Please Leave the Sazerac Alone
"We do our own spin on the Sazerac here," the barman enthused, oblivious to the fact that he'd just said one of my least favorite things, something said far too often in finer cocktail lounges these days. The offending sentence hung on the air, it had been said and could not be taken back, and I did the thing that I always do, which is try to be polite, the absolute wrong thing to do when ordering cocktails, or at least this particular cocktail.
Predictably, whatever came out was an overly-sweet, muddy disaster. The drink was explained in depth, but to be honest, I wasn't really paying attention, because why give much respect to something so disrespectful?
I took a sip, mumbled something about it being very interesting, and tried to move on with my life. Honesty truly is the best policy; I don’t know why it's so hard to remember this in the most crucial of moments—for instance, when faced with a menu of $16 cocktails and a slick salesperson in a vest.
Singling out the offending bar is hardly worth it; after all, this particular establishment is just one among many I've found guilty of various crimes against the Sazerac, that highly civilized, deceptively simple tonic that is considered to be America's oldest cocktail. Just days after that unfortunate incident, in an entirely different city, I find myself at Commander's Palace, one of the most sought-after restaurants in New Orleans, which is the spiritual home of the Sazerac.
At Commander's, they managed to deliver an utterly unvarnished, beautifully classic rendition of the drink for a highly reasonable $9. I didn't need a reminder, but it was good to have one, anyway—then, now, and likely forever more, one of the best cocktails to ever be created, not to mention one of the best cocktails for warming your toes, mid-winter, is at its best when you stick to the basics.
Not that you need to feel confined—goodness knows the Sazerac has done its share of evolving, over time. There are a few basic rules that must be adhered to, unquestionably, but within this safe and very comfortable space, there's definitely room to wriggle around, to create the Sazerac that's right for you.
The Sazerac was originally made with Cognac and an absinthe rinse, but these days, rye and Herbsaint (created as an absinthe substitute back in the 1930's) are exceedingly common. There is no right or wrong pairing of these components—try both Cognac and rye, tinker with Herbsaint and absinthe, or just alternate, every now and then, to keep things fresh. The other essential is Peychaud's bitters, created by the Royal Street druggist said to be the grandfather of the Sazerac; Peychaud's is a must on every well-stocked bar. Some bartenders like to add a dash or two of the more common Angostura bitters as well—again, that's up to you. (It's a distinct break from the original recipe, but it's hardly cocktail heresy—just don't ever substitute Angostura for Peychaud's entirely—that isn't a Sazerac.)
Beyond that, all you really need is a sugar cube or some simple syrup, a bit of lemon peel and a sturdy rocks glass; if you want, you can get one of those large ice cube trays—after years of making these at home, I can attest that one large cube really does make for a better drink.
Hopefully, you haven't tuned out yet—yes, making a Sazerac can be a little involved, but it's a lot like riding a bike—once you get into the swing of things, it's pretty simple. Truthfully, I find the making of a Sazerac almost calming, almost meditative—like a tea ceremony, except you get a good cocktail at the end. Many experts have spoken at great length on the subject, so I'll shut up now, and skip ahead to the actual making of the thing. Here's how I do it:
Step 1 Wash your rocks glass with absinthe or Herbsaint. I go back and forth between the two.
Step 2 Muddle one sugar cube. You can use simple syrup, but I like the act of breaking the sugar down into the rinse.
Step 3 Add your Peychaud's bitters. Most people do just a couple of dashes—three is common. I do five—I really like the flavor it adds. If you're one of those people who thinks it's okay to add a dash of Angostura, now's the time.
Step 4 Add 2 ounces of Sazerac Rye, by far one of the best, readily available brands. If I were made of money, I'd have an unlimited supply of Hudson Rye from New York's Tuthilltown Spirits on hand, but I'm not, so I don't.
Step 5 Stir thoroughly, thoughtfully.
Step 6 Sink one of those large ice cubes into the glass, then stir again until chilled. Don't rush—be gentle. Note: If anyone ever tells you to shake a Sazerac, do the right thing and make a citizens arrest, because that person belongs in cocktail jail.
Step 7 Remove cube. You don't need it anymore.
Step 8 Take your nice bit of lemon peel and squeeze it, releasing as much of the oil as you can into the drink. Don't skip this step. Also, that's Lemon. Spelled L-e-m-o-n. Orange peels, or any other orange related products, have absolutely no place in a Sazerac. You're not making a Negroni. Note: You can zap the lemon peel with a lighter as you release the oils, but it's not required, and a lot of people would call that showing off. I like to do it when nobody's looking. I think it makes a difference.
Step 9 Discard the lemon peel. When you serve the drink, either to a loved one or yourself, there should be no ice, no garnish, no nothing, because, once more—with feeling!—the perfect Sazerac requires no embellishment.