This is the last of our favorite “Neutral Ground” from this year. Check back next week for the début of our newest columnist.
The Sazerac, as you may already be aware, is the official cocktail of New Orleans. It has been since 2008. This, of course, is troubling information for anyone who loves this cocktail. Once something becomes official, it often puts on airs and becomes dulled with self-satisfaction (viz. Dutch oven, the official cooking implement of Texas; or Boston Cream Pie, the official pie of Massachusetts). We should all be thankful that the Sazerac has shown the humility and maturity to avoid smugness, at least so far.
The Sazerac deserves its recognition because it is an excellent and congenial drink in every respect. I would go so far as to say it’s the best cocktail ever invented. Since I already have a drink in hand, I am happy to enumerate the reasons for you. You should also fix yourself a drink. If you are casting about for ideas of what to drink, in a moment you will have little doubt as to what that will be.
The Sazerac is close kin to the old-fashioned. That is, it’s not far from the original cocktail that surfaced around 1800, although it came slightly later and was pimped out with absinthe, like a hipster wearing a cravat. So it’s got elements of both old and new, if by “new” you mean 1840.
Like the martini, the Sazerac comes with a proprietary glass—a faceted rocks glass with a graceful taper, which looks like a slightly flawed diamond. You can drink a Sazerac in other types of glasses, but it won’t taste as good. For every Sazerac you should have two of these glasses—one is filled with ice and chilled while the drink is mixed in the other. The best recipes always specify this.
Once the glass is appropriately chilled, it’s time for the ritual of the absinthe rinse. All great cocktails should have a ritual. Put in a teaspoon of absinthe or Herbsaint and coat the inside of the glass, discarding any excess. Accomplished bartenders do this by spinning the glass equatorially while tossing it upward a few feet, and do so with a practiced insouciance. At the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel, where the Sazerac is not surprisingly the most popular drink, you often see stripes of errant absinthe across the white coats of bartenders, like hash marks counting out the drinks they’ve made that day.
If you can find a sugar cube, put that in the bottom of the mixing glass. (Incidental note: almost all the sugar cubes in America are made at the Domino plant just a few miles downriver of the French Quarter.) Douse the cube with Peychaud’s bitters, which also has a long history with New Orleans ties. The product dates back to the early 19th century, and tangentially involves the successful slave rebellion against the French in Haiti. It’s a long story. I can’t get into it here.
Some, like noted Sazerac psychopath Paul Gustings, the head bartender at Broussard’s, insist on using 14 dashes of Peychaud’s in every drink. This is madness. Clove is a prominent ingredient in Peychaud’s, and so I find that my mouth goes numb after a few sips of Gustings’s Sazerac. I feel ready for a root canal. When drinking, I do not like to think about dentistry.
I prefer five dashes of Peychaud’s, then five dashes of Angostura bitters. This offers both balance and complication, and the two bitters seem to get along quite well after a brief quarrel. In some neighborhoods, using Angostura in a Sazerac is considered heretical, like putting ketchup on nachos. Avoid these neighborhoods.
Next comes the spirit. The cocktail got its name from a brandy made by Sazerac-de-Forge et fils, originally imported from Limoges, France. It remained a brandy cocktail until nearly the end of the century. That’s when an odious insect stowed away on a ship from Texas to France. It was voracious and made short work of the vineyards, leading to a decades-long shortfall of wine and brandy, and a bad case of aphid reflux.
In New Orleans, rye, which was being barged down the Mississippi, was quick to step into the breach. It proved to have more spice and tang than brandy, and if anything it improved the cocktail. My preference is to use an ounce each of rye and cognac, which is like hoisting two flags to signal a dual allegiance. Also, it tastes better. There shall be no further discussion on this matter.
Once the sugar and bitters and liquor are stirred into a beguiling rose-amber limpidity, add ice and keep stirring until well-chilled. Strain the drink into the absinthe-rinsed glass.
Now for the crux move. The most important element in a Sazerac is not the spirit or the bitters or the absinthe. It’s the lemon twist. And—this is essential—the essence of lemon should be fleeting. It’s one word in a sonnet, not the whole damn poem. If your Sazerac is delivered with a wedge of lemon, send it back.
Take a quarter-sized piece of freshly pared lemon peel, and squeeze it deftly over the top of the drink to spritz the oils. Then rub the rim of the glass with the peel, and discard it.
Without dallying, raise your glass for a sip. Even before the liquid meets lips, you will be charmed by the ethereal duet of lemon and licorice, like piccolo and flute before the overpowering timpani of rye and cognac. It’s the best cocktail prelude I know. Through some mysterious alchemy it converts a fairly basic drink into something exquisite.
And that, pretty much, is what New Orleans always does. The sounds of a high school band practicing five blocks away, a moment spent discussing pecans with a stranger in a grocery line, the smell of jasmine through a car window when headed home late at night, the subtle interplay of lemon and licorice before a first sip.
These are among the things New Orleans does best as it carries out its self-appointed mission to make the world more interesting. One sip of a well-made Sazerac, and it will be clear why 10 years ago this city could not be left to drown.
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