New Orleans and rye whiskey have a special relationship. Okay, so New Orleans and a lot of spirits have a special relationship, but let’s particularly focus on rye whiskey.
It is the core ingredient in “our” cocktail, the Sazerac. The Sazerac is one of the oldest named cocktails on the planet, invented right here in 1830, or 1850, or thereabouts. The date is controversial and it depends on who your source is when defining a time-frame. Oh, and the Sazerac did not contain rye whiskey in the beginning as a key ingredient but rather used cognac. It was not invented at the Sazerac Bar, which was a long way from going into existence, but at the Merchants Exchange Coffee House on Exchange Alley.
C’mon, this is New Orleans and hardly nothing is at it appears to be, or even reported to be. Once you run Carnival, St. Joseph’s Day, the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, the New Basin Canal, Reveillon Dinners and much more through the meat grinder of our 300 year-old history, hardly anything still is as it was, or even as it was rumored to be.
Anyway, the original main spirit ingredient in the Sazerac cocktail was cognac and the preferred cognac to use was Sazerac Forge et Fils along with absinthe. But, darn the luck, the cognac house was soon wiped out. In the late 1800’s a grapevine disease, phylloxera, swept through France and eradicated vineyards by the mile. Wine was in short supply. Luckily, New Orleans had plenty of rye whisky, direct from the verdant farmland and stills of western Pennsylvania and rolling to us down the river. No cognac. No problem.
It was also quite convenient that a neighboring pharmacist, Antoine Amadée Peychaud, a Creole originally from Sainte-Domingue (Haiti), was only too happy to contribute a secret concoction he invented in 1830, so powerful that a very small amount would make a big difference. And thus bitters were raised to a higher purpose than curing stomach ailments and headaches, and became a key ingredient in the Sazerac cocktail and most subsequent cocktails.
But we are so easily led astray. The point of this diatribe is actually the history and versatility of rye whiskey. This is the spirit in the Old West that after a hard ride on a horse all day, the saloon at the end of the trail served rye whiskey to a thirsty cowboy. This is the whiskey George Washington made in his home still. And this is the whiskey Ethan Allan, his buddy Benedict Arnold and the Green Mountain Boys mixed with hard cider before their 1755 assault on Fort Ticonderoga – which in the end, was actually just overtaking one British sentry and strolling through the gates. That was just as well because the colonial cocktail, the Stone Fence, which in all likelihood Allan and the Boys tore into, delivered an outcome akin to running downhill into a stone fence. Thus, the first American victory of the Revolutionary War was secured.
2 oz rye whiskey (or rum or applejack, or anything else that can deliver the kick of an ornery mule)
Some amount of hard cider
Take a pint glass, or whatever you like, add ice cubes, then add whiskey and fill to top with cider.
And so from the founding of our country, we grew grain and a lot of that grain was rye. The result was a fermentation and distillation process that yielded rye whiskey. The cows and the pigs may go a bit hungry but daddy is not going thirsty.
The natural affinity of New Orleans to rye whiskey does not just extend to the Sazerac cocktail. We are the home base for the Sazerac Company, the largest distilling corporation in America, which operates world-wide. And in another New Orleans irony, none of Sazerac Company’s distilleries are located anywhere near here, but we are the headquarters location.
Let’s spread our wings, set the Sazerac cocktail aside for just a moment, and move on to other drinks that make fine use of rye whiskey.
A classic and for good reason. While bourbon can be used, the spicy notes of the rye whiskey tones down the sugar while playing up the special aromas and tastes of the bitters.
2 oz. Rye
1 Sugar Cube
2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
Orange Twist, for Garnish
Place the sugar cube in a rocks glass, dash the bitters on it, and add water. Muddle to combine. Add ice cubes and rye. Garnish with orange slice if desired.
Obviously using Bourbon and other brands of bitters changes the drink. But experimentation is such fun, you should try different variations with different ingredients.
A modified Whiskey Sour, born in the late 19th century in Boston, and likely named for one of the political districts in that excellent drinking town.
1 1/2 oz. Rye
3/4 oz. Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice
3/4 oz. Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice
1 tsp. Grenadine
Lemon Twist for Garnish
Cherry for Garnish
Place all ingredients in a mixing glass full of ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon peel and cherry if desired.
From the Savoy Cocktail Book
Moving history forward, this more modern drink was first noted in the 1930’s (okay, so not that much more modern) in Patrick Gavin Duffy’s The Official Mixer’s Manual. Originally noted with grenadine, Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh replaced that ingredient with raspberry syrup. Ted, by the way, is a special friend of New Orleans, a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Museum of the American Cocktail, now open within the Southern Food and Beverage Museum on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
2 oz. Rye
1 oz. Grapefruit Juice
1 tsp. Raspberry Syrup
Shake in an ice-filled cocktail shaker and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon slice or twist.
Adapted by Ted Haigh in Vintage Cocktails & Forgotten Spirits
A special note of thanks for their invaluable assistance with today’s column:
- Lesley Jacobs Solomonson, an advisory member of the Board of Directors of the Museum of the American Cocktail, www.cocktailmuseum.org, 1504 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, New Orleans.
- Chilled Magazine, 2015
- David Wondrich, Esquire Magazine, the greatest drinking pal anyone can wish for.