain into the prepared glass.
- Twist the lemon peel over the drink’s surface to express the peel’s oils, then garnish with the peel.
- A well-made rye Sazerac is indeed a tasty cocktail, full of kick and depth, though perhaps a hair too much muscle. That’s why this recipe combines equal parts cognac and rye, not as a gestural homage to a lost classic but because the two work together so perfectly. The opposing pairing, when accented by the licorice flavors of absinthe, produces a cocktail that’s simultaneously soft and bold, smooth and brash—and unmistakably New Orleans
The exact origins of the Sazerac cocktail are a matter of historical debate, but already prior to the Civil War, Bird’s Coffee House was famous for selling a toddy made by mixing Taylor’s imported cognac with sugar, water, and locally produced bitters. These were most likely made using an old family recipe, by the pharmacist Antoine Peychaud, a Creole immigrant from Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti), who was probably the first person to make a drink that was recognizably a Sazerac cocktail.
In 1869, the Sazerac Coffee House was bought by Thomas Handy, whose company also set about acquiring and selling branded spirits. Throughout the 1860s a grape blight had wiped out many of the French vineyards that were the main source for imported brandies. The blight was attributed to phylloxera aphids, which were probably carried to Europe accidentally on samples of grapevines from the United States. Faced with a suddenly expensive and increasingly scarce key ingredient, but with the ongoing demand for the Sazerac Coffee House’s signature cocktail, Handy’s pragmatic response was to replace the cognac with American-made rye whiskey. The combination proved a hit with his customers, and it remains a popular cocktail to this day.
By the late 19th century Handy’s company had been acquired by Newman Goldring, but the Sazerac cocktail was still evolving. For instance, it became the fashion for glasses to be coated with absinthe before the cocktail was poured into them. But the highly alcoholic spirit, flavored with aniseed and wormwood, was widely associated with social ills such as madness and violent crime, and thanks to the crusading efforts of the temperance movement, absinthe was banned in the US in 1912 – almost a decade before the 18th Amendment ushered in a general prohibition of alcohol – and it remained illegal there until as recently as 2007.
Consequently, the absinthe was replaced by various anise liqueurs, but in New Orleans the locally produced Herbsaint – which was made by veterans who had learned the absinthe-making process in France during World War I – appeared immediately after the repeal of Prohibition, to become the “official” wormwood-free alternative.
Today, the Sazerac Company is still a family-owned business, with Newman Goldring’s grandson as its chair. It is one of the biggest players in the American spirits market, with a portfolio of more than 450 brands. In 1992, the Sazerac Company bought the George T Stagg Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, and in 1999 they renamed it the Buffalo Trace Distillery. This is where most Sazerac Rye Whiskey – the spiritual successor to the first rye whiskies sourced by Thomas Handy in the 1870s to keep up with demand for Sazerac cocktails – is currently produced and bottled.