How the Sazerac became – and remains – a beloved New Orleans cocktail
New Orleans’ official drink survived a 19th-century pest infestation and Prohibition
A new museum on Canal Street commemorates the Sazerac
Todd A. Price, The American South
January 29, 2020
Find a New Orleans bartender with a flair for theater, and when you order a Sazerac cocktail they will dash absinthe into a glass, toss it spinning into the air and shout the name of the drink.
Most bartenders, however, handle with less drama the business of washing the glass with absinthe and avoid spraying walls and customers with high-proof booze.
More than a few drinks are associated with New Orleans. The fruity Hurricane, sold in a souvenir glass at Pat O’Brien’s bar, the one with the flaming fountains. The neon green Hand Grenade in tall plastic cups that tourists of the city’s French Quarter clutch like a safety blanket as each sip makes them sway a bit more.
But the Sazerac, designated by the Louisiana legislature in 2008 as the city’s official cocktail, is what locals order at the end of the day or at the start of a big meal.
When visiting New Orleans, you’d get a cocktail at the Sazerac, a fizz at Ramos and an absinthe at the Absinthe House.
In October 2019, the Sazerac cocktail got a home on New Orleans’ Canal Street called the Sazerac House. The three-story museum space is like a Disneyland for the over-21 crowd filled with virtual bartenders, a working still and – perhaps the biggest draw – free samples of cocktails and liquor.
It was built by the Sazerac Company, the liquor producer whose history is intertwined with the Sazerac cocktail. At the time of the groundbreaking, the CEO said it would be a $50 million project. Hard to say if that was a modest estimate. The company has declined to reveal the final cost.
What is a Sazerac cocktail?
It starts like an Old Fashioned, at least the traditional kind made without the relatively recent addition of mashed up fruit. Sugar, bitters and whiskey are the base.
But from there, things get baroque.
The whiskey is spicy rye. The bitters must be Peychaud’s, a cherry-red elixir concocted in the early 19th century by apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud on Royal Street in the French Quarter.
The glass gets that rinse of absinthe, or the local substitute Herbsaint. The final touch is a lemon twist, so the aromas of citrus and absinthe’s anise both wallop the nose when the drinker lifts their glass.
The history of the Sazerac is hazy
The simplest story is that at a bar in New Orleans called the Sazerac House, opened in 1852 in the French Quarter, the drink was the house specialty, although using brandy instead of rye. To be precise, they used Sazerac de Forge et Fils, a brandy so celebrated, the bar itself adopted its name.
Then, a pest named Phylloxera crossed from North America to France, laid waste to the grape vines and dried up the supply of brandy. At the Sazerac House, though, the bartenders switched to rye whiskey and merrily continued mixing the house cocktail. More than a century later, New Orleans is still drinking Sazeracs.
Dig deeper, and the history gets murkier, as stories tend to do when alcohol is involved. The man who has dug the most is David Wondrich, cocktail historian and author of the book “Imbibe.”
“After years and years of turning over every rock, I’ve never found that the Sazerac Bar was famous for its cocktails in particular, or had a famous cocktail that everybody took as a secret handshake there,” he said.
Yes, the Sazerac House sold Sazerac brandy, one of the most popular brands of the day. Peychaud’s Bitters were also on hand. Were the two combined in a glass? Certainly. Before the late 19th century, however, a “cocktail” was just a cocktail: a blend of sugar, bitters and your choice of liquor.
“In New Orleans there were only a few local brands, so you’d get Peychaud’s, you would get brandy, you could even get Sazeracs brandy,” Wondrich said. “But that would be pretty much everywhere.”
Ads and articles from 19th-century New Orleans newspapers mention the Sazerac House, but never do they tout its cocktails.
It was not until 1899 that Wondrich can find a published reference to a “Sazerac cocktail,” around the time that bartenders got creative with drinks and started giving their recipes names. It was also the era when New Orleans became a tourist destination. After that, the Sazerac cocktail was mentioned often, generally along with the Ramos gin fizz and the absinthe frappe.
“That’s like the stations of the cross,” Wondrich said. “When visiting New Orleans, you’d get a cocktail at the Sazerac, a fizz at Ramos and an absinthe at the Absinthe House.”
Sazeracs from Prohibition to present day
As Prohibition approached, an ad appeared in the New Orleans States-Item that in any other city would have signaled the death of the Sazerac cocktail.
The Sazerac House was rebranding as the Sazerac Soda Fountain. The signature drink would be the “Sazerac fizz,” which most certainly didn’t contain booze. A few years later, the name of the former bar had changed again to the Sazerac Delicatessen.
The South holds tight to traditions. New Orleans tends to grab them so close they sometimes struggle to breathe. In 1933, when liquor returned legally to America (word is New Orleans was never all that dry), the city took up drinking Sazeracs again.
When the rest of the world forgot how to mix a good cocktail and turned to vodka sodas and frozen margaritas, New Orleans kept drinking Sazeracs.
By the turn of the 20th century, three quarters of all bottles of Peychaud’s Bitters, the essential Sazerac ingredient, were sold in New Orleans, according to figures from the Sazerac Company.
In recent years, curious bartenders dusted off old cocktail books to resurrect pre-Prohibition recipes and techniques.
They read about a cocktail with an odd name: the Sazerac. And they soon discovered that New Orleans was still drinking Sazeracs, following the same recipe from the late 19th century.
Today, some bartenders make their Sazeracs with Cognac brandy, in a nod to the “official” history. No matter which story of the Sazerac you defend, the Cognac version does make a lovely drink.
The Sazerac Company’s new Cognac
The Sazerac Company, to celebrate the opening of the museum, created a new Cognac with the Sazerac family, who still live on the estate where the grapes for the original brandy were grown.
The Cognac was made to taste like the brandies distilled before Phylloxera destroyed the vines and the family got out of the liquor business. It uses grapes that are rarely included in Cognacs today, like Folle Blanche and Colombard.
For generations, the Sazerac family didn’t know that people in New Orleans were ordering a cocktail that carried its name.
Ghislain de Beaucé, the current owner of the family’s estate, first tasted the cocktail on a trip to New Orleans 25 years ago, when he was a banker in New York. Ask him what he thought of his first sip, and Beaucé makes it clear which version of the cocktail’s history he accepts.
“It was much better when they used the Sazerac de Forge before 1870,” he said.
The Sazerac’s fame is more widespread today. You can order one from almost any reputable cocktail bartender in American cities large and small.
But no one will ever love the drink as deeply as New Orleans. Even the rest of Louisiana doesn’t share the city’s enthusiasm.
Back in 2008, politicos from New Orleans first pushed to make the Sazerac the state’s official cocktail. But they met resistance from lawmakers beyond the city who, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, worried that such a gesture would send the “wrong message to the country and to the youth of the state.”
What to know about the new Sazerac House
The Sazerac House’s three floors of artifacts and high-tech exhibits detail the history of drinking in New Orleans from the 19th century to the present.
The interactive museum produces bitters, blends rum and distills rye whiskey, letting visitors see how cocktail ingredients are created.
Although you must be over 21 years old to sample, all ages are welcome. Admission is free, but visitors are encouraged to reserve an entry time in advance.
It is located at 101 Magazine St., New Orleans. For more information, call 504-910-0100 or visit www.SazeracHouse.com.