The classic Sazerac cocktail is a close cousin to the Old Fashioned. Made of rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, and that licorice-flavored rinse of absinthe, it’s a celebration of all things New Orleans. The best Sazeracs include selection of a great rye whiskey as the base spirit, the type of sugar/sweetener used, the perfect amount of absinthe, and the appropriate citrus garnish.
All four of those elements can be argued about and tweaked, so as always, I’ll talk you through making a couple of those decisions. But let’s start with the history.
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History of the Sazerac
Legend has it that the Sazerac originated at the Sazerac Coffee House in the 1830s or 40s where Antoine Peychaud used his famous medicinal bitters as a health tonic with cognac. Many attribute the cocktail to him, but it’s a little fuzzy on who first created it and whether the base spirit was cognac or rye (as is traditional today). The first printed reference with the name Sazerac didn’t happen until 1908.
At the time, in the early 1800s, cocktails were simply called by the name of the base spirit, so that you would have a Whiskey Cocktail, a Brandy Cocktail or a Rum Cocktail, etc. Sazerac-de-Forge-et-Fils was popular cognac at the time and was served at the original Sazerac Coffee House. Perhaps the name Sazerac Cocktail came from the use of that cognac as a base for the drink.
If that’s the case, the blight that destroyed the grape harvest in Europe in the late 1800s may have driven cognac drinkers to switch to one of America’s native spirits, rye whiskey, for the Sazerac. Today’s Sazerac typically calls for a rye whiskey base. I’ve had Sazeracs made with both base spirits and while I prefer the rye whiskey, the cognac base is lovely as well.
The USBG has an article by Tiffany Ranney that lists information from a newspaper article from 1843 with a description of a cocktail that’s eerily similar to an Sazerac: “a beverage compounded of brandy, sugar, absinthe, bitters, and ice, called by the vulgar a cocktail.” Sounds like a match for today’s Sazerac, except that cognac is listed as the base spirit.
Later, in 1895, a patent application was made by Vincent Miret for the bottling of a Sazerac Cocktail, but the cocktail itself was very close to the Improved Whiskey Cocktail published in 1876 by Jerry Thomas. The Improved Whiskey Cocktail also included maraschino cherry liqueur to the basic list of ingredients for the Sazerac.
So, the history isn’t clear. The legend says Antoine Peychaud created the Sazerac cocktail at his Sazerac Coffee House with a cognac base to sell his bitters and heal the customers coming into his drugstore, but the historical evidence can’t confirm or deny that legend. Still, it’s a great story, and those same bitters are used today to make the cocktail.
If you’d like to read more on the history of the Sazerac, here are a couple or articles to get you started:
Given its few ingredients the Sazerac cocktail is very forgiving. With just rye, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar or simple syrup, and an absinthe rinse it’s deceptively easy to construct. But the devil is always in the details.
Some add both angostura and Peychaud’s bitters to their Sazeracs. Others used Peychaud’s alone. Traditionally, a lemon peel is expressed over the drink, then discarded, but some mixologists prefer to add it to the drink. Some mixologists feel an orange peel is a better option for the drink.
Tips for the Perfect Sazerac
- Put your absinthe in a small mister or atomizer. Spray the glass according to how strongly you’d like to experience the licorice flavor. A quick mist from high above the drink will impart just a hint. Two or three sprays directly over the bowl of the glass will impart a stronger, more assertive note of absinthe.
- Choose your rye carefully. Because it’s such a simple drink, each element is critical. Choose a rye you love to sip neat or on the rocks. I prefer a mid-proof to higher-proof rye.
- Test out your preference for lemon oil or orange oil expressed over the cocktail. I prefer lemon, but if you love the orange notes from an old fashioned, you might prefer the orange oil expressed here.
- Do a bitters test. Try the cocktail with both Peychaud’s bitters alone, and with Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters. See which you like best. I find the clove and anise flavors of Angostura too dark against the other flavors in the cocktail, but for some people, they tie the rye to the Peychaud’s bitters a little better when Angostura is there to pave the way.
Experiments to Perfect Your Sazerac
I’m all about testing cocktails for your own palate. I can tell you what I love, but since each person has a different palate and different set of sense memories, it makes more sense for you to take a few minutes to test out a couple of iterations of the cocktail to see which you prefer. Plus, you get to drink cocktails.
Preference for Barely Rye or Mostly Rye
Mix up two versions of the classic Sazerac
- One where the rye has lower rye grain percentage in the mash bill (many ryes are 51% to 60%).
- One where the rye has a mostly rye mash bill (95% or higher).
You’ll find a big difference in flavor and in mouthfeel between the two. See which you like best.
Preference for All Rye or Split Base
Mix up two versions of the Sazerac.
- One with only rye as the base spirit.
- One that splits the base evenly between cognac and a rye whiskey.
You’ll be amazed at how much sweeter and fruitier the Sazerac cocktail is with the cognac added to the mix. It makes a completely different, but utterly enjoyable cocktail.
Preference for Peychaud’s or Peychaud’s and Angostura
Mix up two versions of the Sazerac.
- Peychaud’s bitters only.
- Peychaud’s bitters and Angostura biters as well.
See if you prefer the clove and additional anise flavors the angostura bitters add to the cocktail or if you think the drink is too earthy and woody with the angostura. I’ve had people decide both.
Preference for Lemon or Orange Peel
Please don’t do these all in one night. For this last experiment, you want to test out if you prefer lemon or orange oils expressed over your Sazerac. Mix up two Sazeracs:
- Lemon zest expressed over the cocktail, discarded. Sip a few times, then add the lemon zest into the cocktail to see if/how it changes flavor.
- Orange zest expressed over the cocktail, discarded. Sip a few times, then add the lemon zest into the cocktail to see if/how it changes flavor.
The Conclusion: The Best Sazerac Cocktail
After all those experiments, which Sazerac variation did you prefer? What’s your favorite Sazerac? While all these experiments touch on the classic Sazerac, there’s a lot you can do to riff off Sazerac in fun and intriguing ways. More on that next time. For now, here’s my favorite Sazerac cocktail recipe.
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Here are a couple of other Sazerac riffs you might enjoy
- 2 oz rye whiskey 100 proof
- ½ oz simple syrup
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- Absinthe rinse or mist from an atomizer (I used Copper and Kings Absinthe)
- Lemon peel
- Combine whiskey, simple and bitters in a mixing glass and add ice. Stir until well-chilled. Strain into a rocks glass rinsed with absinthe. Express a lemon peel over the cocktail and discard the peel or dress up the rim of the cocktail.