The notion that the Sazerac is a drink that can be sipped at any decent bar across the country, from Staten Island to San Diego, is a testament to what a fine cocktail it is. But it wasn’t always this way—not even in its home city.
“When I moved to New Orleans in 1999, you only really found Sazeracs in traditional restaurants and some bars,” says Sara Roahen, a former food critic for “Gambit Weekly” and the author of the New Orleans love letter “Gumbo Tales.” “I had to hunt it down—it was special. At Galatoire’s, you could order one with your red fish almondine. It was in that category of delicacy.”
The Sazerac is, of course, the official cocktail of Louisiana and one roundly consumed for well over 100 years in the city of New Orleans. “The history of the drink is tied to the history of the city,” says Russ Bergeron, the barman responsible for the 2009 reopening of The Sazerac Bar in The Roosevelt hotel on Canal Street where he spent nearly a decade making many of the elegant watering hole’s namesake tipples. “As the city changed, so did the drink, and with each incarnation, the legend grew.”
While the Sazerac’s combination of flavors is certainly not lacking in complexity and can make one giddy at the pure mystical beauty of alcohol alchemy, its recipe isn’t so long as to be intimidating: rye whiskey, Herbsaint (or absinthe or pastis—pick your fave, but you get the picture), Peychaud’s bitters (and some would argue passionately Angostura, too), a sugar cube and a lemon peel. Four ingredients and a garnish will make it happen for you in good form.
But oh how those ingredients can be tussled over. “The first Sazerac House opened in New Orleans in 1852,” says Kevin Richards, the senior marketing director for Sazerac Company, where the whiskey and the bar (the latter under a long-term licensing agreement with Sazerac Company) each get their name. “The Sazerac name in reference to the cocktail was trademarked in 1900. The Sazerac Company was founded in 1919.” This is all true. But as for who’s credited with making the first Sazerac and which spirits were used, that’s a lot more complicated.
A cognac called Sazerac-de-Forge-et-Fils, which is what the bar was named after, as its owner owned the license to that spirit (good product marketing is not a modern concept), was served at the original Sazerac Coffee House along with other popular spirits of the time. Antoine Peychaud himself has been given some loose credit for both the invention of the Sazerac and that of the cocktail in general as he apparently enjoyed combining his namesake bitters with French brandy in pretty little cups called coquetiers.
This combo apparently caught on and traveled to the talented barmen of Sazerac House who added the finishing touches, including absinthe. It has been purported that phylloxera, a vine-rotting pest that nearly took out Europe’s gloried wine industry in the later part of the 19th century (and, thus, any wine-based distillates, like brandy), cut off NOLA’s supply of cognac. Rye was substituted and—ta-da!—the Sazerac as we know it today was born.
This story is often credited to Stanley Clisby Arthur, a sometime California journalist who spent time in New Orleans and wrote a book called “Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em” in 1938, which recorded in print many of the city’s celebrated cocktails. Of the Sazerac, he wrote: “There are cocktails and cocktails, but the best known of all New Orleans cocktails is the Sazerac.”
Sazerac Coffee House was owned by John B. Schiller, Arthur continues, who sold the establishment to his bookkeeper turned barman, Thomas Handy. Handy shortened the name to Sazerac House, and “American rye whiskey was substituted for the cognac to please the tastes of the Americans who preferred ‘red likker’ to any pale-faced brandy.”
First of all, cognac is an aged spirit. While that might seem like a tiny and potentially arguable detail, Arthur’s statement of swapping a pale spirit for a red one is, at the very least, questionable.
(illustration: Justin Shiels)
“Brandy and whiskey are both wood-aged distillates, but while the wood is a dominant flavor in both, one is grain-based and one is grape-based, and those are just different in flavor and character,” says Chris McMillian, a 30-year veteran of the New Orleans bar scene and the owner Revel Café & Bar. “The drink made with cognac is not a Sazerac! It’s like someone making a Manhattan with vodka and calling it a Manhattan.” This is why McMillian, who’s also co-founder of the city’s Museum of the American Cocktail, believes the drink was always made with American whiskey and never with French brandy.
Second, and more intriguing, is McMillian’s other conclusion. “The Sazerac Bar was in the 100 block right off Canal Street, which was the dividing point between Americans and French Creoles in New Orleans,” he says. “The 100 block always catered to Americans.” And what did Americans drink? Rye whiskey, often employed by Handy and bartender-partners he brought on named Vincent Merit and William H. Wilkinson.
Cocktail historian David Wondrich recently unearthed a couple of dusty newspaper clippings: one from 1895 in which Merit was credited as the best darned whiskey cocktail maker in New Orleans; the second from 1899, where the words Sazerac and cocktail are finally united into one delicious notion.
“Arthur took license because he wanted to write an entertaining book,” says McMillian. “But if you go back and examine the sources, you can see where he deviated from the story and where he comes to some of his conclusions.”
So while Arthur wanted very much to give a DOB of 1870 to the Sazerac cocktail, and people may well have been drinking something similar, in all likelihood, that simply wasn’t officially happening for another 30 years.
“I’m mad at not figuring this out myself,” says Philip Greene, a cocktail historian and the author most recently of “A Drinkable Feast: A Cocktail Companion to 1920s Paris.” “We know the Sazerac Coffee House opened in 1850. We know they served cocktails. We can prove from a newspaper ad that Sazerac House used Peychaud’s in 1857. But no one ever realized that there’s no reference to the Sazerac cocktail ’til the late 1890s,” he says.
For our modern-day purposes, bartender Ryan Gannon of New Orleans cocktail institution Cure may have the final word on the reason for the rye. “I like the romanticism of the idea that they couldn’t get cognac to make Sazeracs and had to figure something out,” he says. “But with all the research done, I definitely feel it’s a better drink with rye. It can be a good drink with cognac, but you would have to redo everything,” he says. “Pierre Ferrand [cognac], for instance, has so much body I’d hardly use any sugar. I’d definitely use less of everything, with the exception of the bitters.”
At Cure, they make two versions of the drink: The first is with Sazerac six-year-old rye, a quarter-ounce demerara syrup, 100-proof Herbsaint misted inside of the glass, three dropsof Peychaud’s (they decant their bitters to specifically measured droppers), and an expressed lemon peel, which you have the choice of being discarded or keeping in your glass. In the second version, Cure’s Reserve Classic Sazerac, the spirit is E.H. Taylor straight rye, a touch more simple syrup, and either the Jade 1901 or Nouvelle-Orléans absinthe.
Both versions employ Peychaud’s only, but even as a descendant of that family, Greene, whose great-great-grandmother was a Peychaud, is open to evolution. “I love Angostura bitters, but honestly I haven’t made a Sazerac with it in so long I can’t remember. Maybe it’s a creature-of-habit thing. It’s how I learned the drink from Clisby Arthur, and that’s how I make it.”