New Orleans, especially the touristy French Quarter, is known for its indulgence in, and even encouragement of, imbibing. It’s always been a place where you can be who you want to be and do what you want to do, just so long as you don’t hurt anybody else in the process. It serves as a necessary and healthy balance to our ever-growing culture of moral righteousness and self-superiority. So even in the streets and on the sidewalks you find folks drinking beer, frozen fruit daiquiris, the ever-present Hurricane cocktails and even JÃ¤germeister shots, which are dispensed ice-cold from spigots that seem to run the length of Bourbon Street.
Yet for old-time New Orleanians, the real drink of the Crescent City is the Sazerac cocktail. And the best place to drink one is in the quintessential New Orleans restaurant, Commander’s Palace (although Galatoire’s will do just fine as well).
Many historians and aficionados of booze agree that the Sazerac was the very first cocktail ever invented. Its creator is said to be Antoine Peychaud, an apothecary from the West Indies who moved to New Orleans in the early 19th century. The drink was made from a secret family recipe of bitters, sugar and water mixed with French brandy. Even today, Peychaud’s Bitters is produced and sold in New Orleans.
Eventually, Peychaud’s cocktail found its way into the bars of New Orleans, which at that time were called “coffee houses.” One particularly popular coffee house in the mid-1850s was the Sazerac. Apparently, an especially insightful bartender began adding a splash of absinthe to Peychaud’s cocktail, and it became so popular with the Sazerac Coffee House patrons that the drink itself came to be known as the Sazerac cocktail.
Over the years the Sazerac morphed and changed. In the late 1800s the bartenders at the Sazerac House (as it was now called) switched from using cognac in the Sazeracs to rye whiskey, which is still used today. Around 1950 the Sazerac House relocated to The Roosevelt Hotel, where it remains today, renamed the Sazerac Bar and Restaurant.
While multitudes of tourists descend on The Roosevelt these days in search of the perfect Sazerac, many enthusiasts swear by the ones made at Commander’s Palace (where they’re made with bourbon, not rye). I tend to like the Sazeracs at Galatoire’s, although they serve theirs on the rocks, which apparently is a serious faux pas for traditionalists.
On the rocks or not, the Sazerac is a very complex drink, in the way that wines can sometimes be quite complex. It’s not a “layered” drink per se, yet there are layers and pockets of distinctly different flavors in a Sazerac. You’ll find noticeable anise flavors but also hints of honey and sugar, along with the deep velvety warmth of bourbon or rye whiskey.
Here is the best Sazerac recipe I’ve found, supposedly from a Sazerac Bar and Restaurant bartender:
1 teaspoon simple syrup or 1 teaspoon granulated fine sugar
3-4 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 ounces rye whiskey or bourbon
Â¼ teaspoon Herbsaint (an absinthe substitute from New Orleans)
Swirl the Herbsaint (or use a small atomizer) to coat an Old Fashioned glass on the sides and bottom. In a cocktail shaker, add four to five small ice cubes, the simple syrup or sugar, bitters and whiskey or bourbon. Stir gently until the drink is cold, then strain into the Herbsaint-coated glass. Squeeze the piece of lemon peel over the drink to drizzle a few drops of lemon oil into it. Garnish with the lemon peel.