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Birth of the Cocktail: the Sazerac

New Orleans, French Quarter

As with all cocktail history, it seems, tracing or verifying the exact origin story of a spirit or concoction is a little difficult—a little fuzzy, one could say. By no means, an exception to this rule is the Sazerac, the ultimate bitter cocktail classic, which was branded as the United States’ first official cocktail around the 1850s.

It was also not until this time that the use of ‘cocktail’ itself had come about.” OR “The toddies were created in a sort of egg-shaped measuring cup called a ‘coquetier,’ where the word ‘cocktail’ was then conceived

The Sazerac is known to have been invented sometime in the mid-1800s, at the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans, Louisiana. The original recipe called for Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac, the particular Cognac brand that the drink was originally based upon—though, its actual origin story might not be as straightforward as it may sound.

New Orleans, French Quarter

Peychaud and the Origin of the Cocktail

The man behind the cocktail is understood to be Antoine Amedee Peychaud, a last name you may recognize from the all-famous line of iconic red bitters. Indeed, Mr. Peychaud’s first major contribution to the spirits world was in a more or less roundabout fashion, behind a small apothecary (read: an older version of a natural pharmaceutical shop) he set up in New Orleans after immigrating from the West Indies. Antoine Peychaud sold, among many other things, this bitter concoction, an apparent secret family recipe, mixed into a toddy with Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac.

Left to right: The iconic, red bitters behind it all: Peychaud’s and a coquetier

It was also not until around this time, due to the same Mr. Peychaud, that the use of “cocktail” itself had come about. (We do, certainly, have so much in the spirits world to thank Antoine Amedee Peychaud for!) The toddies that Antoine Peychaud served to his many loyal customers were created, mixed, and measured in a sort of double-sided, egg-shaped measuring cup called a coquetier. A French word that proved itself quite difficult for many American customers to pronounce, the word slowly morphed into a sort of “cocktay,” and finally fell into “cocktail.”

Whether the history of any or all of this stands soundly, one thing is for sure: the Sazerac has solidified itself as New Orleans’ official cocktail to this day

The Sazerac Cocktail Is Born

Peychaud’s bitters (and toddies) caught on so strongly with the surrounding community that the Sazerac Coffee House, near Peychaud’s apothecary’s French Quarter location, started using this mix, adding some sugar and a dash or two of Absinthe in a signature house cocktail. This marked the more or less “official” birth of the Sazerac cocktail.

However, due to an aggressive insect epidemic in France, resulting in the near devastation of many vineyards that the Cognac distillers had relied on, the Sazerac transitioned into a rye Whiskey base to survive (that is, an American spirit unaffected). And while this change was due less to any kind of stylistic choice than external factors, this substitution stuck well past the French Cognac market’s recovery, and the Sazerac is now known as a rye-Whiskey-based cocktail.

Whether the history of any or all of this stands soundly, one thing is for sure: The Sazerac has solidified itself as New Orleans’ official cocktail, withstanding even the American ban on Absinthe, and gaining governmental approval in 2008 by the Louisiana House of Representatives. And with such a rich history, there is really no question as to why it has become a classic cocktail staple, one that’s familiar across the global lexicon. And anyway, as the first official cocktail, how could it not?

The Sazerac

What You’ll Need:

Bar Spoon, Rocks glass, Bar glass, Muddler, Peeler

Ingredients:

¼ oz Absinthe, 1½ oz Whiskey (such as Sazerac Rye) or Cognac, One sugar cube, Three dashes Peychaud’s Bitters, Fine strainer, Lemon peel

Method:

  1. Add the Absinthe to your rocks glass and swirl to coat. Discard any remaining Absinthe.
  2. Add the sugar cube and three dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters to a separate bar glass and muddle until the sugar cube is broken apart.
  3. Add the Cognac to the sugar and Peychaud’s mixture and stir.
  4. Strain into the Absinthe-coated glass.
  5. Peel a lemon-rind ribbon, twist over the glass, and serve.

Sazerac Rye

Inspired by this great American cocktail is Sazerac Rye, an offering (or two) out of Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Certainly some good candidates for the creation of the perfect Sazerac at home.

Mr. Peychaud’s first major contribution to the spirits world was in a more or less roundabout fashion, behind a small pharmaceutical shop he set up in New Orleans after immigrating from the West Indies

Sazerac Rye, aka “Baby Saz”

The Sazerac Rye or “Baby Saz” from Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Credit: Mike McCune

The younger of the two, the Sazerac Straight Rye is a six-year-old, 90-proof American Rye that, while not particularly expensive, is an increasingly sought-after and difficult label to track down. The exact makeup of the mash used remains a mystery, but however it’s done, a highly sippable, on-the-rocks type of Whiskey is achieved. Notes of vanilla, anise, and pepper play nicely with citrus and clove, with a bit of licorice into a large, smooth finish.

Awards: 2017 Gold Medal, Beverage Tasting Institute, 92 points

2017 Gold Medal, New York World Wine & Spirits Competition

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 18-Year-Old Sazerac

Part of Buffalo Trace’s Vintage collection is the Sazerac Rye 18-Year-Old, made of the same mash as the Baby Saz but taking on a much more mature form with three times the length of aging. Its notes tend toward the oakier, leathery feel of a well-lived rye Whiskey, with some undertones of mint, cinnamon, vanilla, pepper, and eucalyptus.

Awards: 2018 Best Rye, 11 Years and Over, Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible

December 2018, Four Stars, Highly Recommended, F. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal

Written by Rina Addison

Rina writes, educates, and strategizes in the corporate world by day, and is a freelancer in everything from the sustainability to spirits worlds, at every other time. As a former Environmental Studies major, bartender, landscaper, researcher, Wes alum, and a resident of Idaho, Connecticut, Japan, New York, and back again, she is wholly curious about the world and everything that makes it. (And she tends to write about it!)

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