Errol Laborde Commentary: A Rye Tale

You’ve got your big anniversaries; you’ve got your little anniversaries. You’ve got some that fall between. And there are some that, no matter where they fall, just beg for a drink to be lifted in their honor. Here is one, this year marks the 147th anniversary of New Orleans’ most famous cocktail, the Sazerac.

To understand what happened 1n 1859, you have to first understand what was happening prior to that- New Orleans was going bonkers over imbibing. 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.

In 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
Limoge, 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 liquor) to the drink. It became a standard ingredients.

Like bread pudding and cafe brulot the exact formula for preparing a Sazerac would differ from place to place, but Arthur’s book codified an acceptable standardized list of ingrediennts:
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

Most of the better bars and restaurants in town serve the drink which was best known as the house specialty at the Sazerac bar in the Fairmont Hotel. Yet another Katrina loss.

Peychaud’s bitters iare now 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 and American influences. And who knows, A.A. Peychaud could have been right, those bitters might just help cure most anything that ales us.

Let us know what you think. Any comments about this article? Write to For the subject line use SAZERAC. All responses are subject to being published, as edited, in this newsletter. Please include your name and location.

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