Drunk History: The Evolution of the Sazerac

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In the earliest part of the Nineteenth century, there was one drink – and one drink only – known as a cocktail. The Hudson, New York publication The Balance and Columbian Repository defined the drink in 1806 as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”. There weren’t books full of cocktail recipes, because there was only one drink known as a Cocktail. And so it went that you’d walk into a bar at the time, and possibly request a “Whiskey Cocktail”, or perhaps a “Holland Gin Cocktail”, or a “Brandy Cocktail”

And if you were in New Orleans sometime around 1850, you might walk into the former Merchants Exchange Coffee House, now dubbed the Sazerac House, and order a “Sazerac Cocktail”. The drink would have been made with the house Cognac – Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils, imported by the former owner of the bar – with sugar, water, and bitters: Peychaud’s Bitters, a local bitters made by a Mr. Antoine Amédée Peychaud.

It is widely accepted that the Cognac would be replaced sometime around 1870 with American rye whiskey, as the French grape industry had just been decimated by phylloxera, and Cognac was no longer in supply. However, there is some dispute as to who was responsible for the inclusion of absinthe. William Boothby’s 1908 The World’s Drinks and How To Mix Them credits an Armand Regnier, while Stanley Clisby Arthur’s 1937 Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em names Thomas H. Handy as the modern recipe’s curator – and calls for an additional dash of Angostura bitters.

Absinthe and Angostura were inspired additions, as they added depth to a drink that had been rendered flat by the substitution of American whiskey for Cognac. I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Arthur on this one, as in 1869 Mr. Handy had taken over the bar and any adjustments to the recipe would likely have been his. Regardless of the drink’s convoluted history, a well made Sazerac is an absolute joy to sip on as the sun hangs low in the sky and the leaves turn as crisp as the air. 

Sazerac

2 oz rye whiskey (try Jim Beam’s new and very much improved rye whiskey)
1 tsp 2:1 simple syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
absinthe
lemon peel

Combine whiskey, sugar, and bitters with ice cubes and stir until cold. Rinse a chilled Old Fashioned glass with absinthe and strain the mixture into the glass. Twist lemon peel over the surface and discard peel.

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