If there’s anything as New Orleans as Mardi Gras, it’s the Sazerac. Born less than a block from Bourbon Street halfway through the 19th century, the drink’s history is one of necessity and invention playing out in the Crescent City over the course of generations. Today, the drink is the city’s official cocktail, a true honor given that heavy hitters like the Vieux Carré, Hurricane and Ramos Gin Fizz were also invented there.
Originally, the name of both the drink and its birthplace were derived from a brand of cognac called Sazerac-de-Forge & Fils, imported by the original owner of the Sazerac Coffee House. But the cocktail’s New Orleans story began even earlier than that with the development of the gentian-and-aniseed-infused Peychaud’s Bitters by a Creole apothecary at 90 Royal Street around 1830. The new owner of the Sazerac Coffee House — located down the road at 15–17 Royal — combined these two elixirs to create the bar’s signature beverage, which soon exploded in popularity.
From the 1870s through the 1880s, the phylloxera epidemic devastated the vineyards — and thus the cognacs — of France, but New Orleanians have never been prone to letting anything get in their way of their good times. As happened with most brandy-based cocktails of the era, cognac was replaced with whiskey, specifically rye, which lent a spicy depth of flavor to the mixture.
Around the same time, a splash of absinthe found its way into the drink to play up the anise notes found in Peychaud’s. By 1912, however, absinthe had also disappeared from the U.S. market thanks to a smear campaign launched by the recovering French wine industry and fanned by European social and religious conservatives against Bohemianism. Absinthe bans reached America in 1912, where they overlapped with the Temperance Movement and Prohibition, so it was only after the repeal of the 18th Amendment that the Sazerac could resurface in public, now made with a New Orleans-based absinthe alternative called Herbsaint.
In recent years, Sazerac cognac and absinthe have both returned to the U.S. market, allowing drinks enthusiasts to make this classic cocktail in whatever historical iteration they prefer. This writer (though biased) makes her Sazerac with the spicy kick of a Northwest rye and the herbal notes of a Northwest absinthe, which fit together as perfectly as floats and beads in the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday.
Recipe: Northwest Sazerac
- Splash of Pilot House Distilling’s Columbia Absinthe Verte
- 1 sugar cube (or substitute 1 tsp of sugar or ½ oz simple syrup)
- 2 oz Doc Swinson’s Flagship Rye Whiskey
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- Lemon peel to garnish
- Splash the absinthe into a chilled rocks glass and swirl to coat, then discard (or imbibe) the excess.
- In a mixing glass, muddle the sugar and bitters. Add the rye and stir to dissolve, then add ice and stir until chilled.
- Strain the mixture into the rocks glass and garnish with a lemon twist.