One of the great regrets of New Orleans visits in my youth was that I traveled there with the double-edged whammy of a college-student’s budget and attitude: go for quantity, not quality. I attended college in Memphis, and had the great fortune to have several badass friends from NOLA and the nearby Delta country of Mississippi and Alabama. Visiting their stomping grounds we left no fried food untried, no red-dye-syruped Hurricane unfinished at the bar, and no band worth its salt enjoyed without a good two-step or boogie inexpertly trod by my Tony Lamas. And for christ’s sake don’t ask me how we got all those beads long ago. Well, at least not in front of my kids.
It wasn’t ‘til many years later that I discovered the delights of a well made Sazerac, New Orleans’ signature cocktail; pungent, sweet, and lingering on the tongue. A slight anise edge gives a little sharp nip to the whiskey’s bite, finished by a soothing lick of sugar and bitters. What the Hurricane is to the Mardi Gras debauchery of one’s youth, The Sazerac still declares you’re ready to celebrate even though you’re all grown up. With a bit more style, but no less sass. More blazer and jeans, less “girls gone wild.” Not that your ta-tas haven’t held up superbly, girlfriend. [You’re welcome].
Most booze historians place The Sazerac squarely in the “classics” category as one of the earliest recorded bar concoctions. It’s a fundamental drink in the bartender’s arsenal, common in The Big Easy by in the 1850s. Just a simple combination of booze, sugar, citrus, and bitters with a nice hit of absinthe for the requisite bit of crazy. However, like our good friend The Old-Fashioned, it sadly spent much of the last century FUBAR outside of Louisiana. With the rebirth of the cocktail scene in the U.S., you can now order a Sazerac with some confidence that you’ll be served a legit libation. Here in the SLC superlative Sazeracs are built nightly at Bar X, Whiskey Street, and The Vault at Bambara to name a couple of swank establishments with barkeeps who know their shit.
Or make your own and at home without having to worry about revisiting those pesky public indecency charges. Your call.
First, WTF is Absinthe? Called the “green fairy” by artists like Van Gogh, Degas, Picasso and others of their ilk in late 19th century Paris, absinthe is a chartreuse colored, super-high proof booze famous back in the day for getting people both fucked up and kinda crazy. And not in a good way. Absinthe is made with Artemisia Absinthium—commonly called wormwood—which in and of itself is a pretty useful herb used to treat fever, worm infections [I know, ew], and stimulate the appetite for both food and sex. Excellent. The downside? Wormwood also contains inconsistent levels of the chemical thujone, a central-nervous system stimulant that in high concentration causes seizures, hallucinations, and even death. Result: absinthe was illegal in the U.S. for a long time. Through modern chemical detection and testing, distillers can now determine “safe” levels of thujone in wormwood, and bottle a legal approximation of absinthe under various commercially-available labels. But even street-legal “Absente” still packs quite a punch; the kind available at the UT State Liquor store is bottled at 110 proof. If you don’t want to drop the dinero on a bottle of the green fairy, Pernod has a similar flavor profile at both a lower cost and ABV.
Second, choose your booze: Traditionally, rye whiskey was the basic building block of The Sazerac. A high-proof and well-aged straight rye is the way to go whenever possible. For a local pick, High West’s Double Rye makes a kickass Sazerac. Some recipes, especially the old NOLA bar guides, call for a good hit of cognac when mixing up your Sazerac, a point over which booze nerds will come to blows. Or slaps. Whatever. Ask your guests what they like. Folks who prefer a sweet profile will appreciate a touch of cognac in their Sazerac, and leave it out for friends who like their booze with some serious smack-down. A note on bitters: Peychaud’s aromatic bitters are hard to come by, but worth the effort to have in your bar for Sazeracs. Use Angostura if that’s all you can get your paws on.
Third, prep your glasses. A traditional Sazerac pours small in quantity but mighty powerful in quality. Use a 2-3 oz. glass, like a vintage coupe or wine glass, to concentrate the flavor and nose of the cocktail. A short Old-Fashioned glass also works well, especially if you choose to make your Sazerac on the rocks [oh, hush you. Some people like their drinks over ice. Get over it. Oh, unless it’s a martini; that shit should be illegal.] While you are stirring up the cocktail, fill up your serving glass with crushed ice to keep it super-cold until just before you are ready to fill ‘er up.
Fourth, stir it up. Since you will absolutely NOT be shaking this cocktail, it can be stirred with ice in any ‘ol kind of glass or metal container. Oh, and you know that ridiculous skinny-swirly-long-handled spoon you got as part of your bar kit and don’t know what the hell to do with? Well, you’ll be pulling it out now to agitate the cocktail by twirling it in the mixing glass for a long time before you strain the cocktail into the serving glass. Like, at least 30 seconds and no less, you lazy turd. Keep this up and you’ll be ready to make some elegant stirred martinis and gimlets later this Spring. That’s it, keep stirring. #werkitbaby
Fifth, spritz and serve. Bar geeks will argue endlessly about the proper steps for building a boss Sazerac, but one thing is universally required to finish it off: the correct application of lemon zest. Cut off a nice-sized chunk of zest, about 1” long and at least ½” wide, with a little bit of the pith attached for rigidity, and pinch it surface-side out between your thumb and forefinger inside the glass just above the booze. It makes a nice ‘zip’ sound and you’ll see the lemon oil spray out of the zest onto the surface of your drink in a very satisfying little cloud of citrusy goodness. Take the same piece of zest and rub the surface around the rim of your glass, then drop it in as a garnish if you’d like.
Okay. Let's do this.
The Sazerac [serves 2]
Fill two small coupe glasses with ice to chill. To a separate bar glass or Boston shaker filled half-way with ice, add 6 dashes bitters, two sugar cubes [or 1 ½ - 2 tsp. granulated sugar], 1 oz. cognac, and 3 oz. rye whiskey. Or, leave out the cognac and use 4 oz. rye. Stir with a long-handled bar spoon until sugar is dissolved and the mixing container is extremely cold and frosty [at least 30 seconds]. Toss out the ice from the serving glasses, add ½ tsp. absinthe to each glass and swirl to coat the interior of the glass. Strain the cocktail equally between the two glasses, then finish with lemon zest squeeze, rub the zest on the rim of the glass, and drop it into the drink.
The Sazerac [serves 1]
This recipe via The Cure in New Orleans, in Garden & Gun Magazine: In a glass or Boston shaker, combine 2 oz. Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, ¼ oz. simple sugar syrup [2:1 sugar: water ratio], and 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters over ice and stir for roughly 30 seconds with a long-handled bar spoon. In a pre-chilled rocks glass, pour in 2-3 dashes of absinthe and swirl to coat the interior, pouring out any excess. Strain the cocktail into the glass, squeeze the lemon twist over the drink, rub the peel side onto the rim, then discard the twist or plop it in the glass.
The Sazerac, Quick & Dirty in a Hurry [serves 2]
Put 6 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters in each of two short glasses. Tip and swirl the glasses to coat the sides with bitters. To a cocktail shaker filled with about 10 ice cubes add: ½ oz. Absinthe, 3 oz. rye whiskey, 2 tbs. simple syrup. Stir, then gently pour [dividing ice between glasses] into the bitters-coated glasses. Garnish with a twist of lemon.
Looking for some quick and “Big Easy” appetizers to go along with those delicious bevies? I just happen to have a few at A Bourbon Gal. Check it out for three recipes using local ingredients like Beehive Cheese and Creminelli salami.