Having fled the slave revolt in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) in 1793, Creole plantation owner Antoine Peychaud Sr. arrived in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1795 with the clothes on his back and his family's recipe for gentian root-based medicinal bitters. Decades later his son, Antoine Jr., a pharmacist, opened Peychaud's Apothecary, where he served brandy cocktails with the bitters to his fraternal brothers after Masonic lodge meetings. Sounds like my kind of pharmacy.
The drinks were measured out and served in small French egg cups called coquetiers. In the New Orleans revisionist history version of events, the term "cocktail" was born out of our lazy transmogrification of the word. The actual origin is uncertain but it dates back to at least 1803, where it was used in a Hudson, New York, newspaper and hyphenated as "cock-tail." "The Farmers' Almanac says that the cocktail gets its name from the rooster's call," explains Robbie Flair, bartender at Town Hall in Ohio City. "You would get up in the morning and throw some stuff together with bitters and a little alcohol to get your day going." The assertion that Americans cannot pronounce "coquetier" remains undisputed.
In 1850, Sewell Taylor sold his New Orleans-based bar Merchants Exchange Coffee House and moved down the street to open a liquor store. He began importing Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac and selling it to his old establishment, where it was used to make a version of Peychaud's cocktail. Named for its primary spirit, the wildly popular cocktail was called the Sazerac and the bar itself was renamed in kind shortly thereafter.
Once a clerk at the Sazerac Coffee House, Thomas Handy acquired the bar in 1869 and was forced to replace the cognac in his signature drink with American rye whiskey when a phylloxera epidemic decimated much of the French grape crop in 1873. "When rye became the primary spirit in the 1870s, the drink's popularity only accelerated," added Flair. "It turns out that the drink stood to benefit from the spice that rye provides." Handy added a splash of absinthe to the drink as a wildcard and the rest, as they say, is history.
The recipe that follows pays homage to the both the original and new-fangled preparations of the drink, but feel free to go whole-hog with rye. You'll find that the Sazerac is a stiff drink fit for a specific mood. If it were a steak, the Sazerac would be seasoned only with salt and pepper and served so rare that it was merely walked through a warm room.
Recipe: The Sazerac
• 1 ½ oz Bulleit Rye Whiskey
• ½ oz Courvoisier VSOP Cognac
• ¼ oz rich Demerara syrup* (or more to taste)
• 3 dashes of Peychaud's bitters
• 1 dash of Angostura bitters
• 1 splash of Lucid Absinthe
• lemon peel
Place an empty rocks glass in the freezer to chill for 5 to 10 minutes or pack the glass with ice and water until you're ready for it.
Add all ingredients except the absinthe and lemon peel to a mixing glass with a handful of ice and stir to chill and combine.
Retrieve the glass (empty it if needed). Add a splash of absinthe and swirl it around to coat the inside of the glass. Strain the contents of the mixing glass into the glass.
Cut a section of lemon peel with a vegetable peeler or knife and squeeze it onto the drink. Rub the rim of the glass with the peel, drop it in, and serve.
* To make rich Demerara syrup, dissolve 2 parts raw turbinado sugar in 1 part water over moderate heat.