The Sazerac holds a special place in the hearts of New Orleanians. The drink, which is a New Orleans version of a whiskey cocktail, typically consists of rye whiskey, sugar, bitters, and an absinthe or Herbsaint rinse. It is believed that the drink was first invented in the Big Easy, and legend long held that it was America’s first cocktail. Though we now know the latter assertion is improbable, the lore surrounding the drink is still riveting as questions remain about its origins.
The most common version of how the word “cocktail” came to be stems from a narrative laid out by Stanley Clisby Arthur in his 1937 book Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em. He writes that the Sazerac was invented by Antoine Amedée Peychaud, a Haitian native who opened a French Quarter pharmacy in the 19th century. It was there that he concocted toddies of brandy and his eponymous bitters and served them in eggcups, known in French as coquetier, pronounced “ko-kuhtay.” He claims that Americans began calling the drink a “cock-tay,” which they slurred into “cocktail.”
Bartender and cocktail historian Chris McMillian of Revel explains cocktails as a family tree with various branches—Manhattans, martinis, and so on—and describes the Sazerac as an extension of an older form from the late 19th century.
“I would describe the Sazerac not as the original cocktail, but as the ultimate evolution of that family or branch of the drinks,” Chris says.
The first reference to a drink resembling the Sazerac was mentioned in the Times-Picayune in 1843, when they published the following quote: “The Sunday Mercury says that if you are at a hotel and wish to call for a beverage compounded of brandy, sugar, absinthe, bitters and ice, called by the vulgar a cocktail, ask for une queue de chanticleer.”
In the mid-19th century, the Sazerac itself was closely associated with the Sazerac Coffee House (coffee houses in those days were drinking establishments), which had the exclusive rights for distribution of Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac. The bar changed names and owners over the years, eventually coming to be owned by Thomas Handy. Peychaud worked for Handy in the late 1800s and manufactured bitters under Handy’s name. Today, Peychaud’s Bitters, Herbsaint, and Sazerac Rye are all produced by the Sazerac Company, which was chartered by Handy’s former secretary, C. J. O’Reilly.
It is clear that Peychaud’s Bitters has always been a key component of the Sazerac cocktail (though it is debatable whether Angostura Bitters were also an original ingredient), but there are historians who do not believe that Peychaud himself invented the drink as we know it.
“Cocktail Bill” Boothby’s World Drinks and How to Mix Them printed the first published Sazerac recipe in 1908. Although that recipe and other early versions called for brandy, contemporary opinions differ as to whether the Sazerac was originally made with brandy or whiskey. However, as brandy became less available in the mid-19th century due to the phylloxera epidemic in France, rye whiskey became the preferred spirit for Sazeracs.
“As so often happens, [people use what’s] around,” says Neal Bodenheimer, co-owner of Cure. “What was around was rye. New Orleans was becoming in itself a much more American city, and Americans drank rye.”
As far as what constitutes a modern Sazerac, there is no standard recipe.
“People use different bitters. They use different spirits—rye, brandy, cognac, or a blend. They use different zests. Different amount of sugars. Different ways of using the sugar,” says Chris Hannah, head bartender at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar. “Not to mention absinthes and anisettes. So every single one’s different.”
While experts differ on how the drink came to be and what originally constituted a Sazerac, most can agree that it is a uniquely New Orleans cocktail that has become a beloved part of the city’s history and culture.
- 1 sugar cube
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
- 1 dash Angostura Aromatic Bitters
- 2 ounces Old Overholt Rye
- ¼ ounce Legendre Herbsaint
- Fill a rocks glass with ice and water. Set aside. In a second rocks glass, place sugar cube. Saturate with bitters, add a splash of water, and muddle sugar cube until dissolved. Add rye whiskey and ice, and stir until very cold. Set aside.
- Discard ice and water from first glass; add a splash of Herbsaint, and turn glass to coat. Discard any remaining Herbsaint. Strain rye mixture into chilled glass. Garnish with a lemon twist, if desired.