Looking to celebrate Mardi Gras New Orleans style? Tasting Pour is and we started with an investigative visit to The Sazerac Bar to sample the official cocktail of New Orleans – the Sazerac. The Sazerac Bar is housed inside The Roosevelt New Orleans. Richly appointed with sparkling chandeliers and decadent golden hues this is the type of hotel that makes you at least want to visit the restroom just to have an excuse to look around. Luckily the Sazerac Bar is just as inviting. Honey colored walnut and dim lighting remind us of a time when men were men . . . okay you get the picture, everything looked expensive and sexy and we ordered a drink.
The creation of the Sazerac dates back to 1838 and is credited to Antoine Amedie Peychaud who owned an apothecary in New Orleans. Peychaud liked to treat his friends to a mixture of French brandy (cognac) and his special blend of bitters. He served it in a little egg cup called a “coquetier” (pronounced “ko-k-tay”). Some say this lead to the word “cocktail” and claim the Sazerac as America’s first cocktail. It did become the first branded American cocktail in 1850.
The Sazerac evolved over time, due in part to necessity. Phylloxera, a bug that damages grape vine roots, had all but decimated vineyards in Europe. Cognac, a grape based spirit, was replaced by American rye whiskey in 1873. In the same year, absinthe was added to the Sazerac. This addition soon revealed its own set of limitations. Absinthe is basically alcohol that has been flavored with a variety of macerated herbs and spices – particularly anise and wormwood. It was very popular in France, especially among artistic types like Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, partly because it was said to boost creativity. Well, maybe they were too creative because some bad press claimed that absinthe abuse caused hallucinations and was associated with mental illness. In 1915, France banned the production of absinthe. (That ban has long since been lifted). Anise flavored spirits such as Pernod and Ricard, replaced absinthe in France. In New Orleans a rinse of Herbsaint, an anise flavored liqueur, was used in the Sazerac.
While the modern official recipe uses Sazerac Rye Whiskey, The Sazerac Bar offers both a whiskey and cognac version. We tried them side by side and are happy to report that we liked both renditions. Peychaud’s Bitters add flavors of orange, cardamom seed, and star anise. The rinse of Herbsaint of course adds a hint of anise that seems to linger on the finish. Cognac is grape based so that version is smoother, sweeter and fruitier. The spice notes from the Peychaud’s Bitters are in the forefront and there are floral and honey flavors. It smells like a spicy candied citrus peel. Sazerac Rye Whiskey is made with a rye base so that version definitely has more rye flavor and bite. Less smooth and not as fruity, the anise and spice are present, but subdued by the rye flavors.
Of course when we got back to Tasting Pour’s cocktail cabinet we decided to do some tinkering. We experimented with another anise liqueur, Ouzo, and a combination of Peychaud’s, Regans’ and Angostura Bitters. Here are our discoveries . . . 1. Ouzo was a viable substitute, but Herbsaint was a bit more nuanced. 2. Angostura Bitters used in conjunction with Peychaud’s and with Peychaud’s and Regans’ didn’t marry as well with the other flavors as desired. It added too much orange and presented as a separate flavor rather than a compliment. 3. Adding Regans’ Bitters to the classic cognac based recipe made only a slight difference. The result was more cinnamon and less spice. 4. Adding Regans’ Bitters to the rye whiskey based recipe made a very noticeable difference. While the rye flavor remained dominant, the Regans’ smoothed out the bite and added cinnamon and orange notes.
How do you know if you would like a Sazerac? If you like an Old Fashioned plus enjoy flavors of spice and a hint of anise, you will probably like a Sazerac. The choice of cognac or Sazerac Rye Whiskey depend which spirit you enjoy more. Order one your next night out and definitely visit The Sazerac Bar if you are in New Orleans. To mix one at home, below is the original recipe and a Tasting Pour variation.
- 2 parts of Sazerac Rye Whiskey
- A touch of sugar,
- A couple dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters
- Served in a chilled Herbsaint rinsed glass
- Fill one rocks glass with ice and set aside to chill. In a second rocks glass mix 1.5 ounces of Sazerac Rye Whiskey with four dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters and ½ ounce of simple syrup. Fill the glass with ice, stir and stir until mixed and well chilled. Dump the ice from the first glass and spray two pumps of Herbsaint Liqueur from an atomizer into the glass, swirl to coat and dump the excess Herbsaint. Strain the contents of the second glass into the chilled, Herbsaint coated glass and rim the glass with a lemon peel. Do not put the peel in the cocktail, drape it on the side of the glass.
- One of us prefers the cognac version, the other rye whiskey. For the rye version we find that a couple of dashes of Regan's bitters rounds the flavors and lends orange and cinnamon notes. We prefer Bulleit Rye to Sazerac Rye. Maybe you have an atomzier, but we don't. A tilt and turn with a small amount of Herbsaint does the trick and you can drink any excess.