Order a sazerac in New
Orleans and a well-meaning local will likely tell you how the city’s official
cocktail is also the world’s first. It’s not true, of course – the word
“cocktail”, originally referring to a mixture of liquor, sugar, water and
bitters, was used long before the sazerac’s 19th-century creation. But
don’t tell New Orleans residents that, for whom the drink is a serious point of
pride: virtually any bartender in New Orleans can mix the drink without even
glancing at a recipe.
“Even before we knew
about cocktail culture, we were making sazeracs at friends’ house parties,”
said Kirk Estopinal, owner of New Orleans cocktail bar Bellocq.
Typically made with
rye whiskey, a couple dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, an absinthe or herbsaint rinse,
simple syrup or a muddled sugar cube and a lemon twist, the sazerac is an
amalgamation of flavours just as New Orleans is an amalgamation of cultures,
like French, Creole and Cajun. And just as the city has changed over time, so has
The drink originally
got its name from a brand of French cognac named Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils. According
to legend, sometime in the mid-19th Century, an establishment called
the Sazerac House (until then known as the Merchant’s Coffee Exchange) mixed
the cognac with sugar and Peychaud’s bitters – the purported cure-all of local pharmacist
Antoine Amédée Peychaud – and the sazerac cocktail was born.
But in the late 1800s,
a phylloxera epidemic devastated the French grapes used to make cognac, making
the spirit incredibly hard to find. Around the same time, it’s said that locals
began to prefer rye whisky, replacing cognac as the sazerac’s base ingredient.
Absinthe’s popularity also had begun to skyrocket, so a rinse of the herbal,
anis-flavoured spirit found its way into the glass.
In 1949, the Sazerac
House moved into the Roosevelt
Hotel and became the
Sazerac Bar. After Hurricane Katrina forced it to close in 2005, the hotel
reopened in 2009, completely renovated with a long walnut bar, elegant tile
floor and white coat-wearing wait staff, nodding to the former opulence of old
New Orleans. Today, it remains one of the city’s most iconic places to sample
the classic drink.
While there, I ordered
the contemporary sazerac as well as a cognac interpretation, which more closely
resembled the drink’s original incarnation. With the contemporary sazerac, the rye
packed a wallop of spice and heat, intensifying the mix of flavours. The cognac
version had a similar complexity, but resulted in a much mellower drink. In both
versions, the sweetness from the sugar mixed wonderfully with the bite of the
While the Sazerac Bar
represents the city’s fancier side, Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House is the epitome of a city nicknamed The Big
Easy. Located in the historic French Quarter – a neighbourhood with no closing
time, no open container laws and to-go cups at many bars – the bar has been
serving drinks almost without stop since 1807, including during Prohibition. Even
during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Old Absinthe House only closed for a
matter of hours, slinging drinks until it ran out of booze.
It’s the type of place
where its common to find a dishevelled street musician arguing with a
buttoned-up lawyer about the songs playing over the jukebox – not an
establishment where you’d expect a sazerac to be served alongside other local
classics, such as the Ramos Gin Fizz, a notoriously laborious gin-based cocktail
mixed with simple syrup, lime juice, egg white, heavy cream, orange flower
water and club soda, shaken for eternity.
The spicy rye sazerac
I sampled at Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House was made a little less carefully than the
cocktails at Sazerac Bar or Belloq. Of course, this is also a bar that still
has a reverse peep hole once used by pirates to pick out the house prostitutes–
and a secret window once used to spot prohibition officers. Part of the experience’s
enjoyment stems from being able to sit in bar where vintage football helmets hang
from the ceiling and business cards paper the walls, savouring a drink that would
be considered fancy in any other city.
Even though the bar
has an extensive absinthe list – and the previously illicit liquor has
experienced a revival since becoming legal again in the US in 2007 – the 25-year-veteran
behind the bar rinsed my sazerac glass with herbsaint, a local pastis that remains
the more popular choice for sazeracs since replacing absinthe when it was
outlawed more than 100 years ago.
In many ways, that makes
sense. In cities all over the US, bars are designed to look like
pre-prohibition establishments and faux-speakeasies change their cocktails
weekly to keep up with the newest trends. But in New Orleans, suspenders and
handlebar moustaches never went out of style; live Dixieland jazz never stopped
blasting from Creole townhouses; and many of the bars never left pre-prohibition
behind. New Orleans isn’t as concerned with reviving what’s gone as it is with
preserving what never left.