Today we’re taking a look at the rich, but fuzzy history of the Sazerac. We’ll make three versions of this famous New Orleans cocktail that embodies the spirit of the Crescent City. One from 1843, before it was named Sazerac, one from the 1890s by the ex-manager of the Sazerac House, and a modern version, the way I enjoy this cocktail the most.
There are many stories about the history of this cocktail, from claims that Antoine Peychaud created it as the first ever cocktail when mixing his own bitters with brandy, which of course isn’t true, he was born in 1803 and the first written mention of the cocktail was in 1806.
Others are saying that the Cognac named Sazerac-de-Forge et fils is the reason for the name, or that it was created at the Sazerac Coffee House, which opened in 1859 and later renamed to the Sazerac House.
Then there’s the question of when and why did the recipe switch from brandy to rye? When was absinthe added and when did it go away? What about the Sazerac Company and the bottled Sazerac Cocktails, something David Wondrich thinks is the origin of this cocktail. There’s a lot to unpack with this one.
When learning about classic cocktails I like to check out old books or Imbibe! by David Wondrich, but there’s also a ton of information you can find online. If anyone wants to go down a very deep rabbit hole on the history of this cocktail, and many others for that matter, check out the blog called Bar Vademecum - https://bar-vademecum.eu/sazerac-cocktail/
Armin Zimmermann did an extensive research on the Sazerac, with the popular theories, checking the facts and providing an extensive list of printed recipes.
He starts off by saying that “Pretty much everything people think they know about the Sazerac cocktail is wrong.” But I think Mark Twain was right when he said 'Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.'
I’ll start with a version that was made before anyone called it Sazerac. On February 1st, 1843…
“The Daily Picayune” a New Orleans newspaper, quoted a description from another publication, the Sunday Mercury, stating that “..if you are at a hotel, and wish to call for a beverage compounded of brandy, sugar, absinthe, bitters and ice, called by the vulgar “a cocktail”, ask for une queue de chanticleer…” That could be translated to “tail of the dominant rooster”, or, you guessed it, a cocktail. Let’s make it.
● 1 sugar cube
● splash of water
● 4 dashes Peychaud's bitters
● one-wine glass of cognac
Since this isn’t really a recipe, but just a list of ingredients I’ll use what we learned about making the mid-19th century cocktails from our previous Old vs New episodes. I’m chilling an old fashioned glass and into a small mixing glass I’ll add a sugarcube and a splash of water to muddle and dissolve the sugar, as much as possible.
Then add 4 dashes of bitters. Antoine Peychaud created his bitters in New Orleans in the 1830s so it fits the time and the place of the newspaper article. Next, cognac. 1 wine-glass, which equals 60 mls or 2 oz, is what would have been used at the time. I’m using the timely named Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, but if you can get the relaunched version of Sazerac de Forge & Fils cognac, made by the Sazerac House since 2019, use that.
Fill the mixing glass with ice and stir to chill and dilute. Then dump the ice from your glass, add a splash of absinthe and coat the inside of the glass. Dump the excess and strain the cocktail in the glass.
This part wasn’t written but I think a lemon zest squeezed over the top was presumed and it really benefits this drink. With that, we have une queue de chanticleer as written in 1843.
Let's move to the second part of the 19th century.
That’s when cognac mostly was replaced with rye whiskey, for several reasons, among them was that the phylloxera epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards in Europe, most notably in France, which of course had its effects on cognac production. American influences were also taking over from the French and Creole cultures in New Orleans and that shifted the focus from brandy to the spirit aged in American oak barrels. Which makes this a great time to talk about today’s sponsor, who used reclaimed wood from whiskey barrels to make this awesome watch on my wrist. For this one, I’ll be using Sazerac Rye, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, lemon peel, and absinthe. The recipe is featured in Wondrich’s “Imbibe!” and is credited to Thomas Handy, the ex-manager of the Sazerac House in New Orleans. He acquired the rights to Peychaud’s Bitters in 1873, and by the 1890s he was selling bottled Sazerac Cocktails.
His version of the whiskey cocktail is believed to be what is now considered the Sazerac.
● 1/2 sugar cube
● splash of water
● a jigger of rye
● 2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
● several drops of Absinthe
I’ll make the cocktail fast and to the point, verbatim as it was written down.
Frappe an old fashioned flat bar glass; then take a mixing glass and wuddle half a cube of sugar with a little water; Add ice, a jigger of good whiskey, Two dashes of 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 the Absinthe. Now strain the Cocktail into the frozen glass and serve with ice water on the side.
Manager of the Sazerac House died in 1893 meaning the recipe couldn’t have been younger than that. What’s interesting is that the first printed recipe, by William “Cocktail Bill” Boothby in his 1908 book “The World’s Drinks and How To Mix Them” still calls for brandy, not whiskey, and even a different brand of bitters. But it also calls for gum syrup, not sugar to be dissolved. The rinse of absinth and a lemon garnish are right where they should be. For the modern version of the Sazerac I like to combine some of these recipes, to make what I believe to be the best version of this drink.
● 1 bar spoon rich gomme syrup
● 3 dashes Peychaud's bitters
● 1 dash Angostura bitters
● 45 mL (1.5 oz) Sazerac Rye
● 15 mL (0.5 oz) Cognac
● Absinthe spray
You’ll need both Rye whiskey & cognac, Peychaud’s & Angostura Bitters, Gum syrup, and a spray of absinthe. A lot has evolved from the time the first cocktails were made, and using a syrup instead of a sugar cube is one of those things.
Start by chilling the mixing glass, like we always do. And if you have enough room in the freezer, keep your glassware there, so the drink stays cold for longer, even without ice in the drink. dump the ice and add the ingredients, starting with a barspoon of rich gum syrup. If you want to make a cocktail that’s as consistent as possible, from the first sip to the last, always use a syrup. Gum arabic adds a hint of silkiness that you wouldn’t get from a simple syrup. Next up, bitters. Like Angostura, Peychaud's bitters are also gentian-based, but with a predominant anise aroma combined with a background of mint. The combination of both is seen in many Sazerac recipes. To make sure we have controlled dashes I have both in special dashed bottles - 3 dashes of Peychaud’s and 1 dash of Angostura.
Now the spirits, first up, Sazerac Rye, 45 ml or 1.5 oz. This spicy rye whiskey is made by the Buffalo Trace distillery, and while it is a marketing nod to the history of this drink, it’s also a good choice for a Manhattan. For the Sazerac Cocktail though, I’ll also add 15 ml, or 0.5 oz, of cognac. I’m using Remy Martin 1738. Compared to Pierre Ferrand 45%, this one is only 40% ABV, but it’s in a supporting role to the whiskey so that’s plenty. Then add ice and stir well to chill and dilute. After that you’ll spray the inside of your chilled glass with absinthe.
After absinthe was banned in the United States in 1912, it was replaced by various anise-flavored liqueurs, most notably locally produced Herbsaint. It’s available again and I always prefer spraying the glass over rinsing, to get an even coating and less waste.
Final step is a spray of lemon essential oils from the zest. To make sure the lemon peel continues to add a wonderful, fresh aroma to the cocktail, without imparting the flavor too much, I’ll skewer the rolled up peel and place the cocktail pick in the cocktail. Serve a glass of ice water on the side. Alcohol, similar to coffee, dehydrates the body and a glass of water shows the guest that you care about their well-being.
There were at least 227 Sazerac recipes printed from 1908 to 2018, and that’s not even including online sources, so you’ll also find recipes where rum, vermouth, applejack, and many different bitters are used. So who knows what’s the proper Sazerac?