The Sazerac, purportedly America’s first cocktail, is the emblematic drink of New Orleans. As originally made in the 1850s, it was a blend of Sazerac brandy and sugar, along with bitters invented in the late 1700s by Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a West Indian apothecary. By the 1870s a bartender at the Sazerac Coffee House is said to have added the touch of pouring it into a glass first swirled with a few drops of absinthe. In time rye whiskey, more popular and cheaper, was substituted for the brandy, and Herbsaint, a local anisette first sold in 1933 as an absinthe substitute (absinthe was banned in 1912) came to be used for the swirling.
The trinity of Sazerac ingredients survived Hurricane Katrina: Herbsaint liqueur, Peychaud’s Bitters, and Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye Whiskey. All are owned by the Sazerac Company, headquartered in New Orleans in a building that itself survived the storm. The bitters and the whiskey are made in limited quantities in Frankfort, Kentucky, by the Buffalo Trace Distillery; for more information, see www.buffalotrace.com.
The Sazerac Bar, at the Fairmont Hotel, which uses the name by permission, is still under restoration, but the bar that famously makes the Sazerac a speciality is back in business. The Rib Room, at the Omni Royal Orleans, was long the domain of Martin Sawyer, the genial and expert eighty-four-year-old bartender, who explained his decades of bartending and his own Sazerac technique in Marsaw (2005), a short, jazzy film made by the gifted young filmmaker Joe York. (The transcript of a long, delightful interview with Sawyer is available at www.southernfoodways.com.) Sawyer took refuge after the storm with his family and will no longer be behind the bar full-time, but the Rib Room still proudly uses his ecumenical Sazerac recipe: brandy, rye, Herbsaint, Peychaud’s Bitters, Angostura bitters, and sugar syrup—always stirred, not shaken.