In a city known for its drinks, the Sazerac stands out as an icon of New Orleans. The cocktail traces its origins to the mid-19th century, but it was only as recently as 2008 that it was declared the official cocktail of New Orleans. At the beloved Sazerac Bar, located in the Roosevelt Hotel, the cocktail is a part of a rich history that goes back to the late 1930's. Mixologist and resident historian Russ Bergeron explains that the aim of the Sazerac Bar's cocktail is similar to the philosophy of the bar itself: to "stay tried and true to the classic cocktail as it has been presented at the hotel bar for decades and decades."
The Sazerac Bar's rendition of the classic cocktail demonstrates the nuances of the drink. "There's a lot of complexity in its simplicity," Bergeron explains. "With just a few ingredients, many flavors come out." The flavors — spiciness from the whiskey, fruit peels from the bitters, a hint of lemon on the nose — open up even further as the drink warms in the customers hand. At this point, Bergeron is certainly a Sazerac expert, overseeing the sale of some 35,000 - 40,000 per year. Below, the elements of the Sazerac Bar's Sazerac:
1. The Whiskey
For their signature drink, the Sazerac Bar uses a standard ounce and a half shot of six year old Sazerac Rye whiskey. Bergeron notes that for a six year old rye, the Sazerac whiskey is remarkably smooth with spicy notes of cinnamon and nutmeg. There are flavors of caramel and vanilla from the barrel aging process, which happens in Kentucky. The bar has had a relationship with the Sazerac brand since the 1940s, Bergeron explains. "We buy a lot of their whiskey, so they're happy about that and we get to use their name," he says. It certainly is a lot. Bergeron estimates that the bar went through an impressive 3,000 bottles last year. Interestingly, Bergeron explains that the drink was originally made with cognac, but that rye became the spirit of choice in the 1870s.
2. The Bitters
As is traditional, the Sazerac Bar uses Peychaud's Bitters in their drink. While bitters recipes do tend to be closely held secrets, Bereron describes the Peychaud's Bitters as having a more "fruit-driven" flavor than others, with strong notes of orange peel. He says the recipe at the bar calls for three or four dashes, but since a dash can vary in amount due to the size of the bottle, he tends to judge by color. The bitters should turn the cocktail a nice reddish color, and if the cocktail seems pink then it needs more.
3. The Sugar
Due to the sheer volume of Sazeracs served a day, the Sazerac Bar eschews the traditional sugar cube in favor of simple syrup. Although Bergeron says that it's ideal at home to put the bitters directly onto a sugar cube, the process is just too time consuming during service. That said, Bergeron does not find a flavor difference when using simple syrup, which the bar produces in "huge batches" in house.
4. The Herbsaint
A key component to the Sazerac Bar's namesake drink is an Herbsaint rinse. Bergerson explains that Herbsaint was created by a local New Orleans pharmacist when absinthe was outlawed. The drink is essentially a cordial that's similar to Pernod. There are flavors of anise and fennel. By swirling a bit of Herbsaint into a chilled old fashioned glass and then pouring it out, the glass becomes coated in the viscous cordial. While some bartenders will use an atomizer instead of a rinse, Bergeron finds the rinse allows for more Herbsaint to stick to the glass and for more of its herbal flavors to come through in the finished cocktail. The old fashioned glass itself has been the vessel of choice for the cocktail since its earliest saloon days, when a standard whiskey glass tended to be the only glassware on offer.
5. The Assembly
After combining the whiskey, the bitters, and the simple syrup, the mixture is stirred with ice. Bergeron says that shaking a Sazerac would dilute it too much. The drink is then poured into the Herbsaint-coated old fashioned glass. Bergeron next rubs a lemon twist, peel-side down, along the rim of the glass, and gives it a squeeze over the drink. Whether to put the twist in the drink is a matter of strongly held opinion in New Orleans, so Bergeron leaves it on the side to give his customers the choice. He notes that the twist is refreshing, but is ultimately more for the scent, as there should be "pronounced lemon on your nose as you sip the drink."