I woke up this morning from a dream about walking around the French Quarter, and for a few moments had that hazy, happy, warm feeling from the conjured sultry air and sunshine, gazing at prehistorically large potted ferns dangling from wrought-iron balconies, and the Sazerac that I was sipping on. It kind of ruined my taste for coffee–but it gave me a good excuse to linger in the history of this red-hued, rye-based elixir.
It’s almost a year since my last pilgrimage to that most densely overloaded of sensory-experience cities, New Orleans. If there is any place in the world that pulls me toward it, body and palate, like a magnet hurtling toward its polar opposite, that’s it. Yes, Paris is amazing; sure, Rome is a culinary treasure; and hell yes, I love to get in on some northern California farm-fresh affairs.
But New Orleans, with its sticky pot of food-culture melding and sultry, boozy, cocktail-sipping sensibilities is the one that makes me hunger and thirst for more, more, more.
The Official Cocktail
It also happens to be the only city in the country with an official cocktail – via a bill proposed to the state Senate by Democrat Edwin Murray, the Sazerac became the official mixable of the good city of New Orleans on June 23, 2008. Which, of course, begs the question: What’s so unique or great about a Sazerac? It’s a simple drink, truly: rye, Herbsaint (or Pernod or Absinthe in a pinch), simple syrup, a lemon twist. That’s it.
And yet, there’s a certain art to getting the ingredients just right. In their book In the Land of Cocktails, cousins, Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan, members of the legendary NOLA Brennan family, and owners of the iconic gustatory institutions Commander’s Palace, Café Adelaide, and Swizzle Stick Bar, have this to say about the venerable cocktail:
“We are Sazerac evangelists. Perhaps cocktails would never have caught on if the original one—the Sazerac—wasn’t such a perfect concoction.”
But Officially the Original?
Original? As in the first cocktail? Well, that’s debatable in some circles. Pinpointing cocktail history to a specific moment in time and space is about as slippery as the tile floor at Arnaud’s after spilling a vat of turtle soup on it. But there are some things we do know for sure: According to Brennan and Martin, the Sazerac dates back to the early 1800s and was created by that apothecary of yore, Antoine Peychaud.
Pinpointing cocktail history to a specific moment in time and space is about as slippery as the tile floor at Arnaud’s after spilling a vat of turtle soup on it.
Initially, Peychaud used both absinthe and Cognac as main ingredients—the latter, so de rigueur in Francophiliac New Orleans at the time, and also the source of the drink’s name: Peychaud’s very favorite version of the fine brandy, Sazerac-de-Forge et fils.
But toward the later part of the century, a little pest called phylloxera swept Europe, nearly decimating all the grape vines, and suddenly the grape-based Cognac became a rare thing, indeed. But for Brennan and Martin, that’s a-okay: “To our taste, Old Overholt rye whiskey or Sazerac [rye] are balanced and preferred, and in place of the original absinthe, we like Herbsaint.”
Herbsaint or Nothing
What’s so great about Herbsaint? For one, it’s another NOLA invention, further cementing the drink’s ingredients into the fiber of the Crescent City (as are the Peychaud’s Bitters it contains). For the 75th anniversary of Herbsaint’s creation–a response to the ban on absinthe–Legendre (now owned by the Sazerac Company) released its original recipe for the liqueur, which contains no traces of the scapegoated ingredient, wormwood, that apparently caused the crazies with absinthe (it’s not true, just for the record).
Herbsaint has other qualities that add to the layers of the drink, beyond history–pop the cork and it smells like you just sliced into a fresh, juicy fennel bulb. To me, it’s even a little floral with a mild, gentle note of dill that you pick up if you sit and think on it for second. It’s kind of oily on your tongue, too, in the most luxurious way.
Time for a Sazerac Yet?
Anyway, it’s Tuesday, friends, and word just came in that we’re going to get pummeled with snow yet again in the Northeast. And while it’s looking unlikely that I’ll be hopping on a plane in a sundress and landing at the Sazerac Bar on Baronne Street tonight, I am feeling the lingering effects of last’s night cocktail-swirly dream, so that’s what I’ll be mixing up this evening. You should, too. If you’re so inclined around 5 p.m. or so, give the recipe below a go–and, of course, laissez les bon temps rouler.
(makes 1; From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bartending by Amy Zavatto)
1 TBSP Herbsaint (or Pernod, Pastis, or absinthe, if that’s what you have on hand)
2 oz. rye
1/4 oz. simple syrup
3 dashes Peychaud bitters
1 lemon twist
Fill a cocktail shaker half full with ice. Pour in the simple syrup, Peychaud bitters, and rye. Give it a good stir. Pour the Herbsaint into an old-fashioned glass, tilting and turning the glass to coat the inside. Discard any extra (or keep it if you like; have at it). Strain the contents of the shaker into the glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.