Fortune could not have planned it any better. The Sazerac bar at the Roosevelt hotel is now reopened, coincidentally, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the drink after which it is named. Also, Tales of the Cocktail, which begins July 8, has one more historic occasion in the world of cocktails to celebrate.
To understand what happened in 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 that was 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 Coffeehouse." 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 ingredient.
Like boudin and bread pudding, 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
Most of the better bars and restaurants in town serve the drink that is best known as the house specialty at the Roosevelt’s Sazerac bar.
Peychaud’s bitters are 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. Even some of the ingredients – sugar and lemon – can come from Louisiana soil. And who knows, A.A. Peychaud could have been right, those bitters might just help cure most anything that ails us.
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