A Short History of the Sazerac

Here is a challenge for you. Walk into a bar in New Orleans and try to find a bartender who can’t make a Sazerac.
 
Now try to figure out who makes the best one. Check out the Sazerac Bar at the Hermes Hotel, the Carousel Bar or Arnaud’s French 75. Any one of those choices will be fantastic.


Sazerac

Being a classic, the Sazerac Recipe is pretty standardized. There are a few substitutes for most of the ingredients. Unless you are looking at a very creative variation you aren’t likely to find many bad ones out there.
 
The drink is ubiquitous in North America’s reigning cocktail capital. It is much harder to find the further away you get from the city. Once you cross the border into Canada, for example, Peychaud’s bitters can be hard to find. Herbsaint is another tricky key ingredient, but there are good substitutes for it.
 

The Sazerac is one of the many cocktails that people like to claim as the ‘first American cocktail’. Like much of cocktail history the actual facts are murkier. Its roots definitely lie in antebellum New Orleans. Cocktails, like superheroes, have their origin myths. The reality is most of them have evolved over time.


Classic Cocktails Explained: Check out the CocktailMonkey.ca Classic Cocktail Guide.


What we do know is this:

  • In 1838 Antoine Peychaud started making bitters at his pharmacy in New Orleans. Peychaud’s Bitters are still sold under his name.
  • In 1850 Sewell T. Taylor started importing Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac from France.
  • Merchants Exchange Coffee House changed its name to the Sazerac Coffee House.
  • The Sazerac Coffee House created a cocktail with Sazerac Cognac and Peychaud’s bitters.
  • Leon Lamothe a bartender at the coffee house gets credit for adding absinthe to the mix.
  • In 1870 Thomas Handy became the proprietor of the Sazerac Coffee House
  • Around that time a phylloxera epidemic devastated French vineyards. The cognac supply dried up. This forced bartenders to start to use rye as the base spirit.
  • Sometime before his death in 1889 Thomas Handy records the Sazerac recipe.
  • In 1908 the Sazerac recipe is first published in The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them by William Boothby
  • In 1912 the US outlawed absinthe. Bartenders substituted Herbsaint and otheranise-flavoredd liquors for the absinthe.

Cognac or Rye

Sazerac Rye
Sazerac Rye

At the Sazerac bar they use Sazerac Rye. An obvious choice, but not necessarily the only one. There is definitely some room to work with here. If you want to be true to the spirit of the cocktail an American rye is your best choice here. The typically higher rye content give it the body to stand up in this drink. Bourbon is often substituted and while it lends the drink a little more sweetness it works pretty well.

If you want to do a little time travelling make a Sazerac with cognac. It is an amazing drink. Order one from a knowledgeable bartender and you’ll get an immediate measure of respect.

If you are wealthy beyond measure you could pick up a rare bottle of pre-phylloxera cognac. Something bottled between 1850 and 1870 should do. That should give a nice idea of what an early Sazerac would have tasted like.

Herbsaint or Absinthe

These days Absinthe is easier to find. There are many craft absinthe producers. I like Taboo Absinthe from Okanagan Spirits. For me it is a great regional craft option. If you’d prefer a classic European Absinthe, they are becoming easier to find.
 
When the supply of Absinthe dried up Herbsaint was the choice replacement. Herbsaint is a good choice but it can be hard to find.
 
In a pinch you can always rinse your glass with Pernod, pastis, or another anise flavored spirit.

Peychaud’s BittersProductImages-Peychaud Bitters 10Oz 70prf 295.7ml Glass

Peychaud’s bitters are where you are going to get stuck. They are unique in the world of bitters and a Sazerac is not a Sazerac without one.
Scrappy’s Creole bitters are sometimes offered up as a substitute. You could try to make your own version of Peychaud’s but I have yet to find a recipe that comes close.

They are pretty widely available at decent liquor stores across the US. In Canada, they are often not available. You can sometimes find them online. your best bet may be a quick cross border shopping trip.

Sazerac Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3 or 4 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
  • a few drops water
  • 2 ounces rye whiskey such as Sazerac Rye
  • 1 teaspoon Herbsaint Pernod, pastis, or absinthe
  • lemon peel

Instructions

  1. Chill an old fashioned glass.
  2. In a mixing glass combine sugar, Peychaud’s bitters, a few drops of water.
  3. Mix until sugar is dissolved.
  4. Add Rye and stir.
  5. Rinse old fashioned glass with herbsaint or pastis and discard.
  6. Twist lemon peel over drink and discard.
  7. Strain cocktail into glass and serve neat.
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