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A Bitter-Sweet ‘Tail

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Photo by Andrew Cebulka
The Sazerac / Photo by Andrew Cebulka

Asking a cocktail writer to identify her favorite bar for sipping a Sazerac is akin to asking a food journalist to pick the one way she most enjoys her steak. The answer certainly depends on her mood in the moment. Classic rib-eye? Tartar with avocado foam? Swanky hotel lobby bar? Dimly lit dive? Any of those could be “the” answer at any given time.

Mood and atmosphere are always crucial, but with the Sazerac, you must also consider the bartender above all else. Because making a perfect Sazerac calls for an understanding of the history of the drink, the importance of recreating the balance of spicy rye with a bit of sugar, starting the experience with measured amounts of absinthe, and finishing it with dashes of bitters.

Why is there such a fuss over this Sazerac drink anyway? Well, at over 150 years old, the Sazerac was America’s first cocktail. As such, it implicitly warrants a certain degree of adulation. But it also has staying power, remaining a popular staple on countless menus across the country. Like many things originating from New Orleans, history is important. And it is only through an understanding of the origins of the Sazerac that a true connoisseur can be formed.

The history of the Sazerac begins, as stories often do, with a single man. Antoine Peychaud landed in New Orleans in the late 1790s as a refugee from the slave revolt in Santo Domingo. He carried with him few possessions—among them a cherished recipe for his family’s bitters. While pocketing a recipe for bitters while fleeing in a crisis might sound strange, Peychaud was not merely anticipating the need for a well-earned mixed drink on the other side of his escape. Bitters were actually extremely valued medicinally at that time, employed most commonly to alleviate stomach ailments. And it was a good thing Peychaud had the foresight to bring his family recipe, as it would literally shape the history of the American cocktail.

By the 1830s, Peychaud was a successful man according to city records. He owned and operated an apothecary on Royal Street, was a Mason and a member of the Concorde Blue Lodge. An illicit little nugget to Peychaud’s life is that the apothecary doubled as a meeting place for his brothers in the order. Hence, after dusk, he would serve brandy mixed with his prized bitters in the large end of an eggcup—glasses known to the French as coquetiers. Perhaps the influence of Peychaud’s potions resulted in a group garbling of this French word into an Americanized “cocktays.” The evolution of the word continued, alongside the drinking, and today we are all too familiar with our cocktails.

Photo by Andrew Cebulka
The Saz / Photo by Andrew Cebulka

While Peychaud’s buddies were drinking his concoction behind closed apothecary doors, the general public was being introduced to their first proper “cocktay” by Aaron Bird, who owned the Old Merchant’s Exchange Coffeehouse. Bird purchased the pharmacist’s bitters, which he then blended with a French brandy called Sazerac-de-Forge et fils. Bird’s “Sazeracs” were such a hit, he eventually changed the bar name to the Sazerac Coffeehouse. It was subsequently sold to John B. Schiller who sources claim made more than a quarter of a million dollars in his lifetime selling Sazerac cocktails. When Schiller died in 1869, Thomas Handy took over. Handy updated the drink recipe, substituting the brandy for American rye whiskey and adding a swirl of absinthe. This recipe is the one that stuck.

Despite the Sazerac’s long and important history, bartenders certainly do not shy away from tinkering with the recipe. The secret to mixing the perfect Sazerac is to give this venerable drink its due. Perhaps Hadi Ktiri, bartender at Arnaud’s French 75 bar in the French Quarter—another of my favorite Sazerac sipping spots—summed it up best: “When you fix a Sazerac, make it like your grandparents are watching,” he advises, “always with reverence and always with respect.”

Photo by Andrew Cebulka
The Saz / Photo by Andrew Cebulka

Given the history of the drink, The Sazerac Bar is my favorite place to imbibe because they serve nostalgia alongside the glass. Huey Long often drank here. Paul Ninas painted the bar’s Art Deco murals in the 1950s, and the forty-five-foot-long bar was carved from a single African Walnut tree during the same decade. The world almost lost The Sazerac Bar to Hurricane Katrina, so when it reopened in 2009, it became a testament to the city’s unbreakable spirit. I love to plant my elbows on that gleaming amber bar, watch the barkeeps toss the glasses to coat them with absinthe, and say a small, silent prayer of thanks to whatever Catholic Saint is in charge of historic preservation. He did a heck of a job with this spot. And thank goodness Peychaud pocketed those bitters.

Sazeracs

The Original Sazerac
The Saz
The Privateer