New Orleans has been on my mind these past weeks; likely due to a combination of factors including my wife and I’s binge watching of NCIS: New Orleans, my recent endeavor to complete my Anne Rice first edition/printing collection, and my continued interest in experiencing Mardi Gras, which I’ve realized is only about five months away. Regardless of the reasons New Orleans has been on my mind, you can’t bring up New Orleans without thinking of such things as Mardi Gras, the French Quarter, pirates, vampires, voodoo, blues music, and the Sazerac.
What is the Sazerac?
The Sazerac is the official cocktail of New Orleans in addition to being one of the oldest American cocktail recipes of record. A spirit-forward drink much like an Old Fashioned, the Sazerac is a low ball cocktail which combines Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, and whiskey and/or cognac together with a touch of absinthe providing a black licorice finish. The exact history of the Sazerac is contested, with some accounts claiming that it was invented in 1838 by apothecary Antoine Peychaud, while others claim that the owner of the Sazerac Coffee House, Aaron Bird, created the drink in the 1850’s. In either event, the Sazerac is a New Orleans original developed sometime in the 1800’s, and the name comes from the type of Cognac that was originally used to make it, Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils. Later in history rye whiskey began to be used in place of the Cognac, and today the drink can be made with either or both depending on where you go.
Why the Change in Spirts?
So, the Sazerac was originally made using Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac, however in the 1870’s the vineyards in France suffered an unprecedented pest problem which devastated crops, thus reducing the amount of cognac being produced. This is known as the Great French Wine Blight, and it effected the entire French wine industry. With the availability of cognac dwindling, drink masters turned to the rye whiskey readily available from American distillers, and the recipe of the Sazerac was changed forever. The official recipe for the Sazerac according to the International Bartender Association lists rye whiskey as the main spirit, but purists insist that cognac should be used. Many bartenders use both spirits for the Sazerac, claiming that the combination provides the best flavor.
Absinthe? Isn’t that Illegal?
Oh, Absinthe; La Fee Verte; the Green Fairy – regardless of what you call it, absinthe is a spirit that has endured a long, controversial life. A neutral spirit much like gin, usually 90 to 148 proof when bottled and infused with a combination of botanicals and herbs during distillation, of which grand wormwood and green anise are the primary and most important – grand wormwood providing the psychoactive thujone and green anise providing the distinctive green color. This mythical spirit was banned in the United States in 1912 because it was believed that absinthe was a hallucinogenic which caused drinkers to engage in violent crimes. Some believe these claims were propaganda made up by the people backing the temperance movement; if so, it worked, as absinthe was banned seven years even before the prohibition act, aka the 18th Amendment, and remained banned even after the 21st Amendment abolished Prohibition in 1933.
It would take nearly 100 years before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) would authorize sales of absinthe in the United States again in 2007, but with restrictions. The restrictions involved the levels of thujone in the absinthe, which the FDA and TTB requires all U.S. imported and sold absinthe to be “thujone-free”. Well, considering thujone is present in wormwood, and wormwood is necessary to produce absinthe, what exactly does thujone-free mean? The TTB declares a product to be thujone-free is the levels of thujone are below 10 parts-per-million (ppm). Many have dubbed this “American Absinthe” as countries including the United Kingdom and those of the European Union allow thujone levels of 35ppm – more than triple that of the U.S. requirements.
I’m are not going to go into the scientific details of thujone or its psychoactive properties, however, if you are interested in more information about thujone and absinthe, I suggest you read the article Myths, Reality and Absinthe – The Truth About Thujone from Absinthe Original. What I will say is that absinthe is a green, anise flavored spirit made from botanicals including wormwood, anise, fennel, and other herbs which tastes herbal with a strong licorice finish. It is an essential ingredient in many classic cocktails, and it would be worth investing in a bottle for your liquor cabinet – and rest assured that anything you find at your local spirits shop is legal in the United States.
Bitters – What’s in a Name?
The most common bitters name in all the cocktail recipes I have ever read is Angostura, but the Sazerac calls specifically for Peychaud’s bitters, and purists of the cocktail will tell you that anything else is simply not a true Sazerac. Peychaud’s is the secret ingredient of the Sazerac that adds complexity to the drink; Peychaud’s has a slightly sweeter flavor than Angostura and has hints of anise and mint on the pallet as well, something that seems to go hand in hand with our absinthe requirements.
Now if you’re home wanting to experience a Sazerac yourself and all you have on hand is Angostura (which everyone who mixes cocktails does), then you can use it in a pinch; however, I will say that once you try a Sazerac with Peychaud’s you will definitely taste a difference!
Enough History – How to I Mix It?
Yes, I’ve been long winded about the history of the Sazerac, but it is as storied and complex as the drink itself. There are actually two ways to mix this cocktail, as well as three different ingredient versions (did I say storied and complex?). I will list then all in this post and you can pick your most favorite. I will start with the traditional, purist ingredients and mixing techniques.
Traditional Recipe and Mixing Technique
The traditional recipe calls for absinthe, cognac, sugar and Peychaud’s bitters with a lemon garnish. The mixing technique is as follows:
Rinse a chilled rocks glass/lowball glass with absinthe, then add crushed ice to the glass and set aside. In another rocks glass, add sugar cube and 2 dashes Peychaud’s, muddle until the sugar is dissolved, add the cognac and some ice to the glass, stir and set aside. Discard the ice and any excess absinthe from the first prepared glass and then strain the drink off the ice and into the prepared absinthe glass. Add a lemon peel for garnish and serve neat.
Modern Recipe and Mixing Technique
The modern recipe calls for absinthe, rye whiskey, sugar and Peychaud’s bitters with a lemon garnish. The mixing technique is as follows:
In a rocks glass/lowball glass add sugar cube and 2 dashes Peychaud’s, muddle until the sugar is dissolved, add the rye whiskey, absinthe, and some ice to the glass, stir until chilled. Take a chilled rocks glass and strain the drink off the ice and into the chilled glass, add a lemon peel garnish and serve neat.
As you can see the main difference in the mixing techniques is how the absinthe is involved in the preparation of the cocktail. Additionally, the use of cognac in the traditional recipe differs from the modern rye whiskey equivalent. As stated earlier however, some bartenders will actually use both cognac and rye whiskey.
The Sazerac Cocktail
- 2 Dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- 1 Cube Sugar
- 2 Teaspoon Absinthe
- 2 Ounce Cognac
- 1 Twist Lemon
- Rinse a chilled rocks glass with the absinthe, then add crushed ice to the glass and set aside
- Ina separate rocks glass, add sugar cube and Peychaud’s, muddle until the sugar is dissolved, add the cognac and some ice to the glass, stir until chilled and set aside.
- Discard the ice and excess absinthe from the first prepared glass and then using a cocktail strainer, strain the drink off the ice and into the prepared absinthe glass.
- Use a knife or peeler to remove a 1″ wide strip of the lemon peel. Squeeze the lemon peel into the drink to release the oils. Gently run the peel around the edge of the glass, then place it in the glass as garnish and serve neat.