Except perhaps for the Manhattan, no cocktail is as identified with the town of its origin as is the Sazerac. Even that New York drink doesn’t have a museum and a global liquor manufacturing industry carrying its name as the Sazerac does.
Cocktails, like food and music, are all the result of fusion. The New Orleans evolution of Sazerac, the drink, reflected the city’s French heritage and its prime position as an American port city. The original drink carrying that name was a French cognac, Sazerac de Forge en Fils, but the realities of the city were that, while it may have been French in heritage, it was American in geography. The traffic from upriver included barges from Kentucky. This sophisticated, but rugged frontier town, developed a taste for Kentucky rye whiskey. When mixed with the other ingredients that would comprise the classic Sazerac cocktail, including Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe, the Sazerac became an American drink with a New Orleans soul.
There was once a bar on Exchange Alley, the Sazerac Coffee House, that specialized in the cocktail. Eventually it closed, but the Roosevelt Hotel claimed the name for its signature bar. For decades, the drink was, if not always the most popular, at least a curiosity, competing with another local concoction, the Ramos Gin Fizz and trendy new drinks.
It might have been that the Sazerac would be, like pralines or alligator sauce piquant, merely something to be sampled because you are in New Orleans, except for the fact that entrepreneur William Goldring established the Sazerac company as the umbrella name for a world of other spirits. Most brands are manufactured by the company-owned Buffalo Trace distilleries in Kentucky; others by different distilleries. Sazerac, the company, has become one of the most important names in the liquor industry today, ranking as the nation’s second largest purveyor of spirits.
This month, the company took another big step by opening the Sazerac House, a first-rate interactive museum, that tells the story of cocktails. The place is not a bar, although there are samples, but those are as tastings.
A Haitian apothecary (pharmacist) who had relocated to New Orleans, Antoine Peychaud, created his brand of “bitters,” an aromatic mixture that was originally supposed to be a cure-all for most things that ail people, but that found more credibility as a flavorful ingredient for cocktails. Then there was absinthe, an anise-flavored liquor that, though popular, was in its earlier days banned because it was deemed to be unhealthy. The product, now safe, is back on the market, but during its prohibition two local men created Herbsaint, an anise substitute. (Trivia point here: The word Herbsaint has all the letters in “absinthe” with the addition of the letter “R.”) Today, the Sazerac company makes both Peychaud’s bitters and Herbsaint. There are exhibits about both at the museum.
Another anise-based drink, Ojen, is popular, especially in uptown Mardi Gras circles. It is also made by the company now that the original factory in Spain closed.
There is a distillery on premises where whiskey is made, but not sold. Instead it is sent to Kentucky to age for six years before it comes back to us in bottles.
We lift our Sazerac to toast the company and the museum. Located on Canal Street at Magazine, the facility should be a major attraction to local tourism, but locals need, even more than the tourists, to learn more about a part of the city’s character. To understand the city, you also need to understand the spirited heritage.