Lemon Peel (garnish)
Preparation: Add all ingredients into shaker with ice and shake vigorously. Serve in a coupe glass and garnish with a lemon twist.
Some of America’s food and drink staples have stories of disputed origin. Questions such as, Who is the first person to put a hot dog on a bun? How about officially calling it a
hot dog in the first place? Who was it that invented the hamburger? Or who coined the name
But the first cocktail drink is one significant American culinary creation that we know the definitive story behind - mostly.
With its roots deep in the vineyards of France dating back to the 17th century, the Sazerac is a drink that reflects much of America’s cultural and economic history. You could make the argument that it’s a drink that embodies the American character in its first century of existence.
The Sazerac has a strong flavor based on simple foundations with a good deal of help from the French.
Older than the apple pie that has been considered a synecdoche for Americana, the Sazerac has typified New Orleans. And if New Orleans is the height of drinking culture, that must mean the Sazerac is not just the Crescent City’s first cocktail, but that it’s truly America’s cocktail.
The Louisiana House of Representatives certainly thought so when a majority vote in 2008 declared the beverage to be the official cocktail of New Orleans.
The Sazerac’s history reveals much more than just the birth of cocktail culture; it also informs us on the political, cultural, and economic journey that America has been on for the past 170 years.
The grand narrative of a country is found in the bottom of a rocks glass.
The secret is that there is no secret. The history is straightforward and the ingredients, the taste, even more so.
The Sazerac has adapted to changes in American politics and global markets. But no matter how much it’s changed it’s always been the same.
There’s a lot to cover, so you might want to pour yourself a drink and relax. Better yet, make yourself a Sazerac. Here’s what you’ll need and what you’ll need to do:
- Step 1 - Grab 2 rocks glasses. Put some ice in one and set it aside.
- Step 2 - In the other glass, add a sugar cube and 4 dashes of bitters. Muddle until the sugar is mostly ground while still leaving a granular presence.
- Step 3 - Add 2 oz. of rye whiskey/cognac. Stir for 20-30 seconds.
- Step 4 - Remove ice from the other glass. Swirl ½ oz. of Herbsaint/absinthe in the glass, coating most of the inside of the glass. Pour out the excess liquid.
- Step 5 - Add contents of mixing glass to the chilled absinthe glass.
- Step 6 - Use the lemon peel to coat the rim of the glass and place it on top before drinking. Serve and enjoy!
The scent of lemon and the ascending notes of absinthe reach you before the drink does. It’s less a preparation and more of a first wave where each sip further commingles the flavors, becoming something more than just the sum of its parts.
Granules of sugar brush against the tongue, the roof of the mouth, briefly before dissolving. Each remnant of sugar works to offset the bitters from fulfilling their namesake.
If you’re using Sazerac Rye Whiskey, the drink’s blazoned cherry color will have you expecting an overload of sweetness. However, the infusion of all the ingredients results in a balanced concoction that’s sweet, strong, and bold; one that makes it all too easy to drink and forgets how many you’ve had.
While it may not make the drink any sweeter by the time you’ve reached the end of the glass, to know the rich history of the Sazerac can only embolden the experience. Knowing what the drink has been through from inception to the bar in your neighborhood or the bar in your dining room.
Like the drink, it’s a history best consumed in sips, not shots.
Sip One: The Family Sazerac
Before it was a drink, it was a family.
Sometime in the 1630s, north of Bordeaux and in the heart of the Cognac region in western France, the Sazerac family began their operation of a vineyard and distillery in order to make eaux de vie - basically clear brandy.
Nearly 150 years would pass until a descendant, Bernard Sazerac, began to make cognac under the family name. Prior to housing a great number of aging barrels in Angouleme, just east of the Cognac region, Bernard purchased the Jardins du Logis de Forge: a massive estate, with vast hills and far-reaching vineyards. The gardens there produced some of the richest grapes in all of France.
Bernard even took the name of his new estate, becoming Bernard Sazerac de Forge. Complete control over all his affairs was passed down to his son, Laurent, in 1791 - just a decade after assuming responsibility for Logis de Forge.
The 18th century was ending, and the birth of the world’s first cocktail was on the horizon.
Did You Know?
During the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin, America’s first ambassador to France, requested that cannons be manufactured by the Sazerac family. Louis Sazerac answered the call.
Sip Two: Bitterness and Sweetness
From France to the French Quarter.
An apothecary opened at 123 Royal Street, New Orleans in 1834. A sign out front read:
The Best Bitters, Peppermint, and Alcohol. The shop belonged to Antoine Peychaud, a 31-year-old Creole who has made a name for himself selling his wares to coffee houses throughout the city.
