April 15, 2012

“Sazerac!” Not long after I started getting into cocktails, a scant year or two ago, I heard the word, maybe on the TV show ‘Treme’, or maybe referenced somewhere as the cocktail choice of sophisticated cocktail drinkers.  I loved the way the words sounded and soon looked up the ingredients. Hmm, two unavailable in Taiwan and one very expensive. It became a major goal of mine to make a Sazerac.

A Sazerac is not that difficult to make. It’s not something extra fancy like a Mai Tai. It’s basically just a fancy Old Fashioned. A Rye Cocktail with Peychaud’s as the bitters and a dash of Absinthe.

The attraction of the Sazerac is its status as the iconic drink of the iconic cocktail city, New Orleans. In fact the city made the drink its ‘official cocktail’ a few years ago. Sazeracs have been drunk there since the mid-19th century. Some even claim it is the first cocktail, made by Antoine Peychaud, with his bitters, in ‘couquetier’ egg cups, from which we get the word cocktail. It’s a nice story, but not true. Peychaud did make the bitters though, and supplied them to the Sazerac house who made a cocktail with their French Sazerac Cognac. Later in the century, when they couldn’t get Cognac, due to the phylloxera epidemic wiping out much of France’s grape crop, Rye Whiskey was used, and is the spirit of choice until this day.


2 oz Rye Whiskey

2-3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

1 dash Absinthe

1 sugarcube

Take an Old Fashioned glass and pack it with ice to chill. In another glass, saturate the sugar with bitters. Add a little water and muddle until the sugar is well crushed. Add some ice and the whiskey. Stir. Empty the glass that is full of ice and dash out any water. Add the Absinthe to this glass and give it a good swirl to coat the inside of the glass. Give the glass a good strong dash to get rid of any excess Absinthe. Strain the spirits mix into this glass. Cut a nice strip of lemon peel, rub it around the edges of the glass, twist over the drink and, optionally, throw it in.

I used Rittenhouse for my rye, and La Fee Parisienne for my absinthe. The traditional ryes used in New Orleans are Sazerac Rye and Old Overholt. Since Absinthe was illegal in most of the world for so long, Pastis such as Pernod has been substituted and in New Orleans the brand Herbsaint is traditional, but most seem to agree that good Absinthe (not the Czech stuff), when you can get it, is preferable.

For the water, I’ve seen reputable sources stipulating anywhere between a few drops and an ounce. I think 1/2 an ounce is fine. For the Absinthe, it doesn’t really matter – a few drops or 1/2 a teaspoon – as the goal is just to coat the glass. Dash out the excess.

Some people add Angostura Bitters, but most devotees call this wrong (it’s certainly not traditional), although some say just one drop has a very nice effect on the drink.

For those of us in Taiwan, a Sazerac is not easy to come by. Rye and Peychaud’s are both unavailable (I bought mine on my trip to NZ). And good Absinthe is expensive.

So with all that fuss, how did I like the drink I’d been waiting for for so long? It was OK. Very good, actually. But I think I’d put my expectations too high. I think I prefer a plain old Rye Old Fashioned to tell you the truth. I really don’t think Absinthe is my thing (more about that soon). I can see how it smoothed out the edges in the drink, but I think I liked those edges. I may be wrong, but I think it also had an effect of ‘prolonging’ the tastes in your mouth, which is good too – I’m certainly not saying that this drink is bad, but for me it’s not the pinnacle of the cocktail, not even the ‘true’ cocktails in this class. Personally, that would still be the Old Fashioned. It’s got more cred though, no doubt. As Dave Wondrich said, ordering one is like a cocktail geeks’ secret handshake between you and the bartender.

The Cognac Sazerac is more ‘original’ than the Rye version, even though the Rye has become more ‘traditional’. It’s made exactly the same, just substitute the spirits. In some ways I liked this more (with Courvoisier Exclusif VSOP). Unsurprisingly it’s a smoother drink. From my point of view, the smoothing effects of the Peychaud’s and the Absinthe are more suited to Cognac than to Rye.

Touted by cocktail gurus like Ted Haigh and Dave Wondrich is an ounce each way – Rye and Cognac. This was probably my favorite expression of the drink – smooth with just a little pepperiness.

Well, I’m not giving the Sazerac a ringing endorsement, but certainly, anyone who’s serious about cocktails has to give it a try. Maybe I’m just not making it right, who knows? Any big Sazerac fans out there?

Here’s a great scene from Treme. Food critic Alan Richman (playing himself) has annoyed the hell out of this chef by royally dissing New Orleans cuisine. Then he shows up at the New York restaurant where she works.


7 Responses to “Sazerac!”

  1. Seamus Says:

    Upping the pain-in-the-arse factor, but you could try the Sazerac with real gomme syrup. It further smooths out the edges and makes the drink quite delicious. Just requires tracking down some gum arabic.

    I wouldn’t say the gomme syrup was essential, but it’s definitely a nice addition. Somehow it doesn’t have quite the same vastly improving effect on other drinks.

    If you preferred the Cognac version, another idea might be to try it with Armagnac. Also nice. Recently I’m also kind of preferring the grape version to the grain one.

  2. theboolion Says:

    Thanks for the suggestion, Seamus. I’d like that, but haven’t found the gum arabic. I need to try the Indian spice shop, but even that’s a long shot. I couldn’t even find it in NZ (not that I looked everywhere). Perhaps I could order some online. Know a place?

  3. Seamus Says:

    Try cake decorating shops. That’s where I found it in NZ.

  4. theboolion Says:

    Thanks, but I have already tried baking supply stores. I’ll keep my eyes open though.

  5. Great post. This is one of my favorite drinks. I would argue that if you aren’t swept away by this cocktail, you may not be doing it right. Of course, it’s all a matter of opinion, but I’ve found this drink to be very temperamental and easy to get wrong.

    Kudos on the use of Rittenhouse, which is my go-to rye. You were able to find it in New Zealand? I am impressed, considering how hard it is to come by in the States already.

    And I agree with Seamus: The Armagnac version is lovely.

  6. theboolion Says:

    Thanks, Chaim. I’ll have to try some Armagnac some time. Any recommendations for something not too expensive, and not too hard to find?

  7. […] Many classic prohibition recipes call for small amounts of 1/4 teaspoon or so. I have now tried the Sazerac and the Improved Cocktail (with rye and with genever), which both call for very small amounts of […]

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