The Story of America’s Oldest Cocktail: the Sazerac
Hurricane, Vieux Carré, Ramos Gin Fizz, Hand Grenade – as America’s #1 party destination, it’s no surprise that NOLA has invented its fair share of classic cocktails. But often overlooked is the granddaddy of them all, America’s oldest mixed drink and NOLA’s official cocktail. We’re talking about the Sazerac.
The story of the Sazerac begins in the 1630s, when the Sazerac family purchased a vineyard in the Cognac region of western France and began bottling a brandy that became a favorite of French high society. When France kicked Spain out of NOLA in 1803, the fancy-pants colonial administrators who took over brought the Cognac-made brandy, or cognac for short, with them. Soon, Sazerac cognac was a staple among NOLA’s French-speaking upper crust.
Like jazz, gumbo, and everything else in NOLA, Sazerac cognac got remixed and borrowed from a slew of different cultures, finally transforming into the modern Sazerac cocktail – which, ironically, contains not a drop of cognac. It all started in 1838, when a young Creole pharmacist named Antoine Amédée Peychaud opened an apothecary on Royal Street in the French Quarter. The son of a Haitian immigrant, Peychaud began producing a bitter digestive aid that showcased a West Indian flavor symphony of fruity sweetness and spice, with notes of cherry, anise, and nutmeg.
At a whopping 35% alcohol by volume, Peychaud’s potion was too potent for most customers. So the pharmacist recommended that they blend the boozy medicine with … more booze. A few drops of Peychaud’s bitters in cognac made for a tasty drink. Peychaud liked to serve his invention in a type of French egg cup called a “coquetier,” which may be the origin of the word “cocktail,” making Peychaud not just the first guy to make a cocktail but also the creator of the whole genre of drinks. This guy sounds more fun than my pharmacist, who just tells me to take my vitamins.
By the 1850s, a nearby “coffee house” – that was 19th-century NOLA’s polite term for a bar – had caught on to Peychaud’s concoction and was serving so much cognac and bitters that the bar became known simply as the Sazerac House. Imitators followed and riffed on the original to set their version apart, adding spirits like vermouth and absinthe. When the U.S. banned absinthe in 1912 on the mistaken belief that the green spirit caused hallucinations, Herbsaint became the liqueur of choice. Since the ban was lifted in 2007, the original recipe is back on the table, but many bartenders still prefer the milder flavor of Herbsaint.
The Sazerac morphed into its final form in 1863, when a shipping vessel from America carried a teeny, tiny species of aphid to France. The aphid was parasitic and fed on plants until they died, and it had a particular fondness for grape vines. Soon the Sazerac vineyard along with many others in the Cognac region were destroyed, and NOLA’s cognac pipeline dried up. Bartenders scrambled and quickly came up with a home-grown alternative: rye whiskey, which remains the standard liquor in Sazeracs today.
Where to Taste a Sazerac
To sip on a classic Sazerac and learn more about NOLA’s drinking history, make your way over to the Sazerac House, a 2019 reboot of the 1800s original. In addition to a reconstruction of the original bar, this three-story immersive experience features a museum, interactive exhibits, and even virtual bartenders to answer all your Sazerac-related questions. For a more traditional experience, drop by the Sazerac Bar, located in the French Quarter’s Roosevelt Hotel. It’s been a NOLA landmark since 1890 and has whipped up more Sazeracs than anyone cares to count.
Alternatively, try your hand at a Sazerac with this easy recipe:
1.5 oz rye whiskey
1 sugar cube
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
.25oz absinthe or Herbsaint
Twist of lemon
Pack an Old-Fashioned glass with ice. In a second Old-Fashioned glass, place the sugar cube, add Peychaud’s bitters, crush the cube, and add rye whiskey. Add ice and stir. Empty the ice from the first glass, then add the absinthe to the empty glass and swirl to coat the inside. Discard the remaining absinthe and strain the mixture of whiskey, bitters, and sugar into the absinthe-coated glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.
Written by Chris, a local expert guide for New Orleans Crawling. A historian on the lam from the world of academia, Chris enjoys gardening, hiking, and playing at open mic nights after one too many beers. Want to learn more about New Orleans’ hidden history? Join us on an Irish Channel Pub Crawl!