The sazerac

Hailed by its fans as the first cocktail, the sazerac courted controversy because of one ingredient -absinthe. Ian Wisniewski looks at its history
By Ian Wisniewski
The story begins with Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a Creole immigrant who arrived in New Orleans from San Domingo (Haiti) in 1795, with a secret family recipe for making bitters. When his son of the same name opened an apothecary at 123 Royal Street in the French Quarter in 1838, this bitters recipe became the basis for a ‘medicinal tonic,’ combined with French brandy and sweetened with sugar.

Preparing the tonic involved a measuring cup, which resembled a double-ended egg cup, known as a coquetier. As this was pronounced ‘ko-k-tay,’ it could have provided the word ‘cocktail’ (though various other contenders also claim to be the origin of this special word).

Meanwhile, a growing number of regulars were ordering a certain ‘sazerac cocktail,’ combining Peychaud bitters with Sazerac cognac, at The Sazerac Coffee House which was down the road at number 16.

When ownership of The Sazerac Coffee House passed to Thomas Handy in 1869, he hired Antoine Amedie Peychaud to continue making Peychaud bitters. Meanwhile, Handy got to work marketing the bitters as a brand, and in 1871 he opened a business importing Sazerac cognac from France.

However, the recipe for the sazerac cocktail experienced a fundamental change in the 1860s, when American rye whiskey began to replace French brandy. This was an entirely practical response to the difficulty of sourcing French brandy during the American Civil War.

The recipe evolved again when absinthe was first added towards the end of the 19th century, by a New Orleans bartender called Leon Lamothe. His motivation was clear. Absinthe had become the drink of choice for Parisian intellectuals, bohemians and the beau monde. But things started to go wrong for absinthe in the early 20th century. Several high-profile trials found absinthe to be an accessory to murder, by inducing fits, hallucinations and wild mood disorders.

One ingredient, wormwood, was the guilty party, as it contains thujone, which is similar to the active chemical in cannabis. Absinthe was sentenced to a complete ban in 1915 by the French government, with various other countries following suit. Production of aniseed-flavoured spirits continued, but without adding any wormwood.

The absinthe ban also meant the sazerac could only be prepared using a legal ‘substitute’ such as Pernod, or it wasn’t made at all, and usually forgotten.

The re-introduction of absinthe in the United Kingdom in 1998 caused a sensation (the level of thujone is strictly limited by the EU, though absinthe remains banned in various countries). While this has helped to bring the sazerac back into circulation, it’s a cocktail that remains on the fringe.

Preparing a sazerac requires two glasses. Some absinthe is swirled around a boston (tall) mixing glass before ice is added to cool it. Meanwhile, a sugar cube is placed in a rocks glass (sturdy tumbler). The size of the cube does of course affect the final sweetness, with brown sugar adding a more caramelised flavour than white. The flavour is also influenced by the sugar cube being sprinkled with either Peychaud bitters or Angostura Bitters.

Adding ice cubes has the dual purpose of chilling the glass and generating some meltage to dissolve the sugar, which is broken down using a pestle (avoiding any ‘gritty’ sugar grains in the drink is vital).

Substituting sirop de gomme (sugar syrup) avoids the problem of dissolving the sugar, and can make it easier to judge or adjust the level of sweetness. However, syrups can have additional ingredients beyond sugar, endowing the cocktail with a floral note.

The choice of whiskey depends on personal preference, either the drier notes of rye or the sweeter taste of bourbon. An extra that some bartenders favour is adding a little juice from a jar of maraschino cherries, introducing luscious sweetness.

Once the ingredients have been assembled, the absinthe and ice is discarded from the Boston glass, which retains a mere ‘rinse’ of absinthe. When the other ingredients are poured into this freshly vacated glass, even the residual absinthe is sufficient to influence the flavour.

After a thorough stir the entire combination is strained into an old fashioned glass (tumbler), with a martini glass a more contemporary choice. Garnished with lemon, ‘twisting’ the zest to release some of the essential oils ensures you get the best a lemon has to offer.