Simply put...controversy and varied opinions abound when it comes cocktails, be they with respect to origins, recipes, variations, or preparation. We need look no further than the recent introduction to the 'proper' preparation of an Old Fashioned put forth by Martin Doudoroff at Old Fashioned 101. While certainly biased by my own views, Doudoroff makes what I consider to be very good points on the ingredients and methods when it comes to this most classic of cocktails, yet as highlighted by Chuck Cowdery, a raging debate was quickly raised by Kevin Kosar. As far as Kevin sees it, Doudoroff's rigid approach and the New York Times favorable review of his site unfairly cast a shadow on other versions of this cocktail. All contention aside, I merely raise the issue when reflecting on the relative lack of controversy as it relates to yet another classic cocktail, the Sazerac, perhaps one of the least contentious of the XXQC.
The history of the Sazerac cocktail is rather straight-forward relative to the somewhat ambiguous backgrounds of other well known concoctions and began in New Orleans in the mid 19th century. As the story goes, Sewell T. Taylor, then owner of the Merchants Exchange Coffee House (ie. a bar), decided to exit the service business by selling his establishment to a man by the name of Aaron Bird. Bird, in turn, went on to work with Taylor, who thru his new venture in importing, had begun to secure supplies of Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac. This cognac provided Bird with the main ingredient for his Sazerac cocktail, the namesake tipple of the newly anointed Sazerac House. And incidentally, the bitters used in the Sazerac were said to have come from a Creole apothecary down the street by the name of Antoine Peychaud. Moving on...some 20 or so years later, Thomas H. Handy (sound familiar?) took over the reigns at the Sazerac House, tho he faced a bit of a challenge. You see, in the mid-late 1800s, cognac production had been dealt a mighty blow as result of the 'phylloxera plague' (feh-lox-er-ah) that spread across vineyards in France following its introduction in the 1850s. The little Phylloxera pests devoured the roots and leaves of many grapevines, destroying upwards of 75% of all vineyards in Europe. Needless to say, the Sazerac would need a new centerpiece. Handy, a man of the East Coast, turned to rye whiskey, and booked it with such in the first official publication of the Sazerac cocktail in William T. 'Cocktail Bill' Boothby's 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How to Mix Them.
As to the specifics of the recipe itself, the Sazerac shares some attributes of an Old Fashioned, yet still possesses a very distinct character. The similar qualities represented by a single spirit, a touch of sugar, and bitters....while those unique to the Sazerac being the substitution of Peychaud's for Angostura, and the absinthe-rinsed glass. According to ritualistic preparation, it follows as such:
1 sugar cube
2 1/2 oz rye whiskey
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
Add the sugar cube to an old fashioned glass, along with a few drops of water*, and muddle. Add the Peychaud's, whiskey, several cubes of ice, and stir to chill. In a separate well-chilled old fashioned glass, rinse with a small amount of absinthe (pouring off excess) and strain the contents of the first into the second. Garnish with a lemon twist.
*While not 'tradition' I use 1/4 oz simple syrup to avoid grittiness from any undissolved sugar
Variants of the Sazerac are almost as common as those of the Old Fashioned. That being said, the origin of the Old Fashioned was really more of an approach to preparing a cocktail in the 'old-fashioned' manner, versus a specific cocktail itself...at least initially. As mentioned in a prior post, patrons requesting what we would consider to be the original Old Fashioned would ask for an 'Old Fashioned Whiskey' cocktail, made with rye (or bourbon) whiskey. It could be any other spirit, made in the same way, but with a simple substitution of the base spirit. The Sazerac on the other hand, specifies rye whiskey and Peychaud's...tho some throw in a dash of Angostura, which I agree adds a nice additional layer of complexity. For my own riff, I started with a heavy dose of Rittenhouse rye, backed it up with a small hit of the original base spirit (cognac), the obligatory Peychaud's bitters/absinthe rinse, and finished if off with a tweak of mole bitters.
2 oz Rittenhouse rye
1/2 oz Louis Royer cognac, Force 53 V.S.O.P.
1/4 oz allspice syrup**
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
1 dash Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir until well chilled. Strain into a chilled, absinthe-rinsed old fashioned glass, garnish with a thick strip of lemon zest, and raise a glass to Thomas H. Handy.
1/2 c demerara sugar
1/2 c filtered water
4 tbsp allspice berries, freshly ground
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a simmer, then cover for 2-4 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to steep, covered, for 2-3 hours. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
This cocktail adds a couple of subtle layers to the original that provides some additional sweet spice without being overpowering. The anise notes of the Peychaud's and absinthe come thru as expected, and work well with cognac. Truth be told, I first tried this variation with the 2011 Antique Collection release of the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac rye, which is phenomenal stuff on its own, but at 128 proof, I found it just to be a touch too hot for this cocktail. The Rittenhouse toned it down a bit and overall made for a better result in my opinion, as it allowed the other components (most specifically the mole bitters and allspice) to join the party without being overshadowed by the Handy. In the end, regardless as to whether it's the original Sazerac or a variation on this classic, it's definitely one to know...doesn't get much more simple or tasty than this, enjoy.