THE SAZERAC: CLASSIC COCKTAIL OF NEW ORLEANS

Posted: May 13, 2022 in Uncategorized

If I asked you to name a cocktail that defines New Orleans, you might say The Hurricane. After all, it’s a tourist favorite at the famous Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon Street.

But the official cocktail of New Orleans is the Sazerac, a potent concoction that was created early in the 19th century by Antoine Amédée Peychaud, a Creole apothecary who emigrated to New Orleans from the West Indies and set up shop in the French Quarter. He was known to dispense a proprietary mix of aromatic bitters from an old family recipe, now famously known as Peychaud’s bitters.

Sazerac ingredients.

Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his New Orleans bar, the Merchants Exchange Coffee House, to become an importer of spirits, and he began to import a brand of cognac named Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils. Meanwhile, Aaron Bird assumed proprietorship of the Merchants Exchange and changed its name to Sazerac Coffee House

Legend has it that Bird began serving the “Sazerac Cocktail,” made with Sazerac cognac imported by Taylor, and allegedly with bitters being made by the local apothecary, Antoine Amedie Peychaud. The Sazerac Coffee House subsequently changed hands several times, until around 1870, when Thomas Handy became its proprietor. It is around this time that the primary ingredient in a Sazerac changed from cognac to rye whiskey, due to the phylloxera epidemic in Europe that devastated the vineyards of France.

At some point before his death in 1889, Handy recorded the recipe for the cocktail, which made its first printed appearance in William T. Boothby’s “The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them” in 1908, although his recipe calls for Selner bitters, not Peychaud’s. After absinthe was banned in the United States in 1912, it was replaced by various anise-flavored liqueurs, most notably the locally produced Herbsaint, which first appeared in 1934.

In March 2008, Louisiana state senator Edwin R. Murray filed Senate Bill 6 designating the Sazerac as Louisiana’s official state cocktail. The bill was defeated on April 8, 2008. But, after further debate, on June 23, 2008, the Louisiana Legislature agreed to proclaim the Sazerac as New Orleans’ official cocktail.

The Sazerac, served at the Sazerac Bar in New Orleans.

It’s always more fun when someone makes your drink for you!

Peychaud’s bitters are now owned by the Buffalo Trace distillery, home of many a fine bourbon, and also the makers of Sazerac rye, a registered trademark. So the Sazerac Bar has to pay a fee to use the name. That also explains why they use Sazerac rye in their version of this classic cocktail.

But like many popular drinks, everybody has their own version of a Sazerac. In fact, if you Google the drink, you’ll find dozens of versions: with cognac, rye, or bourbon (or even a combination)…with a sugar cube or simple syrup…and with a variety of absinthes.

Note: you can buy simple syrup–I prefer it in this recipe over sugar cubes–but it’s easy to make at home. Simply combine a cup of sugar with a cup of water in a saucepan and heat it until all the sugar dissolves. I keep my simple syrup in the fridge in a sealed container.


2 oz. rye whiskey (I use Old Overholt )
1/2 oz. simple syrup
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Absinthe, to rinse, about 1/4 oz. (I use Herbsaint)
garnish lemon peel

Add ice to a rocks glass to chill it. (I also put it in the freezer.)

While it’s chilling, get a cocktail mixing glass, add some ice, and combine the rye, simple syrup, and the bitters, and stir. (Thirty times, according to tradition.)

Take the rocks glass out of the freezer, pour the ice out, and pour the Herbsaint into the glass, swirling it around to coat the glass, then pouring out the excess.

Strain the mix of rye, simple syrup, and bitters into the rocks glass with the Herbsaint.

Run a lemon peel around the rim of the glass and garnish with it.

For me, rye, specifically Old Overholt, is the down-and-dirty way to go. After all, this is not a kiddy drink. A few sips, and you’re feeling no pain.

A Sazerac at the Napoleon House in New Orleans.

Though sipping a Sazerac in New Orleans is an amazing experience in itself, and I’ve had it at the Sazerac Bar as well as the Napoleon House and other bars in NOLA…perhaps my craziest Sazerac experience happened at the famous White Horse Tavern in New York City, the Big Apple’s second oldest continuously running bar. (It opened in 1880.) I think this is where I was told to use Old Overholt in my Sazerac, and have ever since.

Dylan Thomas was a regular there, and other celebrities, like Norman Mailer, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, and Hunter S. Thompson also had drinks there. So it’s probably not surprising that my buddy, Lee, and I overindulged on Sazeracs at this historic tavern.

It was a very cold winter’s night in the late 1980’s–a blizzard, in fact–and we decided to go out drinking in the city, because I was back home in New York on holiday vacation from Alabama, where I was working at the time. We had more than our share of Sazeracs, when we decided we would walk to a new eatery called the Gulf Coast, located on the west side. (All we knew was that the restaurant was about 10 blocks from where we were, but after 4 Sazeracs, “where we were” was questionable, to say the least.)

Now, this was before the internet–before cell phones–before Uber–and no cabs were running (because it was a blizzard, after all)–so we decided we would walk! Not the smartest thing we’ve ever done. It only took a few blocks for us to realize, even in our drunken stupor, that we made a very bad choice! We were certain that we would be found, huddled and frozen in an alley somewhere, only after the spring thaw.

The storm was so bad, we couldn’t even find our way back to the bar. Miraculously, somehow, we did make it to the Gulf Coast, and we lived to tell the tale.

As Homer Simpson once said: “To alcohol…the cause of, and cure for, all of life’s problems!”

Sazeracs. Try your first one at home. Or take an Uber!

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