As I stepped off the airport shuttle at Hotel Monteleone, someone handed me a pulled pork sandwich and a cocktail. "OK, but let me check in first." I offer the victuals to a hungry looking street person and step inside. Welcome to New Orleans.
"Huge Ass Beers" the sign says; Blair's a glutton for bargains, and twelve dollars gets him an unbreakable novelty mug filled with 40 ounces of flaccid, ice-cold domestic beer. But his bargain sets off an expensive chain reaction. He's fired up "con-me" signal flares with that mug of his. It's a beacon for the Bourbon Street hustlers who prey on tourists like us - Serengeti lions with a wounded antelope in their sights. Wait a minute, what's he doing sipping cheap beer in the home of the Sazerac anyways?
Today's New Orleans street hustlers have moved away from the Three Card Monty trick and progressed to scams requiring no skills at all. One bets Blair five dollars that he can guess where he got his shoes. I know if I bet five I'd soon find myself barefoot, but Blair can't resist a challenge.
Blair and has his Huge Ass Beer and we move on until he's spotted by another flimflammer weaving through the swarms of people.
"Tell you what, you let me shine your shoes for ten dollars if I can spell your last name? If I get it wrong, it's free"
What's with this Southern fixation on footwear? But Blair knows a sure bet when he sees one and the Bourbon Street spelling bee begins.
"Y-O-U-R L-A-S-T N-A-M-E."
Blair now owes $10 for a shoeshine. That's $12 +$5 + $10. So far, that beer has cost him $27.00. Now we both NEED a Sazerac!
Just a few hours since our plane touched down and my head is spinning. Because we're sitting at the rotating bar in the Carousel Lounge. Its old town America carousel motif lacks retro wooden horses or a red-striped jacketed Cracker Jack vendor. Instead, vested bartenders wait patiently. I ponder ordering a Bulleit Bourbon Old Fashioned.
"It's New Orleans," Blair reminds me. "Home of the Sazerac. For God's sake man, focus."
I glance sheepishly at his gleaming loafers and order accordingly.
Even James Bond skipped his Martini when he visited New Orleans in Live and Let Die, though his Sazerac cost him a lot more than $27. Mid-drink, he was abducted and thrown into Mr. Big's alligator pit. My introduction to New Orleans' signature cocktail was less dramatic, but at least I got to finish mine alligator-free.
The Sazerac emerged from a farrago of cultures that founded New Orleans - enslaved Africans, freed Haitians, Spanish and French colonists and homeless Acadians all melding together in one huge Jambalaya. But the story of New Orleans' signature cocktail is so distorted by mythology I'm waiting for someone to claim Zeus served it to Medusa in a glass.
One version has the Sazerac traveling from France to New Orleans in the first half of the 19th century and evolving there after it arrived. In 1850, Sewell T. Taylor began importing a brandy called Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils to New Orleans. His neighbour was the druggist, Antoine Amedie Peychaud who dispensed a family recipe bitters that complemented Taylor's brandy. Slowly, a new drink crawled out of that primordial cocktail and onto the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans.
Some say that Taylor remained loyal to the Peychaud's Bitters at his Merchants Exchange Coffee House though his cocktail remained nameless until Aaron Bird bought the place and called it Sazerac House. Customers ordered the signature cocktail under the bar's new name.
One element in this cocktail's evolution changed things forever: Rye whiskey. After two decades behind the bar, Bird sold his establishment to Thomas Handy. Confident that only he could make a proper Sazerac, Handy revealed the secret recipe, naming absinthe and Peychaud's as the other ingredients. A few years later when phylloxera wiped out the French brandy industry, Handy switched the brandy to rye.
"There are three ways to look at the Sazerac," says Esquire magazine's drinks columnist, David Wondrich. "It could be any drink made with Sazerac brandy. That brandy was distributed widely in New Orleans and across America at the time. Or, a cocktail of whatever sort as made at the Sazerac House. The Sazerac we know today, however, was created by bartender Billy Wilkinson, whose reputation for making whisky based cocktails grew steadily in the 1880s and 90s."
When William T. Booth published The World's Drinks and How to Mix Them in 1908, it was rye whiskey, not brandy that he identified as the Sazerac's base spirit. Rye whiskey is booming again today, especially in this rye-loving town, and according to Wondrich, the best
Sazerac is still a rye Sazerac.
"Definitely rye over Bourbon," he recommends, "you want that sharpness or it tends to become a little bit gooey."
Wondrich recommends Rittenhouse, Sazerac Rye and Old Overholt.
Bars change hands often, and when Wilkinson and his partner, William McQuoid took over the Sazerac House from Handy, they re-named it Sazerac Saloon. Special New Orleans decoctions - Henry Ramos' gin fizz, absinthe at the Absinthe House and Billy Wilkinson's Sazerac whisky cocktail, for example - attracted America's vacationing rich and famous to the city. When McQuiod began bottling it and distributing it nationally around 1900, under his Sazerac label, Wilkinson's whisky cocktail really caught on. A 1902 news report recently uncovered by David Wondrich credits Wilkinson as the creator of the Sazerac. It's success was national, with New York's O. Henry just one of its better-known acolytes.
