New Orleans is famous for many things: Mardi Gras, beignets, gumbo, the Superdome. But perhaps nothing is more famous among drinks aficionados than the Sazerac, a classic cocktail consisting of rye whiskey, absinthe, sugar and bitters. The exact birthdate of the cocktail is elusive, and purported to be anytime between the 1830s and the late-1800s. For decades, the Sazerac was primarily a New Orleans drink, and even today, it’s regarded as the official cocktail of Louisiana. But it has proliferated during the modern cocktail era, and now it can be found in bars all over the world.
Many believe that the first Sazerac called for cognac, a spirit that was prevalent in French-influenced New Orleans during the 1800s. A cognac called Sazerac-de-Forge-et-Fils was served at the original Sazerac Coffee House, and Antoine Peychaud (inventor of the cocktail’s necessary Peychaud’s bitters) was known to enjoy combining his bitters with French brandy.
It’s possible that phylloxera, the 19th century vine-rotting epidemic that upended Europe’s wine trade, resulted in rye whiskey supplanting cognac in the cocktail. It’s possible that New Orleans’ residents simply substituted their preferred spirit into the drink. It’s also conceivable that Sazeracs were always made with rye whiskey, not brandy, and that well-intentioned claims to the contrary are based on incorrect intel. Regardless of the hard-to-trace history or how the potential liquor swap occurred, this much is certain: The cognac version has its charms.
Distilled from grapes, cognac produces a different Sazerac than grain-based rye whiskey. While rye lends its trademark spice notes to the drink, cognac moves the flavor profile in a fruity and floral direction. Both versions are equally strong, provided that you’re using spirits of similar proof, and each allows the fiercely aromatic absinthe to shine.
This recipe was shared by bartending legend Gary Regan. Try making it yourself, and see the difference. Better yet, make a couple Sazeracs side by side, one with cognac and one with rye whiskey. Only then can you crown a champion.
- Absinthe, to rinse
- 2 ounces cognac
- 1/2 ounce simple syrup
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- Garnish: lemon peel
Rinse a chilled Old Fashioned glass with the absinthe, fill with crushed ice and set aside.
Add the cognac, simple syrup and bitters into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled.
Discard the ice and any excess absinthe from the prepared glass, and strain the drink into it.
Express the lemon peel oils over the top of the drink, and garnish with the peel.