Ah, the Sazerac. There isn’t a cocktail that sings as robustly of New Orleans in all the land. Nor should there be. As cocktails go, this one’s unimpeachable, inviolate—a prototype of cocktail simplicity that can (and should) be read over once and committed to memory—rinse, pour, dash, stir, no updates required. Of course, when aspiring to a cocktail of such biblical importance, it’s vital to get your technique straight from the horse’s mouth, or mouths: New Orleans bartenders Paul Gustings of the revered, standing-room-only Tujague’s and Russ Bergeron, de facto authority behind the Sazerac Bar itself.
Fair warning, history buffs: the Sazerac’s origin has been covered amply elsewhere. (Just imagine what happens when you combine setbacks like Prohibition, a French phylloxera outbreak, and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which led to absinthe being outlawed, with the ambitions of guys like liquor importer Sewell Taylor and Antoine Amedie Peychaud of the eponymous bitters. Can’t imagine it? Well, it’s the Sazerac. That’s what happens.) Here, at least, we’re more interested in the recipe, the particular motions (and emotions) that result in the production of the classic American drink.
As with most historic cocktails, the modern day Sazerac is essentially a purist’s perpetual repeat of the original: rye whiskey, Herbsaint, Peychaud’s, and sugar water. But, as is the case for most historic cocktails, there were a few inevitable tweaks on the way to this liquid magic, some major, some minor. “The drink used to be Cognac,” says Bergeron, referring to the earliest Sazerac, a combination of French Sazerac de Forge et fils Cognac and Peychaud’s. Whether it was the toll of phylloxera on French grapes or just a sudden perversion of local preference (cocktail historian Dave Wondrich sides with the former), the recipe permanently shifted from Sazerac Cognac to the spicier, locally prevalent rye whiskey “around 1872,” says Bergeron, who uses Sazerac Rye. Gustings, who uses Old Overholt, has "a really good reason: when I started making Sazeracs over thirty years ago, that was it. And I've never had a problem."
Another tweak, the distinctive absinthe rinse, was added by bartenders at the Sazerac Coffee House (formerly Merchants Exchange Coffee House, now Sazerac Bar). “Just New Orleans being New Orleans,” writes Wondrich. Apparently that hometown pride is a powerful thing. When absinthe was outlawed in 1912, bartenders subbed in locally produced pastis Herbsaint, and stuck by it even after the recent (semi) legalization (stateside absinthe can have a—teensy—max of 10 parts per million of thujone, the wormwood-derived, federally vilified "hallucinogen"). “A lot of people use absinthe in [the Sazerac] now because it’s legal again,” says Gustings, “but that gives it a really, really strong licorice taste.” Herbsaint, on the other hand, politely pokes its way into the rye with less anise punch.
Peychaud’s bitters remain the undisputed tie that binds Sazerac history to Sazerac future. (How you dose your Peychaud’s is entirely up to you: Gustings goes for short, frequent bursts; Bergeron dashes hard and heavy, the way you’d get ketchup out of a stubborn Heinz bottle.) Sugar and citrus variations are permissible, but barely so. Gustings and Bergeron both use simple syrup instead of the traditional sugar cube. Beyond ease of preparation (where a sugar cube is used, it’s typically muddled first with Peychaud’s), “you need a little dilution in your drink,” says Gustings. “Otherwise you might as well just drink from the bottle.” As for lemon peel, “there’s a debate on whether you put it in the drink or not,” says Bergeron. “I prefer it in.” (Gustings gives peel a resounding "no.") Subtle differences aside, here are two techniques bound by a cocktail that conjures up a city—and a damn good mood—unlike any other. A testament, we think, to perfection of the formula and the meandering genius of cocktail history.
1. Fill a serving glass with ice to chill. Reserve.
2. Add ice to a second glass. (Bergeron does not add ice to his mixing glass.)
3. Combine rye whiskey and sugar water over the ice and stir to combine. (Says Gustings, "I didn't know I do this, but I don't stir. I stab.")
4. Add several dashes of Peychaud’s bitters. Stir.
5. Empty the chilling service glass, discarding ice. Rinse the glass with Herbsaint and rub the rim with lemon oil. (Gustings gives it a traditional swirl; Bergeron flicks it up for a quick spin. "It adds a little something.")
6. Strain the rye mixture into the service glass. Extrude the lemon oil into the drink. Discard or keep the peel in the glass, as desired. Gustings, anti-peel, concedes that "by the time lemon peel turns bitter, you've probably finished the drink." Amen to that.