The Sazerac

The New Orleans cocktail of choice

By Corby Kummer

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 As originally made in the 1850s, it was a blend of Sazerac brandy and sugar, along with bitters invented in the late 1700s by Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a West Indian apothecary.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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/03/the-sazerac/304615/