Aug 18, 201109:31 AM
All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans
Sizing Up the Sazerac Story
Photo Courtesy of knuffelode, stock.xchnge, 2005
The Official List for Louisiana:
State Motto: Two. "The Bayou State" and "Sportsman’s Paradise"
State Flower: Magnolia
State Tree: Bald Cypress
State Song: "Give Me Louisiana" (you really didn’t think it was "You Are My Sunshine" or "When the Saints Go Marching In," did you?)
State Bird: Eastern Brown Pelican
Cocktail for Largest Metropolitan Area: Sazerac
As if further proof was needed that “we are different from just about everyone else,” in 2008, amidst a number of economic and managerial crises, the Legislature of the State of Louisiana passed a bill through both houses, signed by the Governor, affirming by law that the Sazerac is the official cocktail of New Orleans. An earlier effort to have the Sazerac declared the official cocktail of the State of Louisiana was defeated.
You can call the initial bill’s defeat an act of good sense - or call the bill itself just plain nuts to begin with - but a compromise bill was passed noting the designation of an official cocktail for this state’s largest city. Ya’ gotta love it!
No other state or city boasting an official cocktail springs immediately to mind.
But that minor piece of information is neither here nor there. We are what we are, and we will pass through this life on our terms. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead! Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes! Praise the Lord and pass the bitters!
Yet, the "official" Sazerac that finds its way into your rocks glass today is not the original recipe. Not a single ingredient is the same, unless you are a dedicated Peychaud’s Bitters user and accept nothing else.
Back in the mid-1800s, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar, the Merchants Exchange Coffee House located on Exchange Alley in the French Quarter, to a friend, Aaron Bird. Taylor went into the wine importing business and Bird was more than happy to feature one of the wines Taylor was bringing to New Orleans, a cognac named Sazerac Forge et Fils.
Bird did not stop with that grand act of friendship; he even featured a drink that incorporated the cognac alongside a new bitters product produced by a neighboring pharmacist, Antoine Amedee Peychaud. Bitters were quite popular as a “medicinal” additive and, in the mysterious history of the Sazerac, it is noted more often than not that Peychaud was the drink’s creator.
You have heard that “a little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down,” haven’t you? Well, in New Orleans that sugar was bitters, which contains a concoction of spices and whatever, and possessing a bit of alcohol content. Remember, it’s us here, and we have been consistent through the years.
Back to good neighbor Bird. He was not content just to feature a drink using Taylor’s imported cognac, which proved extremely popular; he even renamed the Merchants Exchange Coffee House as the Sazerac Coffee House. Shorter, and right to the point, as long as you were from New Orleans and knew that “coffee house” was code for “bar.”
Bird decided to follow Peychaud’s recipe and he too added an ingredient to the creation that was quite popular here, absinthe. So there was the perfect three-ingredient cocktail, cognac as the base spirit, bitters to enhance the aroma and the flavor, and absinthe for a bit more of a kick and anise taste, beloved by his patrons. Some historic accounts note that Bird had more than 70 “shakers,” young people who did nothing but …well, shake the drinks. This was before the age of machinery and humans still did a lot of the heavy lifting in every profession.
In the 150-plus year history of the Sazerac, some things changed. Can’t expect time to stand still, even in a city devoted in its heart, if not always in the pocketbook, to the preservation of its history and culture. A place infused with benign neglect.
In the 1880s, France’s wine industry was the victim of phylloxera, an infestation by a louse that attacks the roots of grapevines and sucks the life out of the plants. The vineyards were devastated in every corner of the country. The cure then, as it is today, was a complete replanting of the vineyards, and the process of doing that (along with eradicating the bugs that were in the soil) takes eight to 10 years. That’s a long time to be out of wine, cognac included.
During those years, as France was rebuilding its agricultural crown jewel, New Orleans and the entire South were trying to recover from the devastating effects of the Civil War and the resulting punishment of Reconstruction. Fortunately, New Orleans did not have to go far for an alcohol product to replace the cognac which France could not furnish.
Our port was a prime gateway for the movement of the rye whisky being distilled in Kentucky to other markets. We had plenty of that liquid on our freight docks and great quantities of the spirit were now called into use in the recipe for a Sazerac cocktail. When cognac was once again available around the final turn of the 19th century, Kentucky whisky was soundly entrenched as the base spirit for a New Orleans drink that took its name from a French cognac house.
Just a few years into the 20th century, due to a series of events and misunderstandings, absinthe was declared illegal, first in the U.S., then into France and many countries in Europe. It was not until the 1930s, following the Great (failed) Experiment of Prohibition, the 18th and 21st Amendments to the Constitution, that New Orleanians J.M. Legendre and Reginald Parker created a proper substitute for absinthe. They named it "herbsaint," a name taken from the French term, herbe sainte, meaning “sacred herb,” referring to Artemisia absinthium, the herb from which absinthe is made.
Up to this point during absinthe’s absence, pastis was used as an absinthe substitute. There was less alcohol in pastis, but the licorice (anise) taste and aroma were still present.
When the Louisiana Legislature finally got around to designating the Sazerac as the official cocktail of New Orleans in 2008, all of the original and historic ingredients for the beverage, notably cognac and absinthe, were readily available, but rye whisky and herbsaint were now what many generations of Sazerac drinkers knew, so those are the denoted ingredients.
That’s our long tale of this classic New Orleans cocktail. If you don’t live here, why don’t you send us the story of your state’s or city’s official cocktail?
What’s that? Your hometown doesn’t have an official cocktail? Pity.