Drink traces roots back to Big Easy

Gerald Rich

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a weekly series exploring the history of traditional cocktails.

This past Monday marked the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast, so what better way to pay homage to the city’s history than with the official cocktail of New Orleans, the sazerac.

Widely considered America’s first cocktail, the drink was created in the 1830s by Antoine Peychaud, a New Orleans apothecary and French immigrant from the West Indies. The simple whiskey drink is served neat (without ice) with absinthe, simple syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters and a flamed orange peel.

Well known for his alcoholic herbal bitters mix, he prescribed Peychaud’s Bitters for all kinds of ailments. To this day, people still use Angostura, another type of bitters, and soda water to calm their stomach after a rough night of drinking.

The drink was named New Orleans’ official cocktail by the Louisiana Congress in 2008. The drink has also spent some time on the silver screen, from the eighth James Bond film “Live and Let Die” to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” where it is the first drink that Button consumes.

“You got to have one, just to have one,” said John Roach, a bartender at Townhouse bar. “It has an ounce of simple syrup, which is sweet enough for a person who doesn’t really like whiskey. For a person who does like whiskey though, it’s not too sweet either.”

Pair that with the flamed orange peel, which sprays a slightly caramelized zest on the drink, and you have a modern-day sazerac. The recipe doesn’t vary too much from bar to bar. However, some varieties use lemon zest, flavored simple syrup or homemade bitters that use tobacco or oranges.

“Nobody knows the original recipe that Antoine Peychaud may have done; these [mixes] are all guesstimates,” said Ace Manning, a bartender at Péché bar. “Everyone has made slight modifications but it is the first cocktail, so you don’t necessarily want to change it.”

The cocktail got its name from the cognac Sazerac de Forge et Fils, which was used in the drink. At that time most drinks were made with a cognac or a brandy, though it’s now more commonly known as a whiskey drink.

In the mid-to-late 19th century, most of France’s grape-producing vines were destroyed by a blight of aphids or plant lice, making drinks like cognacs, wines, champagnes, brandies and armagnacs difficult to find. American bartenders responded to this shortage by using whiskey, gin or scotch instead of the French spirits.

“The fact that the sazerac was made in New Orleans says a lot about its culture,” Manning said. “Americans were the first bartenders to get into the art of the cocktail. It was only during the Prohibition era that all of our bartenders went overseas to Europe and spread the word.”

The concoction stayed in style in the states after many bartenders moved elsewhere, but absinthe was officially banned in the U.S. in 1912 after increasingly bad press in Europe and the growing temperance movement. The result was that many bars stopped using absinthe or switched to other anise liquors to coat the glass to give the drink a hint of black licorice flavor. But since absinthe became legal for sale again in 2007, Austin bars like Péché, Townhouse and some others have begun making it the old-fashioned way.

“Not one person I’ve made it for hasn’t enjoyed it,” Roach said. “It’s my favorite cocktail and it’s my go-to guy if I’m in a new bar. Plus, I love making it for people [who have] never had it just so I can share some of that tradition.”