Peychaud’s Bitters are still available to this day. The young pharmacist combined Gentiana flowers and alcohol for medicinal purposes, mostly to help anything from hiccups to upset stomachs.
Peychaud would often entertain friends (allegedly fellow members of a Masonic lodge) in the Royal St apothecary after business hours. Always the curious mind, he would experiment by taking his bitters and mixing them with spirits such as brandy and absinthe.
Eventually, he put all three in a glass together; then he began to toy with proportions until it was just right. The concoction may have been nameless at the moment, but Peychaud had invented what is widely accepted as the world’s first cocktail.
It depends on your definition of a
cocktail, but everything we know about mixology today can be traced back to Antoine Peychaud’s experimentation in the mid-1800s.
From the very beginning, the brandy used in Peychaud’s amalgam was Sazerac de Forge et Fils.
By the early 1840s, Peychaud’s mixture attracted the attention of Sewell Taylor, owner of the Merchants Exchange Coffee House. Taylor began serving it in his shop, and, since he used only Sazerac brandy, customers would come in and request a
Over time though, Sewell Taylor began to think that simply owning a shop was for the birds. The real money was in importing brandy, not slinging it over a counter. And so, in 1850, Taylor sold his coffee house to Aaron Bird.
Bird made moves of his own early in his proprietorship. He relocated the shop to Royal Street and renamed it the Sazerac Coffee House.
Sip Three: Changes/Ingredients
Aaron Bird proved to be an intelligent businessman. During the formative years of the Sazerac’s life, Bird purchased the rights to the bitters from Peychaud. It was clear how essential these bitters were to the identity of the drink. Bird didn’t just want pieces; he wanted the whole thing.
Some changes came out of necessity. For instance, what happens when you’re in the middle of the Great French Wine Blight and the vineyards needed for Sazerac brandy are decimated en masse?
Simple: go domestic.
Production and distribution of French brandy ground to a halt in the late 1850s, when an invasive pest found its way to French vineyards. Numerous European countries were affected by the plague of grape phylloxera (aphid), none of which faced as much devastation as France.
Back stateside, Aaron Bird sold the Sazerac Coffee House at the first sign of trouble. That left its new owner, Thomas Handy, scrambling to save its star cocktail.
Meanwhile, the production of rye whiskey in America was steadily increasing, especially in the northeast. Handy did what any bartender would do - he kept costs down. He began substituting brandy with rye.
After the change was officially made, the Sazerac Co. began to bottle and sell its pre-mixed cocktail.
Brandy wasn’t the only Sazerac ingredient that disappeared from the original recipe. Remember that little absinthe rinse we used earlier? Well, an aphid may be able to destroy brandy, but it takes a law to get rid of absinthe.
Absinthe, sometimes known as the Green Fairy, was rumored to cause a great number of side effects. Chief among them was hallucinating. There were reports that a man even died from drinking it.
And so, in 1912, amidst so much bad press, absinthe was banned in the United States.
Another ingredient bites the dust.
Luckily for bartenders around the country, especially during Prohibition, the answer was in anise-flavored liquor - Herbsaint, in particular. Herbsaint was created to replace absinthe, banking on the fact that the ban was practically unenforceable.
It worked. To this day, ordering a Sazerac in New Orleans means that Herbsaint is part of the mix - even though the ban was lifted in 2007.
Before a pest plagued French vineyards and before the flourishing of absinthe paranoia, the Sazerac House was established in New Orleans, legitimizing the cocktail’s integral role in early drinking culture.
The 1850s saw the Sazerac and its ingredients quickly rise in popularity, largely thanks to visibility in the press. A series of advertisements in a local paper in 1852 featured the first mention of the Sazerac House.
These ads, posted by Antoine Peychaud, let readers know that this family recipe for bitters is available at the Sazerac.
Sip Four: Same Sazerac, Different Owners
During the 1860s, the Sazerac House changed hands like a baton in a relay race. Aaron Bird died in 1860, leaving J.B. Schiller, an importer of Sazerac brandy, to take over. By the end of the decade, Schiller himself was in poor health and died only months after selling the Sazerac House to Thomas Handy, one of the House’s longer-tenured clerks.
Just a few years after taking over the Sazerac House, Handy placed an ad in the papers to let customers know that his establishment was the only place one could find brandies produced by Sazerac de Forge et Fils.
Unfortunately for Handy and the entire Western world, the 1870s were a time of economic crisis. Handy’s exclusive announcement came in the same year as one of the worst economic periods in American history: the Panic of 1873.
