Subtly spiced. Spirit-forward. Dry but balanced with a touch of sweetness. Stirred and diluted with absolute precision. The Sazerac is a cocktail which evokes images of saloon bars in the French quarter of New Orleans in the early 20th century, and an appreciation for both how far bartending as a whole has come, and where it came from.
Every bar should hold the ingredients for a Sazerac, and every bartender the knowledge to make one. A truly great Sazerac, however, is made by someone willing to delve deep into what they do, who understands the subtle differences, and stand by the method they find to be best. Some will argue for 2 dashes of Peychauds bitters, while others advocate as many as 20. There’s a school of thought for a discarded absinthe rinse, and another for a less wasteful method. The use of Cognac as the base, either alone or as part of a split, is also a point of contention. Whichever way you prefer, the fact that so much reading, research and skill goes into a Sazerac, shows that it is a cocktail that must be treasured.
The history of the Sazerac is as ridiculously unclear as that of most golden-era cocktails. One heavily-romanticized story tells of a man from Haiti making his way to New Orleans in 1783, possessing little more than an old family recipe for an aromatic ointment good for relieving stomach ache. Looking to sell his bitters, as he called them, Antoine Amedée Peychaud would mix them with brandy, and serve them in a small porcelain cup, known as a coquetier in Peychaud’s native French. Of course, Americans would often butcher the pronunciation of coquetier, and eventually, the word transformed into one more familiar to us all today - cocktail.
This story, criminally under-used by the Peychaud’s marketing team, seeing as it puts their product at the genesis of both bitters and the cocktail in general, was recently debunked by famed cocktail historian David Wondrich in an article you can find here. Not only does Wondrich unpick the fanciful history of the Sazerac, but he categorically proves that the Sazerac was created as a whiskey-based drink.
Sneak through the door of your cocktail bar of choice, squeeze into a stall at the bar and order a Sazerac. It would be a challenge, as you make yourself comfortable, not to feel a certain warmth of excitment as the person behind the bar counts out the purple flashes shooting from their dasher bottle. Or as they check multiple times throughout the rigorous stirring process for the sweet-spot of dilution. They may either atomise or rinse absinthe into an unapologetically freezing-cold glass. It’s a drink that both requires and deserves a great amount of attention, from the bartender in its production and the patron in its consumption.
A precarious balancing act, a Sazerac will be flat if not enough bitters are added, and the notes of the rye become overpowered should aromatics be added too heavy-handedly. Under-dilution stops the spices in the bitters and rye from opening up. Over-stir it and you’ll find the drink thin and wishy-washy. A lemon peel left balanced upon the rim of the glass allows the imbiber to decide on expression of oils, while a glass fresh from the freezer is (always, but in this case especially) vital, thanks to the Sazerac being served neat but not up. This format will speed up the rate at which the drinks temperature rises, meaning it must be drunk quickly.
Making a Sazerac is mixology in its purest form. Bartending: the old-fashioned way. A truly golden-era cocktail, before Prohibition necessitated the introduction of an endless array of flavours. The Sazerac harks back to a time when barkeeps had a select few bottles of bitters and liqueurs to play with, and, as fantastic as the products in those bottles were, and still are, it takes an incredible amount of inventiveness to create something so unique.
Fantastic drinks like the Whiskey Sour, Clover Club or Cosmo are amazing ‘gateway’ cocktails. Much in the same way that a mocha is a gateway coffee, or paprika a gateway spice. Safe bets for a novice moving away from rail gin and post-mix tonic. While the Sazerac is not in the same realm as these crowd-pleasers, it works in much the same way, albeit maybe a few levels, or gates, deeper. See the Sazerac as a gateway cocktail in that it is the cocktail which takes you across the threshold of casual cocktail consumer to obsessive barfly and beyond.
Often, a budding barfly will drink a Sazerac before having the pleasure of deciphering Jerry Thomas or Henry Johnsons works from the late 1800’s. It is only after one goes back to the Sazerac, now with a better understanding of the time in which it was created, that the ingenuity of the drink, and the need for absolute devotion to perfection it necessitates, are fully appreciated.
You should start with a Sazerac for a plethora of reasons. Some fanciful, owing more to the ‘history’ of the drink and the way it can make you feel. Romanticism aside however, order yourself a Sazerac from a bartender who values their craft and you are in for a treat. A boozy-heavy cocktail which makes a spirit that seems unwelcoming to many approachable to all. You should start with a Sazerac, and keep coming back to it as you delve deeper into the murky waters of cocktail history. What’s in the glass may not change, but your love for this classic will keep on growing.
HITTHiSBAR: How The Paper Plane Took Off