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.