The lore is that the sazerac is the oldest American cocktail. The story goes that in the mid-1800s, the owner of the Merchant Exchange Coffee House in New Orleans sold the place to start importing liquor. One of his imports was a cognac called Sazerac-de- Forge et Fils. The new owner of the Merchant Exchange starting buying the cognac and making “Sazerac cocktails,” by adding sugar and bitters from a local druggist, Antoine Amédée Peychaud, of Peychaud’s bitters fame. The Merchant Exchange changed its name to the Sazerac House (not obvious at all) and began slinging the cocktail day and night.
At the turn of the century, though, a disease spread through France and killed much of the grapes that were used for wine, and thus cognac. Needing a substitute, the bar looked for help upriver, to the American rye and bourbon whiskey distillers in Tennessee and Kentucky. Replacing the cognac with rye was favorable to many New Orleans drinkers, and a rinse of absinthe, a liquor that had grown in popularity, was added to the drink.
At some point a lemon peel was added to the sazerac (that bit wasn’t as sexy for the story), and the Sazerac House eventually moved into The Roosevelt Hotel and become the Sazerac Bar.
Enough history. Suffice it to say, the drink is a classic, recognized by the International Bartenders Association as an “Unforgettable,” or, one of the 30 original cocktails. As it is Mardi Gras week, it is a great time to head out to your local bar and order the ultimate New Orleans cocktail (if you don’t include those lethal electric-green “hand grenades” they just give out like flyers on Bourbon Street.)
A sample of three downtown Boulder bars reveals three slightly different sazeracs.
First, The Bitter Bar serves a slightly sweet sazerac. Their cup starts with five dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, an ounce of simple syrup and two ounces of Rittenhouse Rye. The mixture is stirred with ice cubes, to integrate water and soften the whiskey. The tumbler is chilled with large ice cubes, which are removed before spritzing the interior of the glass with absinthe. The drink is transferred into the chilled tumbler, and a lemon peel is cut and the oils are squeezed into the drink, and the peel is discarded. The result is a saccharine sazerac with low anise flavor, which is very smooth and drinkable. This is a great entry point into the cocktail, if you’re new to the drink.
License No. 1 serves the cocktail in a four-ounce shot glass. Templeton Rye is mixed with a large dose of Peychaud’s bitters and a sugar cube. The lemon peel is left in the drink, and the sazerac here is bitter, a little syrupy, less sweet and a little hotter than The Bitter Bar’s.
Finally, Bramble and Hare nods to the origins of the drink. A sugar cube and agave are muddled with Peychaud’s bitters. An ounce of cognac and an ounce of bourbon (Wild Turkey 101) are added and the mixture is stirred vigorously to emulsify the sugars. Clear absinthe is dripped into a toddy mug, and the liquor is added. A lemon peel is cut, squeezed into the drink and rubbed against the glass rim. The drink is nutty and smoky — from the cognac no doubt. It is light on bitter and the 101-proof bourbon is hot.
One aspect I found missing in each sazerac on this foray was a strong anise flavor. I usually ask for heavy absinthe, or even anisette to finish the drink in order to get that flavor — the herbaceousness in those liquors just mixes really well with the bitters and a sweet rye.
Most people, if they’re looking to amend their sazeracs, will want something either sweeter, stronger or both. If you like strong finishes, substitute the rye for a high-proof whiskey like Wild Turkey or Old Grandad 114. You can add honey, maraschino cherries or a splash of fruit juice to sweeten the drink if you’d like. For sweeter and hotter, try a high proof, wheat-heavy bourbon like Weller or Maker’s Mark.