A Frenzied Mission
The Carousel mixes me an amazing Sazerac, so amazing I resolve, before this night is out, to know if it's the best Sazerac in the Crescent City. Just three blocks away is the Roosevelt Hotel with its 1949 vintage Sazerac Saloon.
"Sazeracs?" the bartender asks, eyeing Blair's souvenir mug.
We nod, wait and sip. Then, sampling complete, we cab it through the French Quarter to Tujague's stool less bar, for an exceptional Overholt Saz . . . if only I could remember.
Outstanding Sazeracs have made the next venue, Napoleon House more famous than any visiting emperor could have. I down one or two, before lurching into Antoine's Hermes Bar. Jackpot! Bulleit, Old Overholt and Sazerac Rye are on pour.
Later, much later, a long night of research and absinthe laced cocktails concluded, we agree, there's not a shortage of impressive Sazeracs in The Big Easy. We just can't remember which is which.
A Desperate Pilgrimage
Wobbling onto the street bright and early around noon next morning, I search urgently for a Bloody Mary. Now, normally Bloody Marys have a good shot of Worcestershire sauce in them, but New Orleans is the home of Tabasco sauce. "Substitute Tabasco for a little Voodoo fire?" I ask, courageously, remembering how the Rittenhouse 100 I brushed my teeth with this morning burned all the way down. But Blair's way ahead of me.
Somewhere last night between beers, cocktails and misplacing his celebrated beer mug, he stumbled onto a hot sauce called Blair's 2 a.m. Reserve. This cork-sealed bottle with the skull pressed into dripping blood red wax looks like Maker's Mark from Hell. Just a pin drop is dangerous, the label warns, but Blair insists. Innocently, I guzzle my 2 a.m. Reserve Bloody Mary at one go. Instantly, I'm out of body, surfing waves of brimstone. Tabasco sauce is rated at 4,000 Scoville heat units, Worcestershire sauce, zero. Blair's 2 a.m. Reserve? A mind-searing 900,000!
It's mid-afternoon and I can barely stand. The final mission on this Sazerac pilgrimage, is to find the site of the original Sazerac Saloon, now a Walgreen's drug store. Not to take photos, shed a nostalgic tear and close the story's loop. Thanks to Blair, my mouth is like lava. Is this really New Orleans or some absinthe induced Psychedelphia? Walgreens! I need aspirins! I blunder along until somebody stops me. She's young(ish), she's pretty(ish) and she's standing right in the middle of Bourbon Street. I swear.
Bulleit 95 Rye NAS 45% ABV
Pepper blends with dry oak as nips of tobacco dawdle behind a resonant fruitiness that vibrates like a tuning fork preparing the rye choir.
Old Overholt NAS 40% ABV
Orange blossoms, clover honey and creamy sweetcorn. Cinnamon and white pepper with hints of leather, tobacco and slightly drying tannins. Slight barrel char.
Rittenhouse 100 NAS 50% ABV
Sweet summer fruit and mouth tingling chili pepper on a solid oak frame. Chocolate milk and cinnammon surge with no-nonsense rye grain.
Sazerac Rye Straight Rye Whiskey NAS 45% ABV
Snappy and lively with a mellow creamed corn anchor. Swirls of Cotton Candy and splinters of wood, with citrus and anise flares. More floral than spicy.
¼ ounce Herbsaint, Absinthe or Pernod
¼ ounce simple syrup
2 ounces rye whiskey
4 - 5 dashes of Peychaud's Bitters
Twisted lemon peel to garnish
In a chilled old-fashioned glass add the Herbsaint, Absinthe or Pernod and swirl to coat the glass dispensing of any left over drops. Fill a separate mixing glass with ice and add the rye whisky, Peychaud's bitters and simple syrup. Stir and strain into the prepared old-fashioned glass rubbing lemon peel around the rim. Garnish with lemon twist and enjoy.
Antoine's Hermes Bar
713 St Louis St, New Orleans, LA 70130, United States
Tel: +1 504-581-4422.
Call for hours
House Sazerac Rye: Sazerac 6 Years Old 24 additional whiskies. The Oyster Rockefeller from the bar menu is a must.
Carousel Bar & Lounge
Located in the Hotel Monteleone, 214 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70130, United States
Tel: +1 504-523-3341
Hours: 11am - 1am
House Sazerac Rye: Sazerac 6 Years Old 24 additional whiskies and many whisky cocktails.
Napoleon House Bar & Cafe
500 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70130, United States
Tel: +1 504-522-4152
Hours: 11am - 11pm
House Sazerac Rye: Old Overholt
The Sazerac Bar
Located in the Roosevelt Hotel, 123 Baronne St, New Orleans, LA 70112, United States
Tel: +1 504-648-1200
Hours: 11am - 2am
House Sazerac Rye: Sazerac 6 Years Old Sazerac Gift Set available.
823 Decatur St, New Orleans, LA 70116, United States
Tel: +1 504-525-8676
Hours: 11am - 10pm
House Sazerac Rye: Old Overholt 15 additional whiskies.