Behind the Drink: The Sazerac

Famed writer Gary Regan explores the origins of the classic New Orleans cocktail

On the main drag of Austin, Nev., according to the 1878 The Sazerac Lying Club: A Nevada Book by Fred H. Hart, there once was a saloon known as the Sazerac. The regulars at the bar "sat around the stove, smoked their pipes, fired tobacco juice at a mark on the stovepipe, and swapped lies and other reminiscences." I used to know a joint like that…
The Sazerac cocktail was reportedly invented earlier — in the mid-1800s at the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans — and made with Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac. But that drink had to be laid to rest eventually, due to the brandy shortage brought about by the phylloxera epidemic that destroyed European vineyards in the late 19th century.
With no cognac to play with, straight rye whiskey became the base for the concoction, and it worked well with the locally produced Peychaud’s Bitters, which contributes so many dimensions to the tipple that it’s hard to list the flavors as they turn cartwheels around the palate and gyre and gimble their way down the throat.
In 2007, while stumbling though cognac with a group of mischievous bartenders, I took another look at the Sazerac. Suppose the recipe had been created in France: Would they use simple syrup as the sweetening agent? No, they’d go for Cointreau, I guessed. And without Peychaud’s Bitters, I bet the French would have added a few dashes of Suze, the bitter, gentian-based liqueur that hit shelves in the late 1800s. The result, dubbed La Tour Eiffel, called for cognac and a glass rinsed with absinthe. It was none too shabby, if I do say so myself.
And please don’t miss out on The Original Sazerac (pictured), made with a darned good cognac of your choice. Desire the modern version? Then Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey is probably your best bet.
So invite some friends over for a drink and sit around the stove a while. Smoke your pipes, fire tobacco juice, and swap lies and reminiscences. It’s a fine way to spend an evening.

Click here for the Tour Eiffel cocktail and Original Sazerac recipes.

— Gary Regan,