I’ll admit it, I love a good, thoughtful cocktail. Back in the day— and I’m referring to the days I was barely old enough to drink, and then wasn’t, because legal age changed in New York State during my young adult years— I would belly up to the bar and order something that my current self would recognize as disgusting. Something like an Alabama Slammer, which is a sickeningly sweet bar drink with one primary goal— getting you rip-roaring drunk in as short a time as possible. Bleh.
Today, my grown-up self wants a sipping drink, one that tells a story, and this story is set in New Orleans. The rest of the story’s details are, well, a little sketchy.
Meet the Sazerac. Official drink of New Orleans, and perfectly apropos for Mardi Gras!
Walk into any respectable cocktail bar in New Orleans, and you might learn that the Sazerac was originally crafted there in 1838 by an apothecary (old-fashioned term for pharmacist) named Antoine Peychaud. The tale might include reference to a concoction he stirred up for medicinal purposes (also my favorite excuse), using his favorite French cognac (Sazerac de Forge et fils) and his own tincture made from gentian bark and other botanicals. A bartender across town, however, might claim that the drink was created 20 years later in a New Orleans coffee house, and it included pre-rinsing the glass with absinthe, a French liqueur that was banned half a century later for being “hallucinogenic.” Yet another barkeep might tell you with great conviction that this drink is much older than both of those versions, with written recipes as far back as 1806.
The truth may lie somewhere in the middle— whatever that means— and if you want to get technical about it, the Sazerac only became the “official” cocktail of New Orleans on June 23, 2008. Thank God the internet was around by then, so we at least have record of that much!
However the drink originated, the French-rooted Sazerac has been Americanized in several ways, and none of them bad. The cognac was eventually replaced with American rye whiskey, which brings a terrific spice to the cocktail. There is even a rye named Sazerac today, presumably so that it would be considered “official” for this cocktail. Peychaud’s bitters lend a vibrant red color and herbal flavors, and Herbsaint, an herbal liqueur that plays understudy to absinthe but actually is not as easy to find as modern-day absinthe, gives the drink an air of intoxicating mystery (as if it needs any more of that).
All these details make my head spin a little bit, and that brings me back to the Sazerac I’m sharing today for Mardi Gras. Having only been to New Orleans in my dreams (at least, so far), my experience of the Sazerac is limited to having enjoyed it in other places, and most recently in a swanky steakhouse bar in Virginia. I like that the Sazerac is strong, bold and definitely meant for sipping more than drinking. My only personal preference is for it to be a bit colder, given that it is typically not served on ice. For my version, I have chosen to marry the old Sazerac story with the new, by keeping a touch of French cognac in the background of spicy American rye whiskey. Peychaud’s bitters are easy to find wherever quality cocktail ingredients are sold, and I reverted back to absinthe for rinsing my glass. There’s a sugar cube involved, too, or you can sub in a bar spoon full of caster sugar or even simple syrup if you have it.
Whew. That’s a lot of information! Who’s ready for a cocktail??
The first step is chilling down the double rocks glass that you’ll serve the drink in. A Sazerac traditionally is not served on rocks, so getting the glass cold is a must. Fill it with ice while you gather up the rest of your ingredients— rye, cognac (if you wish), Peychaud’s, a bit of sugar and absinthe. Muddle the sugar with bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add the rye (and cognac, if using) and stir to blend with the sugar-Peychaud’s mixture.
I like my drinks nice and cold, so I tossed some ice into the mixing glass for a few spins, though this is not traditional. I considered (for about one second) using an absinthe that my husband’s son, Alex, brought home from his travels in Europe, but this stuff is 184 proof and I feared that it might melt my liver. Whew, I had no idea something this strong even existed!
Those yesteryear claims of absinthe having hallucinogenic properties probably had more to do with the crazy high alcohol content. Rather than risk it, I went with a lesser proof absinthe that I picked up at our state-run liquor store. Same flavor— very potent, medicinal and licorice-like, almost like Formula 44 cough syrup, if you remember that stuff. Now, before you get grossed out at that reference and vow to never try a Sazerac, please consider that it’s a miniscule amount of absinthe that ends up in the cocktail because it is only used to rinse the glass before the mixed drink is poured into it. Nobody would drink Worcestershire sauce either, but a touch of it in a recipe makes a world of difference. I’m just saying.
Here’s how to do the rinse: empty the ice from the rocks glass and swirl about a tablespoon of absinthe into it— tip the glass every which way to ensure that it touches up the sides, and then empty it out. Strain the drink into the glass and garnish.
The lemon strip that usually accompanies the Sazerac is meant to entice rather than flavor, so don’t squeeze or drop it into the cocktail glass. I used a peeler to strip two thin pieces of lemon peel— one is strictly for expressing over the glass (and nobody would mind if you swiped it around the rim), and the other is trimmed and slit so it can be perched like a flame on the edge of the glass.
Though its exact origin is still the subject of heated debate, this strong drink is undisputedly the official cocktail of New Orleans. Enjoy one for Mardi Gras!
- 2 oz. rye whiskey (or bourbon, if you prefer a softer drink)
- 1/2 oz. French cognac
- 1 sugar cube (or 1 tsp. superfine sugar or 2 tsp. simple syrup)
- 3 generous dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- 1/4 oz. absinthe (for glass rinse)
- 1 wide strip lemon peel for garnish
- Chill double rocks glass with ice, or place in freezer.
- Drop sugar cube into mixing glass. Add bitters and use a muddler to crush and dissolve the sugar.
- Add rye whiskey and cognac to mixing glass and stir to combine.
- Empty ice from cocktail glass. Pour absinthe into glass and swirl it around to rinse the inside. Pour out excess absinthe.
- Pour cocktail into chilled, rinsed glass. Express lemon peel over the top of the drink, but do not drop it into the glass. Rest it on top edge of the glass, or create a “flame” by trimming the ragged sides of the peel and cutting a long slit into the middle of it. Position the lemon flame onto the edge of the glass.