There’s a scene in the movie Live and Let Die in which James Bond (Roger Moore) seems reluctant when a barroom companion starts to order drinks.
“You are in New Orleans, James,” the companion says. “Where is your sense of adventure? Two Sazeracs.”
When it comes to adventure, give me a Sazerac any day over diving from an airplane into a drug smugglers’ enclave. To the contrary, when it comes to just plain relaxing, give me a Sazerac, too. In fact, give me one most anytime.
This, the week of the annual Tales of the Cocktail celebration, brings to mind the New Orleans native cocktail that has had a bit of a revival in recent years, bolstered by events such as Tales, plus the arrival of a Sazerac brand name whiskey on the market and the reopening of the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt hotel. If the story of Sazerac were a movie, the storyline, which would begin in 1859, could tell about the evolution of a product to fit the American character.
By 1859 folks here were talking about a concoction that a Royal Street pharmacist, A. A. Peychaud, had created. To a shot of brandy, Peychaud had begun adding his family formula for bitters, a tonic compound offered as a cure for various maladies. The bitters, when added to the brandy, gave a kick to the drink.
To a city happy over brandy with bitters, next came John B. Schiller, a local agent for a French cognac importer, who had an idea. The brand he imported was manufactured by the firm of Sazerac-de-Forge et fils of Limoges, France. In 1859 Schiller opened a place on Exchange Alley in the French Quarter, calling it the Sazerac Coffehouse. He was the exclusive purveyor of the Sazerac brand cognac (remember, cognac is a form of brandy), which he also served with bitters to create the world’s first Sazerac cocktail.
Schiller had a hit on his hands, not that it took much to convince cocktail-crazy New Orleans to try another drink. But as the city became more American and less French, tastes shifted. In 1870, Schiller’s bookkeeper, Thomas Handy, bought the business and changed its name to the Sazerac House. That’s not all he changed. He kept the bitters but replaced the cognac with rye whiskey. As Stanley Clisby Arthur in his book, Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, explained, the change was to “please the tastes of Americans who preferred ‘redlikker’ to any palefaced brandy.” As the Sazerac was reinvented, no longer was its namesake hooch part of the recipe. Around that same time, Leon Lamothe, a bartender at Pina’s Restaurant on Burgundy Street, began adding a splash of absinthe (a licorice-tasting liqueur) to the drink. It became a standard ingredient.
Like bread pudding and cafe brûlot, the exact formula for preparing a Sazerac would differ from place to place, but Arthur’s book codified an acceptable standardized list of ingredients:
1 lump sugar
2 drops Peychaud’s bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 jigger of rye whiskey
1 dash absinthe substitute
1 slice lemon peel
To update the recipe, please note:
•“Simple syrup” (sugar water) can be used in place of the sugar cube.
• Many contemporary recipes omit the Angostura bitters. That may be due to which distribution company is providing which recipe. There was also supposedly a shortage of Angostura products in 2009 due, reportedly, to an undersupply of bottles. The bitters are back on the market. If you want to be authentic, include the Angostura.
• After being outlawed for many years (hence the New Orleans creation of Herbsaint), absinthe is again of the market, so a substitute my not be necessary.
•Peychaud’s bitters are also marketed commercially. The Sazerac name is also used by a Kentucky company that makes its version of a rye whiskey.
A Sazerac is my favorite mixed drink just because it is so authentically New Orleans and so authentically a cocktail. Like the city, the drink is a mixture of French, American and Caribbean (the bitters) influences. The British can love it. too. My guess is that James Bond went for seconds.
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