Friday, April 2, 2010
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
My main reason for heading to New Orleans was to reload for another year; I am struggling to keep up in the mixology arms race that Vancouver has become. Attending Tales of the Cocktail is like downloading a decade’s worth of dedicated and discerning ‘study’ of cocktails and spirits onto you brain in just a few days. For me it was also a chance to discover what was so special about the Sazerac once and for all.
The first thing I discovered is that it’s pretty easy to get a crappy version of any cocktail in the Big Easy, including the Sazerac. I was going to have to do a little digging and we definitely had to get off of Bourbon street before the fiancé and I start sharing a 2 litre Margarita and end up throwing beads at mid-western soccer moms.
Just a few steps down from the debauchery is the door to the French 75 bar at Arnaud’s restaurant where a fine native New Orleanian saloon keeper by the name of Jake made me my first real Sazerac and my eyes were opened. It wasn’t perfect, made with Old Overholt Rye and Herbsaint instead of Absinthe, you could tell that he’d hedged on the side of excess in his use of sugar but he’d balanced it perfectly with a healthy dose of Peychaud’s and the result was a slutty little concoction that revealed what this drink could be. Jake was also good enough to give us a taste of Herbsaint which, in New Orleans, has been the standard Absinthe substitute in the Sazerac since prohibition was repealed on everything but the Green Fairy.
Jake turned out to be a valuable resource and guided us on to our next air conditioned oasis from the Louisiana heat, the freshly re-opened Sazerac Room at the Roosevelt Hotel.
Closed for nigh on four years as a result of Hurricane Katrina, The Roosevelt is run by the stately Waldorf-Astoria group and judging by the gilded lobby, it measures up to it’s peers in the Big Apple. The Sazerac Room itself sparkled brand new, so new in fact that according to the bartender there were more than one or two finishing touches yet to be completed, but it looked ready to me, so I bellied up. We’d just come from French 75 bar and had their titular cocktail along with the aforementioned Sazerac, so for the sake of balancing the universe, our first round at the Sazerac Room was the titular cocktail and a French 75, your welcome universe.
Now, judging by the amount of gold-leaf in the lobby, I shouldn’t have been surprised that these were not going to be cheap drinks, and I wasn’t when my new bartender subbed Sazerac Rye for the Old Overholt that Jake used, and Lucid Absinthe for Herbsaint, and I shouldn’t have been surprised that the result would be different, but I must say, I was taken aback at the contrast. The spendier version was far more austere, no slut factor what-so-ever; still balanced, but definitely less sugar and bitters so as to more prominently feature the whiskey and very, very good. It was the perfect drink for that stage in the evening when the libations are slipping down a little too easy, it says ‘easy trigger, don’t forget, you’re drinking whiskey, not beer.’
Armed with a shiny new bottle of Sazerac Rye and a fresh supply of Peychaud’s, my own experimentation began in earnest once we arrived back in Vancouver: recipes vary, but the magic happened for me at the following proportions:
Pack a small rocks glass with ice
In a mixing glass or another rocks glass add one teaspoon (or 1 cube) of sugar
Soak the sugar with about 6 good dashes of Peychaud’s bitters and muddle and stir until all the sugar is dissolved (if this seems to be taking too long it is forgivable to add a small splash of room temperature water).
Add 1 ½ ounces of Sazerac Rye Whiskey
Now dump the ice out of the first glass and gently drop in about ¼ ounce of Taboo Absinthe and swirl around the entire inside of the glass then discard any excess absinthe (I drink it, waste not want not right?)
Add ice to mixing glass with the sugar/bitters/rye mix and still until arctic cold.
Strain into absinthe soaked glass
Twist a healthy sized lemon rind into the result then discard the rind
The result is a perfect marriage of minty clean herbal aroma provided by the absinthe and bitters, with a spicy, strong, but not boozy base from the rye.
To accomplish this at home will take some commitment, Sazerac Rye is not a realistic option but Alberta Premium Rye is made from 100% rye grain and makes a very nice Sazerac, Taboo Absinthe is available at most liquor stores and Pernod is in all liquor stores if you want to save a few dollars, though I recommend easing off on the sugar a little bit as Pernod is noticeably sweeter than Absinthe. Peychaud’s is a tough one, you’re probably going to have to go to Seattle to get it, DeLaurenti Market at Pike Place always has some in stock. I know this seems like ridiculous lengths to go to for a cocktail, and it is but the good news is, you use it in tiny, tiny increments so a 300ml bottle will last good long while, and as a bonus you can zip down the stairs behind the market to the ZigZag Café to get a last minute example of how your Sazzy ought to turn out.
