The Sazerac, that most quintessential of New Orleans libations, ranks right up there with po boys, pralines and chicory iced coffee as a signature local delicacy. But the bracing drink isn't just a barroom staple, it's also widely considered to be America's very first cocktail, with a rich history to boot.
According to boozy lore, the Creole apothecary Antoine Peychaud concocted the Sazerac back in 1838 at his shop on 437 Royal Street. He served it out of an egg cup, or coquetier, which many believe later inspired the word “cocktail.” The name of the actual drink Peychaud invented is said to have been derived from his favored French cognac, Sazerac-de-Forge et fils.
Before long, American rye whiskey replaced the cognac in Sazeracs, and in 1873 bartender Leon Lamothe upped the ante further by adding a dash of Absinthe, a then-notorious liquor dubbed "The Green Fairy" for its goblin-like hue. After Absinthe was banned in the U.S. in 1912 for supposedly giving drinkers hallucinations, Peychaud’s bitters was used instead. But ever since Absinthe was legalized in 2007, the licorice-flavored spirit is fair game to be used as an ingredient for purists.
The Sazerac has long been heralded as the prototypical New Orleans cocktail. Now there's a sprawling new interactive museum, Sazerac House, dedicated to the drink and the city's cocktail culture, which recently opened on the corner of Canal and Magazine streets. The classic version of the Sazerac--one sugar cube, one-and-a-half ounces of rye, a quarter-ounce of Herbsaint, three dashes of Peychaud's Bitters and a lemon peel--are served in sample-size sips for visitors there, but New Orleans bartenders have been riffing on the traditional Sazerac for years. Here, five standout twists:
Jewel of the South
Nick Detrich, bartender and co-owner: “Our recipe for the Sazerac takes the tradition of the Arnaud's French 75 version as a foundation and then builds upon it. At the French 75 bar, the bartenders there, going back at least 30 years, have combined the ingredients (Old Overholt Rye, Herbsaint, Peychaud's, and Sugar) and keep it chilled. It is served, undiluted, with a lemon twist then dropped in.”
“We begin with a higher proof rye whiskey (Rittenhouse 100) and then proof it down with Rancio Sec, which is essentially a Catalunyan Madeira. It imbues the rye with notes that you would find in an old bottle of rye or cognac--leather, tobacco, etc. We then add the Herbsaint and Peychaud's and keep it stored below freezing temperature.”
1.75oz Rittenhouse Rye 100
.5oz Matifoc Rancio Sec
.25 Herbsaint 80
Barspoon Demerara syrup
5 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
Combine all ingredients, except for the bitters, in a bottle and put in a freezer overnight. To serve, add 5 dashes of Peychaud's to a small rock's glass and then add 2.5oz of the batch. Express a lemon peel and drop in. Serve.
Jewel of the South, 1026 St. Louis Street
Bartender Sam Perez: "This drink doesn't shy too far from the Sazerac's roots in its build. The addition of apple brandy is small, but it changes the cocktail in a big way. Laird's plays so well with Peychaud's, and it brings forth a wonderful fall flavor with all of the ingredients together. I chose this build mostly after learning the history of the original Sazerac isn't as clear as we had understood, and that the first one may have included maraschino liquor. Maraschino sounded a little too sweet for me, but I loved the idea of adding something with more fruity notes to the cocktail while still packing that high proof punch."
.25oz demerara syrup
6 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.5oz Laird's Apple Brandy
.75oz Rye whiskey
Stir and strain into a chilled, absinthe rinsed glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Bar Marilou, 544 Carondelet Street
Alan Walter, spirit director: “It’s a Sazerac that extends the Caribbean connection but adheres to the ideal of the classic cocktail. Loa uses Clairin rum, ultra-specific to Haiti and a spirit making waves right now for its evocation of a particular place. This marvelously funky rum gives the rye version a serious run for its money and a postmark from a place, Haiti, whose ways influence our culture and gave birth to voodoo and its loa (voodoo spirit) from which our bar draws its name."
2 ounces Clairin Rum
3 dash Peychaud’s barrel aged bitters
.25 ounces Roasted Plantain syrup
To rinse Herbsaint Legendre
To garnish Lemon twist
Stir rum, syrup, and bitters with ice and strain into chilled rocks glass coated with Herbsaint Legendre. Twist lemon peel slightly over drink and drop in.
Combine equal parts sugar, water and thinly sliced plantain (about 3-4 whole plantains per quart of liquid) and simmer for 15 min., strain and cool.
Loa Bar at International House Hotel, 221 Camp Street
Twelve Mile Limit
Cole Newton, bartender and owner: "It's a tiki-tinged spin on the classic Sazerac, inspired by Antoine Peychaud's Caribbean roots and named for the ill-fated ship from Mutiny on the Bounty.”
1 oz Sazerac Rye
0.75 oz Oloroso Sherry
0.5 oz pineapple syrup
2 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
1 dash Bittermens Tiki Bitters
Chill a rocks glass. Combine all ingredients (except Herbsaint) in a mixing glass with ice. Stir, strain into prepared rocks glass. Spritz Herbsaint over surface of cocktail. Garnish with an orange peel.
Twelve Mile Limit, 500 S. Telemachus Street
The Elysian Bar
Lisa Nguyen, general manager: "We like using this instead of Herbsaint, because the anise is more subdued, and the wood age of the spirit works well with the cognac or any other wood-aged spirit. We use two lemon peels instead of just one because when you express one on the side of the glass, the lemon oil will coat the side of your hand and every time you take a sip you can experience the aromatic oil. So even if the drink dissipates, you get the aromatics of it until the very last sip."
2oz Hine Cognac
.25 housemade demerara syrup
3 dashes Peychauds bitters
2 lemon peels (one trimmed into a clean shape)
Spray a chilled rocks glass with Letherbee Charred Oak Absinthe Brun from an atomizer. In a mixing glass, combine cognac, Demerara syrup and Peychaud’s Bitters. Fill mixing glass to the top with large cubes of ice. Stir until well chilled. Strain into absinthe treated glass. Express the lemon peel that is not trimmed over around the midline of the glass. Express the second trimmed lemon peel directly over the top of the glass. Curl the peel with your fingers and rest on the lip of the glass for a polished presentation.
The Elysian Bar, 2317 Burgundy Street