New Orleans in a Glass: Stirring Up a Seductive Sazerac

One of America’s oldest known cocktails, the Sazerac is a New Orleans classic. One sip and you’ll quickly realize why this reddish-orange elixir has been going strong since the 1800s. The Sazerac has a big, bold flavor that’s remarkably well-balanced, with a blend of sweetness, spice, and herbal notes, all wrapped up in one potent, whiskey-loving libation. Though difficult to master, it’s a fairly easy drink to make. It’s also a great cocktail to showcase your mixology skills, particularly while playing some fiery jazz in the background — you can’t go wrong with Rebirth Brass Band.

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The Sazerac

Ingredients:

  • 4 dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters
  • 2 oz. Rye Whiskey
  • 1 tablespoon of absinthe
  • 1 sugar cube
  • several drops of water
  • lemon peel, for garnish

Method:

  1. In a mixing glass, muddle the sugar with the water.
  2. Add ice cubes, rye, and Peychaud’s Bitters. Stir well.
  3. Rinse a chilled old-fashioned glass with absinthe, thoroughly coating the sides; then pour off the excess.
  4. Strain the contents of the mixing glass into the old-fashioned glass.
  5. Express the lemon peel over the drink then garnish on the glass.

The Bitter Truth

The most important element is Peychaud’s Bitters — without it, you’re not really drinking a Sazerac. This flavor-packed ingredient was developed by a Creole apothecary named Antoine Amédée Peychaud, whose family fled the revolution in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), and settled in New Orleans in the early 19th century. Peychaud began hawking his bitters, based on an old family recipe, in the 1830s and proudly touted their medicinal quality — in those days bitters and other alcohol-infused concoctions were treated as restorative cure-alls, alleviating everything from stomach ailments to general debilitation, and recommended for adults, the elderly, and even infants.

Some New Orleans guides even claim that Peychaud essentially invented the cocktail. According to legend, Peychaud served his customers his curatives in an upturned egg-cup, known in French as a coquetier. Over time, the word was anglicized to the easier to pronounce “cocktail.” It’s a fine story — one that’s repeated endlessly around town — though not quite grounded in reality since the first appearance of the word “cocktail” was spotted in 1806, when Peychaud was just three years old.

Evolution of a Cocktail

Given the long-running French connection in New Orleans, it’s not surprising that cognac was the original main ingredient for the Sazerac. Indeed, the whole drink is named after the cognac that Peychaud used — the Sazerac de Forge & Fils (a label brought back to life in 2019). In the 1870s, however, the phylloxera epidemic devastated the grape industry in France, making it impossible to find cognac (produced from the Ugni blanc grape grown in the Cognac region in the southwest). Savvy bartenders simply swapped in rye whiskey and the change stuck. Even when cognac was widely available again and rye had largely gone out of fashion, New Orleanians almost single-handedly kept the rye industry alive as they allowed no compromise when it came to making a Sazerac.

Absinthe was another variable component of the drink. When the high-proof alcohol was banned in 1912, drink makers swapped in a legal wormwood-free substitute that boasted the same anise-flavored profile. Herbsaint, which was created in New Orleans, indeed shares many similarities with absinthe, from its greenish-gold hue to its very name (the French in Louisiana called wormwood ‘herbe sainte’; today its modern label contains images of the wormwood plant, despite the absence of the ingredient within). Now that absinthe is legal again, you can make it according to tradition. You can also sub in cognac in place of the rye, and enjoy the cocktail as it was originally conceived. No matter how you make it, just be sure to pace yourself: the boozy cocktail is definitely one to slip slowly.

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