Those two Sazeracs were but a drop in my cocktail bucket for the week in New Orleans, but they provided some perspective, I get why the drink is such a hot button topic on the interweb, why so many professional and amateur mixologists have been seduced by old Antoine Peychaud’s concoction. It’s always been a moving target, from Cognac to Rye, Absinthe to Herbsaint and back again, Peychaud’s to…well, don’t use anything other than Peychaud’s. There’s always been a new way out of necessity, so there’s always been a debate over which was better, it’s the debate that has kept it alive, and kept people passionate about it.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
I can’t remember where I first heard about this seemingly simple mixture of rye whiskey, sugar Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe, one of the oldest cocktails known. However, I do remember the dulcet quality of the name itself resonating with me. The Sazerac even SOUNDS good.
Over the years I’d ordered a few in bars around town only to be underwhelmed but not discouraged because no bartender seemed willing, or able as it turned out, to produce a version of the cocktail that actually adhered to the recipe. There always seemed to be one substitution or another; cognac or bourbon, or both for rye, Angostura bitters for Peychaud’s, Pernod for Absinthe. Even the presentation was a crapshoot, I’ve had ‘em from straight up in a martini glass with a lemon spiral, to on the rocks with no garnish at all. Yet, in spite of the obvious lack of consensus on the execution of this libation, it has still remained a darling of the mixology world both locally and in the ever metastasizing worldwide cocktail blogosphere. There was no doubt that all the cool kids were ordering Sazeracs, but I wondered if anyone locally could actually make one.
As it turned out, whipping up a Sazzy using local ingredients was no easy trick. First of all, the base spirit is ‘rye’ whiskey, which seemed easy enough, just grab some CC or Crown and away you go. The problem is; in New Orleans, where the Sazzy was born, rye whiskey doesn’t mean the same thing as it does north of the 49th. In the US of A, rye whiskey has legally defined specific characteristics; for one thing, it has to be distilled from a mash containing at least 51% rye grain, go figure. In Canada, ‘rye’ need not actually contain ANY rye grain; we call Canadian whisky rye because historically it did contain a good deal of rye because that was a plentiful crop kicking around the great lakes where a couple of behemoth distilleries happened to open up.
Still, nobody frets too much about which whiskey truly belongs in a Manhattan, we might have a preference, but whether it’s made with Jim Beam or Seagram’s, it’s still a Manhattan. The difference making ingredients in this, one of the greatest cocktails of all time are the ones that we use the least of to make one; absinthe and bitters. Absinthe has only been legal again in the USA for a short time so the venerable Sazerac spent much of its adult life being strained into a tumbler rinsed with a heavy handed and dull facsimile like Herbsaint (an anagram for absinthe) or Pernod, but people got by, and they drank a lot of Sazeracs.
The real problem in Vancouver was the bitters. For some reason Peychaud’s bitters seem to be prohibited in BC, and as far as I know all of Canada. Oh now and then there have been whispers of it appearing in this specialty food store or that, but I have yet to lay eyes on a bottle that has been for legal sale in the true north strong and free. Just how important were these particular
bitters to this cocktail? As it turns out, very.Now the Sazerac was invented by a 19th century pharmacist called Antoine Amedee Peychaud, sound familiar? Seem a bit odd that a pharmacist is responsible for one of the greatest cocktails of all time? It’s not a coincidence; back in the day pharmacists, then known as apothecaries, made their own medicine. Usually these medicines were derived from various botanicals and roots whose essences were extracted by maceration in alcohol. So, these ‘pharmacists’ always had a lot of hooch around which meant that they threw really, really good parties. Anyway, in the 1830’s one particular New Orleans pharmacist, Mr. Peychaud, took to serving his own ‘house’ bitters to his guests after the apothecary closed, mixed with sugar, absinthe and a popular Cognac of the era called Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils that was plentiful at the time in the former French Colony. A nasty bout of Phylloxera in the late 19th century killed many a French grapevine which choked off the supply of Cognac eventually dictating a switch to home-grown rye whiskey as the base spirit for Antoine’s Sazerac.
So yes, the Peychaud’s bitters (produced by the Sazerac Company) are essential to a proper Sazerac, they are not totally dissimilar to Angostura for instance, both have a bitter, fresh, medicinal flavour, but Peychaud’s are milder, have a definite anise note which plays very well with the absinthe in the cocktail, and perhaps most importantly, they are bright, cherry red. Besides, if you use Angostura, to make a Sazerac you come perilously close to overlapping the recipe for an Old Fashioned, then messing it up by sloshing some Absinthe around in it. Unfortunately, Peychaud’s, unlike Angostura, can’t seem to slip passed customs without being subject to the 117 or so percent duty the province applies to ‘potable’ spirits, so nobody has bothered to import it, but don’t quote me on that being the reason.
So seeing as how you’d have leave the country to scrape together half the ingredients for this damn cocktail, you might think this strange little mixture would be more trouble that in was worth, and if you tried some of the half-baked attempts at improvisation with the recipe that I have, you’d be right, but I was still smitten with this little beverage, whether it was the pleasing cadence of its title, its brazen scarlet colour, or just that I couldn’t accept that generations of more accomplished drinkers than I could be wrong. There was only one way to get to the bottom of this; I had to go to the source, New Orleans.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Saturday, January 31, 2009
1/4 oz simple syrup
dash of maraschino liqueur