Sazerac Cocktail

Oh, New Orleans, you’ve given us so much—Richard Simmons, a use for beaded necklaces, the game of poker, and a “home” for jazz music. But one achievement stands above them all: the Sazerac cocktail, a true New Orleans gem.

The History

Sewell Taylor was a successful New Orleans businessman in the mid-1800s and opened The Merchants Exchange Coffee House (saloon). He eventually sold the saloon to Aaron Bird who changed the name to the Sazerac House. Bird made his signature Sazerac Cocktail with Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac and bitters made in a nearby apothecary by Antoine Amedie Peychaud. After Bird, the Sazerac house changed ownership several times before it was purchased by Thomas Handy around 1870.

At this point are you thinking to yourself, “Cognac? A Sazerac is made with cognac?” Well it was... until the phylloxera epidemic of the 1880s wiped out a whole lot of wine grapes in France. The recipe was then changed to use rye, and today, any self-respecting cocktail connoisseur will only use rye.

The Recipe

The first time the Sazerac made with rye appears in print is in the The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them (1908) by William Boothby.

Sazerac Cocktail

(The Drink that made New Orleans Famous)

The recipe of the late Tom Handy, ex-manager of the world renowned Sazerac Bar:

Frappé an old-fashioned flat bar glass; then take a mixing glass and muddle half a cube of sugar with a little water; add some ice, a jigger (2 oz) of good whiskey, two dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, and a piece of twisted lemon peel; stir well until cold, then throw the ice out of the bar glass, dash several drops of Absinthe into the same, and rinse well with Absinthe. Now strain the cocktail into the frozen glass, and serve with ice water on the side.

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Like the old-fashioned, I use a variation of the original recipe:

  • 2 ounces rye whiskey
  • ¼ ounce simple syrup
  • 2-3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
  • Absinthe (or Herbsaint) for rinse

Chill a small cocktail glass by filling with ice. Stir the ice to chill the glass. In a larger mixing glass, add simple syrup, Peychaud’s bitters, and rye whiskey. Add ice and stir until chilled. Empty ice from small glass. Coat the small glass with absinthe. Strain ingredients from larger glass into smaller absinthe-coated glass. Cut a large twist of lemon and squeeze over glass, expressing the oils. I prefer to leave the squeezed peel out of the glass.

The Execution

A few tips that might help you further your skills toward making a Sazerac cocktail:

  • Peychaud’s bitters must be used in the Sazerac cocktail. Other aromatic bitters will just not do.
  • There are two common ways to do the absinthe rinse. Pour a small amount of absinthe into the glass, swirl it around, and dump out the excess. The second way, and the way I recommend, is to buy an atomizer and fill it with absinthe. Give the glass a healthy 2-3 squirts and a fine mist will perfectly coat the inside of the glass. This method is also preferred because you don’t have to waste any absinthe. (That stuff’s expensive!)

There you go. Not too difficult, but it does require the purchase of absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters, two things you may not be reaching for as often as other ingredients on your liquor shelf. But they’re well worth it, because the Sazerac is a true specialty, and one well made will surely impress your whiskey-drinking friends.

Although the original Sazerac House no longer exists, plenty of bars in the Big Easy specialize in making the Sazerac cocktail. Even if New Orleans isn’t in your immediate future, make sure the Sazerac is.