The Sazerac may very well be America's oldest cocktail. It's also the official cocktail of New Orleans—a fitting designation, since it was invented there in 1838!
So, what is a Sazerac? This classic whiskey cocktail is akin to an Old Fashioned, but with a few distinct differences: It's made with Peychaud's bitters instead of Angostura, and it contains a bit of absinthe or Herbsaint (an anise-flavored liqueur).
When made properly, it's a superbly balanced drink and definitely one worth knowing!
A Brief History of Sazerac Ingredients
In the 1830s, Antoine Peychaud, a New Orleans apothecary, invented what would later become known as the Sazerac.
Peychaud's family recipe for an aromatic elixir (known as "Peychaud's bitters," both then and now!) was a key component in the brandy toddies he mixed for friends. That toddy drink became so popular that by 1850, Peychaud's brandy toddy had a new name—the Sazerac—thanks to its recently-acquired status as the official cocktail of the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans.
Later iterations of the Sazerac dropped the brandy in favor of American rye whiskey and added in a touch of absinthe.
Nowadays, a classic Sazerac is made with 5 ingredients:
- Peychaud's bitters
- Rye whiskey
- Absinthe or one of its anise-flavored substitutes
- A lemon twist
A Bit More About Absinthe
Absinthe was banned in 1912 due to the belief that it contained hallucinogenic ingredients that could make you "crazy and criminal," as one temperance petition stated in 1907. It wasn't made legal in the US again until 2007, which means that for most of the 20th century, Sazeracs were made with Herbsaint, an anise-flavored absinthe substitute developed in the 1930s.
QUESTION: But now that absinthe is legal again (and no, it won't make you crazy or criminal!), should you make a Sazerac with absinthe or Herbsaint?
ANSWER: The answer is ... either! But Herbsaint is the most commonly used option at this point. (A 60-year habit is hard to break.)
The Best Whiskey for a Sazerac
What does a Sazerac taste like? Well, it tastes like whiskey! That, and a little bit of sweetness from the sugar mixed with a few herbal, bitter notes from the Peychaud's and the Herbsaint.
But really, this is a very whiskey-forward drink, so a good rye is essential to get it right. If you want the real thing, your best bet is Sazerac Rye. (It's in the name, people!) But try whatever rye you favor!
You'll taste subtle differences in the final drink depending on the rye you choose—sweeter, smoother, spicier—so experiment to see what you like best.
Do's and Don'ts for a Terrific Sazerac
- Do use two rocks glasses to make your Sazerac: one for the Herbsaint rinse, and one for mixing the other ingredients.
- Do try a dash of Angostura bitters to enhance the flavors, if you want. No, it's not traditional, but it's also not uncommon now to see a dash or two included alongside the traditional Peychaud's.
- Do add another dash or two of Peychaud's if you find you love the flavor.
- Do use either a muddled sugar cube or its equivalent: 1 teaspoon simple syrup
- Don't skip the twisted lemon peel at the end! The lemon oil is essential to the drink.
- Don't stir too fast, and definitely don't shake the drink.
- Do give the Sazerac a try, because it's a true classic.
More Whiskey Cocktails
Rinse a rocks glass with Herbsaint:
Fill the first rocks glass with ice cubes. Set aside to chill. Once cold, empty the ice and pour a small amount of Herbsaint into the glass. Swirl it around until it has coated the inside of the glass, then pour the excess out. Set aside.
Muddle the sugar and bitters:
Add the sugar cube and bitters to a second rocks glass and muddle. Add 1/2 ounce cold water to help break the sugar cube down, if needed. Alternatively, combine simple syrup and bitters in the glass (no muddling required).
Add rye and large ice cube:
Add 2 ounces rye and one large ice cube. Stir slowly until chilled.
Strain and serve:
Strain the mix into the Herbsaint-rinsed rocks glass. Twist the lemon peel above the cocktail to release the oils, then run it along the edge of the glass. Discard the lemon peel if you're a Sazerac purist; leave it on the edge of the glass if you're not.