Sip Five: Everyone’s Going to Need a Drink
After agriculture, the railroad industry was second largest in the United States - and for good reason. 33,000 miles of track were laid across the nation in the five years leading up to 1873. Over-speculation and over-expansion eventually breed collapse, and that’s exactly what happened to the railroad industry.
As was the case before with gold mining and oil drilling to come, the boom of railroads devolved into the get-rich-quick schemes and high yield for little investment pitches that still catch Americans off-guard to this day.
The problem with dreams is that they rarely come true. For many Americans during the early 1870s, railroads turned out to be an investment leading to ruin more often than to wealth.
Railroad over-speculation was only part of what went wrong. In 1871, the German Empire ceased silver production, instantly dropping the value of the precious metal throughout the world.
That led to a demonetization of silver in the United States. Once, the United States had a bimetal economy - based both on gold and silver standards. The Coinage Act of 1873 passed by Congress saw to it that we would only use a gold standard to support our national banking system.
Suddenly all the silver mines out west, especially in Nevada, weren’t as valuable as before. The money supplies took a significant blow; many of America’s farmers who relied on silver to offset their debts were now at the risk of collapse.
It only got worse from there. As if the Apocalpyse was nigh, America’s centers of commerce and industry were ravaged by fire, death, destruction, and pestilence.
One of the worst fires in recorded human history decimated Chicago in 1871. More than 3 square miles of the Second City were destroyed, causing $222 million in damage and leaving more than 100,000 people homeless.
The following year, another of American’s worst recorded fires tore through Boston. It only took 12 hours for nearly 1,000 buildings to reduce to ash and rubble and cause more than $73 million worth of damage. And that’s $73 million back in 1872 - somewhere around $1.5 trillion today.
Around the same time as Boston was burning, the horses of New England and the Mid-Atlantic were dropping dead. The largest outbreak of equine influenza hit in the fall of 1872, quickly spreading through most of the stables in New York.
Out of 100,000 horses throughout the Empire State, approximately 7,000 caught the flu. With close to 10% of these horses dying from the virus, the rest were too sick to travel and work.
Transportation in New York was essentially stopped in its proverbial tracks, and with it came the cessation of moving goods throughout the state and region. Even with the ubiquity of railroads, horses were still very much essential for the wellbeing of the economy.
How does all of this financial crisis affect a cocktail flowering in New Orleans?
Sip Six: A Bitter Bitters Battle
The depression unleashed by the 1873 Panic would come to an end by 1879, but not before our own Thomas Handy suffered his downfall. Handy invested money, clearly too much, in the railroad industry. A victim of over-speculation, Handy had no choice but to dissolve the Sazerac company.
Handy was forced to sell the business to one of his employees, Vincent Micas. Micas renames the company while entering into a business relationship with Antoine Peychaud.
Handy might’ve been down, but he damn sure wasn’t out.
Just a couple of years after standing on the razor’s edge of financial ruin, Thomas Handy was able to open up shop again. The only issue is that his new shop was practically next door to Micas, and both men advertised that they were the only ones importing Sazerac brandy.
It wasn’t long before this bitter bar rivalry finally ended. Eventually, Micas took his business, renamed The Sazerac Barroom, over to Camp Street. Handy, feeling that he was finally back in the game, reopened The Sazerac House in its original location on Royal Street.
In 1883, Antoine Peychaud, the man who put the Sazerac cocktail ingredients together for the very first time, passed away. It was also around that time that Vincent Micas sold his Sazerac Barroom.
Thomas Handy, for all intents and purposes, was the last to carry the torch of the Sazerac’s legacy.
Thomas Handy survived bad investments, financial ruin, and bitter rivalry to be the Sazerac’s saving grace. And then came the aphid, destroyer of grapes and vines throughout Europe.
The Phylloxera blight also contributed to the rise in absinthe’s popularity in France - nowhere more so than in Paris, since the wine economy was virtually destroyed.
We know that absinthe would be forced underground in 1912, but why rye whiskey and not bourbon, a spirit just as popular in the American South?
The answer is simply a matter of taste. Literally.
Rye has a bite to it that bourbon doesn’t; a punch not nearly pugnacious enough, but still benefitting taste that welcomes the citrine rim more than bourbon cares to.
Rye replaced brandy; Herbsaint replaced absinthe. And over a hundred years later the Sazerac remains the same. Sure, it may have variations and imitations, but there’s only one Sazerac; simple, strong, and always a little sweet.
The Sazerac: America’s first drink.