The All-American History of The Sazerac
The Sazerac is chalked full of history, as it was born in Americas original drink destination, down in the french quarter. It dates back to the 1830s and consists of a type of liquor that is as American as George Washington himself.
As the official cocktail of New Orleans, you can guess that the Sazerac has a pretty prestigious position in the world of cocktails. Some even believe that it was the first cocktail ever marketed as such. Unfortunately, that isn’t quite true, but that in no way takes away from the significance of this all-American mixed drink. Let’s take a quick trip through time and relive the invention of the Sazerac as well as take a look at the history behind one of the main ingredients used to make this classic cocktail, rye whiskey.
The year is 1838, the place is New Orleans, Louisiana. The mixologist is a Creole apothecary named Antoine Amadie Peychaud. This is the Peychaud of the famous Peychaud Bitters, an essential ingredient in a traditional Sazerac as well as an important part of any well-stocked bar. Peychaud was mixing toddies for some friends using French brandy, water, a little sugar, and bitters made from an old family recipe that he had brought with him from the West Indies. He sold these aromatic bitters to his patients to cure what ailed them, but he also knew they would be a good flavor addition to his homemade mixed drinks. A very multipurpose secret old family recipe.
The legend is that when he was making these toddies, he used a double-ended egg cup called a coquetier. Some stories say he used it as a measuring cup and other stories say he actually served the beverage in the egg cup. Either way, he used a coquetier in some capacity. The theory is that the word cocktail was an Americanized version of the French word coquetier, which is how Peychaud’s drink became the first mixed drink to be called a cocktail. Sadly, as we already mentioned, that part of the story is actually just a fun legend. The earliest known printed record of the word cocktail was in a New York newspaper in 1806, a few decades before Peychaud took up bartending.
Although he may not have coined the word cocktail, Peychaud’s secret recipe for bitters lives on to this day and his little toddies didn’t do too bad either. The drink became so famous that drinking establishments across the city began serving it. One bar, in particular, the Merchants Exchange Coffee House, picked up the popular drink and began serving it regularly. This bar was owned by a man named Sewell Tayler, a big importer of Sazerac-de-Forge et fils, a very popular cognac. The bar was eventually renamed to the Sazerac Coffee House and their most popular cocktail took on that name as well. And thus the Sazerac was given its name.
But, wait, you’re asking, what is this about French brandy? Fancy cognacs with long names and whatnots? I thought you said this was about whiskey. Well, you’re right. It is about whiskey. Wait for it.
Now we skip forward to 1870 when there was an outbreak of phylloxera, a plant louse that destroyed grapevines across Europe. This outbreak caused a serious shortage of cognac and a sudden increase in American mixology inspiration. The new owner of the Sazerac House, Thomas Hardy, decided to switch out the cognac for all-American rye whiskey. Rye had gained a lot of popularity at this time, so it was easy to get and people liked it, the perfect substitute. Little did Hardy know that his frugal swap would end up changing the recipe forever. He may very well have known what he was doing since he eventually founded the Sazerac Company and bought the secret Peychaud bitters recipe.
Around this time absinthe was also added to the recipe. Just a splash to coat the glass, then the rest would be discarded. This was a fun addition to the mix until absinthe was banned in America, which is a story for another time. The absinthe was eventually replaced with Herbsainte, a locally produced pastis, and that leads us to what is now considered the traditional recipe for Sazarac.
What is Rye Whiskey
Before we get too much further along into recipes, let’s take a quick step back and talk about the whiskey. According to many cocktail purists, a Sazerac is not a Sazerac if it is not made with Old Overholt Rye or something comparable. But why rye? What was it that made Hardy choose rye and not bourbon? Well, he didn’t leave an actual record of his thought process, but it seems reasonable to assume that he chose rye for the reasons we already mentioned, cost and accessibility. But mixologists say the reason has a lot to do with the flavor as well. So what is rye whiskey and what makes it a vital part of the Sazerac ingredients?
Well, as you can probably guess, rye whiskey is made from rye grain. To be considered an American Rye, it has to be more than 51% rye grain. Many distillers use even more than 51%, so rye is a very important element. Bourbon, on the other hand, is made with 51% corn, making it much sweeter than rye. Rye has more spicy undertones, with flavors of grass, grain, and pepper. It is that spiciness that makes this the perfect choice for a Sazerac.
A Short History of Rye
Rye got its start in the great states of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Both states had high numbers of Scottish and Irish immigrants who were very proficient in distilling whiskey. When they first came to the colonies and began building their smaller home stills, they ran into a slight snag. Traditional Scotch and Irish whiskeys are made from barley, which sadly did not grow well in Pennsylvania or Maryland. But rye grew very well, so with a lot of hard work and ingenuity, they created a new American whiskey before America was even officially established.
Remember how we said rye was as American as George Washington? Well, here is where he comes in. Before the Revolution, rum was the primary strong spirit consumed in much of the colonies. Once the Revolution was over and imports from the Caribbean became scarce, the newly established Americans had to look elsewhere for liquor. Thankfully, the Irish and Scottish Americans had already established their distilleries well enough to fill the void left behind by the lack of rum. Rye became so popular that Washington himself set up a five still distillery, producing 11,000 gallons of the stuff. By 1799, he was one of the biggest whiskey producers in the country. Mount Vernon is still keeping that tradition alive today by producing products such as Washington’s Rye, giving you the chance to taste a real piece of American history.
