New Orleans’ official cocktail is shrouded in legend and low.
The Sazerac—made of rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, and absinthe—is one of the most celebrated cocktails worldwide. And it’s also one of the most hotly debated. Was it truly the first drink ever granted the moniker “cocktail?” is adding a spoonful of absinthe distinctly a New Orleans twist? Was there even a cocktail named Sazerac during the era of its invention in the late 1800s?
Crescent City locals and any tour you take while visiting New Orleans will answer an emphatic “yes” to the questions above. However, one cocktail writer—Esquiredrinks and spirits writer Dave Wondrich—has nearly made a career of debunking the myths shrouding the NOLA-based tipple.
Like many of the classic cocktail creation stories, the Sazerac does have a few threadbare facts to hang your hat on.
To start with, Antoine Amédée Peychaud played a starring role in the beginnings of the Sazerac. Back in the 1830s, he ran an apothecary in New Orleans. It was there he created a medicinal tincture that we know today as Peychaud’s Bitters. In addition to his pharmacy duties, he allegedly served customers a cure-all prescription—a mix of his bitters and a brand of cognac named Sazerac de Forge et Fils in an egg cup.
Here’s where the myth of the origins of the word “cocktail” is associated with the Sazerac.
You see, an egg cup is a coquetier in French. Supposedly, the term evolved (or de-evolved?) from Americans mispronouncing the word. However, the first mention of the word “cocktail” in reference to a mixed libation was in 1806, more than two decades earlier.
Whatever locals actually called it, the drink’s popularity skyrocketed beyond the pharmacy’s walls. A local bar, eventually known as the Sazerac Coffee House, started making its own version and swapped the cognac out for rye. Some experts say the switch was motivated to please American palates; others blame cognac’s steep prices after the Great French Wine Blight in the 1860s.
So, where did the absinthe come in? Most likely, Vincent Miret, bartender and co-owner of the Sazerac Coffee House, introduced the absinthe rinse to appease the vast French ex-pat community in NOLA as well. But was he the first to add the absinthe element?
The written word seems to say otherwise. The first mention of a Sazerac cocktail in print wasn’t until 1899 when a fraternity magazine, Alpha Tau Omega Palm, sang its praises. The recipe also appeared in a book called The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Themby William “Cocktail Bill” Boothby. Yet back in 1870, nearly the same ingredients appeared as the Improved Whiskey Cocktail—except for a dash of absinthe instead of a rinse—in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 book How to Mix Drinks
Will we ever really know how the Sazerac rose to become one of the greatest cocktails in history? Probably not. But what we do know for sure is that it’s an immensely sophisticated drink with a smooth yet pungent finish, and New Orleans still serves up the best Sazerac in the country… as it should.
The Sazerac was deemed New Orleans’ official cocktail in 2008. And who doesn’t love to roam the streets with a cocktail in hand? But if you prefer to drink yours in one of The Big Easy’s bars, check out the original 1856 Tujague’s Restaurant & Bar (the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans) or Revel Cafe & Bar, which happens to be cofounded by one of the city’s best bartenders, Chris McMillian.
- 2 1/2 oz. Rye Whiskey
- 1 Sugar Cube
- 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
- Lemon Peel (for garnish)
Preparation: Fill an Old-Fashioned glass with ice and chill. Muddle sugar cube and bitters in another glass. Add rye and stir until sugar dissolves. Spray inside of the chilled glass with absinthe after discarding the ice. Pour the whiskey mixture into the absinthe-coated glass and twist lemon peel over the cocktail. Garnish with a lemon peel.