The Sazerac Cocktail: A Tale of New Orleans
There is a quality about New Orleans, a sensation even, that is hard to describe. There on the sultry Gulf coast, in the crescent between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, the heat drifts in and smothers the city like a damp blanket. In the old days, the docks were alive with commerce, the steamers churning the waters with their huge paddlewheels, their decks stacked high with cotton bales and their rails lined with passengers. Tall-masted ships from Europe, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean unloaded their cargoes of coal, tea, coffee, and silk, and refilled their cavernous bellies with cotton, sugar, rice, and corn. Fast steam sloops darted in and out like worker bees at a hive, while the barges and rafts poled along the shore. Merchants from all over the world came to the Crescent City: wily Frenchmen in their brightly printed shirts, talking a mile a minute and eyeing greedily the dockside femmes; fat Dutchmen with their enormous beards and top hats pulled low on their brows; English sea captains strutting along the pier with a gaggle of British tars in their wake, their short jackets open, straw hats cocked rakishly on their heads. Wood frame houses with roofs warped by the heat and humidity, sat drooping behind the levee that kept the waters at bay, inhabited by people of every color and nation: commission agents, brokers, smugglers, dock laborers, sailors, draymen, and carters. In the town square near the church one saw the newly erected statue of Andrew Jackson, doffing his hat from the back of a rearing horse, around which the street hawkers peddled their wares, while the prostitutes peddled theirs in the very shadows of the church itself. One never lacked for entertainment, sacred or secular, in New Orleans. In that respect, not much has changed.
Its official cocktail, so proclaimed in 2008, is the Sazerac, though the libation is much older than that. Some say that the Sazerac was the first cocktail, a claim that is almost universally dismissed. It doesn’t show up in print until 1908. However, the Sazerac is based on a very old drink, the Brandy Cocktail (what we would now call a brandy Old-Fashioned), and the New Orleans version is a fancy version of the original. The Sazerac is now traditionally made with rye whiskey which replaced the brandy after the vineyards where cognac was produced were wiped out by blight in the mid-1800s.
½ tsp. Absinthe or Herbsaint
2 oz Rye Whiskey
½ tsp. Simple Syrup
2 (or more) dashes Peychaud Bitters
Wash the inside of a chilled glass with the absinthe by swirling it around and dumping out most of the excess. Stir the remaining ingredients with ice until cold then strain into the glass. Express the oil from a piece of lemon peel over the drink and drop it in.
I like a few extra dashes of Peychaud’s in mine, but it is a personal preference. To make the original, use brandy instead of whiskey.
Have a Sazerac and dream of Royal Street, beignets, and Louis Armstrong.