Mixing With The Best
But how did all of this lead up to a bar owner in the 1870s choosing rye over bourbon? How did it go from its humble beginnings on the little farms of Pennsylvania and Maryland all the way to becoming a vital part of New Orleans cocktail culture? Well, probably because rye was a mixing whiskey all along.
The whiskey from Pennsylvania was made mostly from rye and was considered a bit more potent than that from Maryland, which was made with a bit of corn mash thrown in. The corn mash made the whiskey a bit smoother and sweeter, but it was still American Rye. Although there are many delicious ryes on the market today that one may want to drink straight, it cannot be denied that rye can be a bit harsh. It is especially harsh for those who are more accustomed to sweeter liquors, such as rum. This made it the perfect whiskey to have on hand for the early days of the mixed drink craze.
Remember that newspaper article we mentioned that predated the invention of the Sazerac, proving that the word ‘cocktail’ was even older than Peychaud’s invention? Well, that was actually the first known printed definition of the word ‘cocktail’. It was printed in the Balance and Columbian Repository on May 13, 1806 and the definition was as follows, “A cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind—sugar, water, and bitters—“. Since this was a Federalist newspaper, the definition also included a political joke about the power of using mixed drinks for campaigning, just for good measure.
By the early 1800s, cocktails were very popular and many of the most common ones included rye as a primary ingredient. If that cocktail definition sounds a little familiar to you, it is probably because if you replace ‘spirits’ with whiskey, you’ll have the recipe for an Old Fashioned. The Manhattan, Vieux Carre, and, of course, the Sazerac, are all great examples of cocktails that were invented in the earliest days of mixology and they all involve rye.
Recipe For Sazarac
Alright, now that you know all about why you should love this classic American cocktail, let’s make one. There are a few different versions of the Sazerac recipe out there. You can always try different versions to see which you like the best, but for now, let’s stick with the classic recipe, straight from the Sazerac Company.
- 1 Sugar Cube
- 1.5oz (45ml) Sazerac Rye
- .25oz Herbsaint
- 3 Dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters
- Lemon Peel
- 1. Pack an Old Fashioned glass with ice.
- 2. In a second Old Fashioned glass place the sugar and bitters, crush the sugar cube and combine with bitters.
- 3. Add whiskey to the sugar and bitters mixture.
- 4. Empty the ice from the first glass, then coat the inside of the glass with Herbsaint. Discard remaining Herbsaint.
- 5. Pour the whiskey mixture into the chilled glass, garnish with lemon peel, and enjoy!
For Your Preference
Now, as previously mentioned, there are other versions. Some involve the use of Angostura bitters as well as Peychaud’s. Some bartenders use equal parts of both bitters where others say to only use a touch of Angostura. Some say that you cannot have an authentic Sazerac experience without using real absinthe. Since absinthe is no longer banned, it may be worth trying it that way. Absinthe is an especially good option if you can’t get your hands on Herbsaint, which is very popular in New Orleans but may not be available everywhere.
Since the original Sazerac was made with cognac, some purists say that you cannot make a real one without it. You can find recipes with just cognac, some mix equal parts cognac and rye, where others mix two-thirds cognac to one-third rye. Like most cocktails, the main thing is to find what works best for you because there is no sense in drinking it if it does not taste amazing.
Even with all these variations, there are two main things that all Sazerac fans do agree on:
1: Drink It Slowly. This is a drink that has a lot going on flavorwise. The anise in the absinthe, the spice of the rye, and the zestiness of the lemon, all combined with the sweetness of the sugar to create a cocktail with great depth. Sip it slowly so that you can truly appreciate the layers.
2: Do Not Use Bourbon. Like we mentioned earlier, bourbon is a much sweeter whiskey. That sweetness can overwhelm the other subtle flavors of this drink, changing it completely. So if you really want to experience a Sazerac, choose rye.
Sazerac and New Orleans Cocktail Culture
New Orleans is a city rich with history and culture. Where some parts of America choose to give up on traditions in favor of newer and brighter things, New Orleans has held tight to its history and it is a richer city for it. Although no one really knows exactly where the first cocktail was invented, New Orleans can definitely take credit for building cocktail culture and keeping it alive for over 200 years.
New Orleans is home to some of the most famous cocktail bars in the world including the Sazerac Bar, the Roosevelt Bar, and the Carousel Bar, just to name a few. It is home to the Museum of the American Cocktail as well as home to what is believed to be the first gay bar in America, the Cafe Lafitte in Exile. This is a city that exudes exuberance, entertainment, and relaxation all at the same time. What represents that ideal better than a good cocktail?
The Sazerac is a cocktail that is as full of history as the city that created it. Although it evolved over time, it still maintains its basic form to this day, 190 years later. Part of that staying power has to do with the stronghold of history in New Orleans and the city’s ability to preserve and celebrate its past in rich and beautiful ways. And the other part of the Sazerac’s staying power is probably due to good old American Rye. Sazerac is a true American classic. Invented by a Creole man, made with whiskey invented by Irish and Scottish immigrants, and popularized through the hard work and industry of an American small business owner. So collect your Sazerac ingredients and prepare to enjoy a delicious sip of history. Just remember to sip it slowly.
Interested in more cocktail culture history? Check out our blog post on The Mojito!