Not Your Grandpa’s Sazerac (but maybe his grandpa’s):
An Argument for the Historically Accurate Sazerac
The sazerac is, according to some, not only an historic cocktail, but the historic cocktail: a frenglish word for coquetier, the cup that Antoine Peychaud first used to serve his now famous bitters in the Big Easy almost 200 years ago. We know it today as a rye-based drink—indeed, my response to the bartender who asks me upon my ordering one what kind of bourbon I’d like is “I’ll have a Manhattan, please”—but this was not always the case. If the etymology of “cocktail” is most likely delightfully apocryphal, the genesis of the title Sazerac is anything but, and therein lies the basis for the Historically Accurate Sazerac, a drink that takes us to a time of transition in post-Civil War New Orleans.
Like the tales told by revelers the afternoon following a night on Bourbon Street, parts of the Sazerac’s history are a bit cloudy. Sources from The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink to The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture’s volume on Foodways disagree on whether it was Sewell Taylor or John B. Schiller who made Peychaud’s concoction of bitters and sugar famous, and the genesis of the absinthe rinse is recalled with about as much precision as you would expect from anyone consuming absinthe. One thing is certain: the reason you don’t walk into a bar and order a “Taylor” or a “Schiller” isn’t because imbibers forgot their bartender, or the fact that neither of these gentlemen actually made the drink that famous, but also because the original cocktail wasn’t known by its maker, but by the main ingredient, Sazerac de Forge French brandy.
It’s easy to skip over Taylor and Schiller, as Imbibe! author David Wondrich does, to focus on the far better known Thomas Handy, who purchased Peychaud’s formula from him in 1870 and paid him a salary to manufacture the bitters. In an attempt to keep up with changing American tastes—not to mention changing availabilities of French brandy—Handy was the first to swap the foreign spirit for the American one, replacing the brandy with rye. After Handy’s death his widow’s company commercially sold the sazerac in bottles bearing his name, which is now most recognizable for appropriately gracing Buffalo Trace’s antique “Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey.”
But, again, the dates here remain as suspect as a Huey Long election. While Handy’s famous substitution probably took place sometime in the 1870’s, it’s unlikely that it happened uniformly or overnight. Like any change in a tried and true recipe (New Coke and Guinness’s recent vegan capitulation come to mind), not all consumers were pleased with the new and improved version, and some no doubt continued to order the drink with brandy. Secondly, while rye was an old spirit—far older than bourbon, which was just reaching its stride in the 1870s—given that the legal battles for copyright protections and enforced standards that would ensure truth in labeling and quality were only just getting passed, the rye used in the drink wasn’t necessarily the smoothest, purest, best-aged whiskey available. More likely it was young and rough, and possibly distilled in New Orleans from ingredients purchased upriver, meaning it lacked even the aging that transport on a steamboat or railroad allowed.
The answer would’ve been to blend the traditional with the non-. Using both cognac and rye would’ve satisfied both old tastes and new, stretched the small supply of brandy limited by an agricultural tragedy in France, and mellowed some of the bite from un-aged American whiskey.
So while suggesting to a bartender or guest today that a sazerac be made with both French brandy and American whiskey will garner you denunciations as a heretic, remind your detractors that 140 years ago, their singularly rye-based tipple was the upstart, and you’re simply enjoying the best of both the old world and the new.
RECIPE: The Historically Accurate Sazerac
Like other variations on the sazerac, from Cure’s antebellum version in New Orleans to the Big Jones post-Prohibition version in Chicago, The Historically Accurate Sazerac embodies a specific time in the drink’s history. It also captures the culture of the city of its birth, a city with which it can never be disassociated. Sweet, spicy, and biting, part French and part southern, rinsed with absinthe and an air of expatriate mystery, the complex ingredients and artful preparation put New Orleans in a glass.
Pour enough absinthe in the first glass to shallowly cover the bottom; place in the freezer to chill. Pour the rye and cognac into the second glass, adding 4-6 dashes of Peychaud’s and 2-3 dashes of Angostura. Sweeten to taste with simple syrup (one spoonful will be relatively dry; 3 spoonfuls sweet enough for dessert). Add ice, stir, and let sit. Retrieve chilled glass and rinse by turning the glass at an angle and rotating, coating the sides with the absinthe. Leave any standing absinthe in the bottom of the glass. Strain the second glass into the chilled and rinsed one; drop lemon peel in and enjoy.
A versatile drink, it can be served ice-chilled to temper a steamy bayou afternoon, or room temperature on a fireside winter night. Adjust accordingly.
SOURCES: In addition to those mentioned in the text, consult Carson, The Social History of Bourbon, and “Handy v. Commander” in The Southern Reporter: Containing all the Decisions of the Supreme Courts of Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi, vol 22 (June 9, 1897-February 9, 1898): 230-236.