New Orleans boasts a proud tradition of signature cocktails, as the city's motto urges locals and visitors alike to enjoy the skills of the Big Easy's many talented bartenders. Many classic NOLA libations (like the frozen Hurricane, the Ramos Gin Fizz, and the Grasshopper) lean in a sweet direction, but those who prefer spirit-forward cocktails tend to gravitate toward a long-standing staple made with whiskey, bitters, and aromatic liqueur: the Sazerac.
A Sazerac is a stiff, stirred cocktail that contains no fruit juice or sodas. Its essential ingredients include rye whiskey (or brandy), anise liqueur (originally absinthe), bitters (Peychaud's bitters are traditional), water, and a sugar cube or simple syrup. The drink is served straight up and is usually garnished with a lemon peel.
History of the Sazerac
According to legend, the Sazerac first appeared in New Orleans at the end of the 19th century. The cocktail's name came from a type of brandy made in France, which became very popular in New Orleans during this time. At some point, NOLA bartenders started experimenting with Sazerac brandy in cocktails, and they came up with a drink that combined the brandy with absinthe, sugar, and bitters (specifically Peychaud's bitters, a New Orleans creation with powerful flavors of anise and mint). Eventually, the Sazerac gave its name to a (now defunct) French Quarter cafe and bar known as the Sazerac House, where the Sazerac became a massive bestseller. It was at the Sazerac House that bartender Thomas H. Handy first came up with the idea to replace the brandy with rye whiskey, and the majority of bars in New Orleans still choose rye as the anchor spirit for their Sazeracs.
Making the Perfect Sazerac
When making a Sazerac, it's helpful to remember that the recipe was designed to be tweaked. If you prefer brandy to rye, go ahead and use it. If you don't have absinthe on hand, swap in Pernod (or, if you're able to find it, go with Herbsaint, an anise liqueur made right in the Big Easy). If you don't have access to Peychaud's bitters, Angostura bitters can work in a pinch (although they will infuse the drink with different flavor notes).
When we asked beverage director Jonathan Payne of Hot Tin & Bayou Bar at the Ponchartrain Hotel in New Orleans to name the biggest mistake that bartenders make when mixing a Sazerac, he had a clear answer: "Too much sugar. Somehow, bartenders and patrons have transformed this cocktail into an overly saccharine drink by being heavy-handed with sweeteners. Avoid this by pulling back on the sugar cubes or simple syrup. The ingredients themselves need to speak. A better alternative would be using a rich Demerara syrup that accentuates the notes of the rye and the anise liqueur."
New Orleans Sazerac Cocktail
- 1 sugar cube
- 1 tsp water
- 1 1/2 oz. rye whiskey
- 2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
- 1 tsp Pernod
- lemon peel
- In an Old-Fashioned glass muddle the sugar cube with the water.
- Add a bit of ice and the rye whiskey and bitters. Stir together.
- In a second Old-Fashioned glass add Pernod and coat the glass with it. Strain the rye whiskey into the glass and garnish with a lemon peel.
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