Sazerac Academy

“On my honor I will do my best: To do my duty to God and my country…”
Oath, Boy Scouts of America.

“I vow to personally buy the first Sazerac for any visitor who asks ‘Hey, where do I get a Hurricane?’ and pledge to pull out the Herbsaint and Rye no matter the time of day when a guest indicates they’ve never sipped the historic drink of New Orleans…”
Oath, Sazerac Academy.

It just goes to show there are oaths and then there are oaths. The Boy Scout oath is a heavy-duty thing to put on a kid, but you know, kids grow up. They don’t always hang on to the ideals that were thrust upon them when young and naive. They pick up bad habits, like smoking and sex and driving too fast and drinking whiskey and cussing.

But bad habits are in the eye of the beholder. Take whiskey drinking. In the right environment (New Orleans), whiskey drinking can be downright educational, and, if you believe the wisdom of our Creole forefathers, medicinal.

Quote of the day:

There is no way to fit more molecules of alcohol into a cocktail than a Sazerac. -Eben Klemm.

Ann Tuennerman is the driving force behind the New Orleans Culinary & Cultural Preservation Society. Its mission: “to preserve the rich history of the restaurants and bars of New Orleans and the unique culture of dining and drinking famous to the city, while educating locals, visitors, and the hospitality industry about this culinary heritage.” It also produces Tales of the Cocktail, the annual culinary and cocktail festival held each summer here in New Orleans. (Previous posts on Tales here, here, here and here).

The Society hosts other events during the year, notably today’s topic, the Sazerac Academy. Held periodically through the year, the Sazerac Academy is an educational tasting event, where one can learn all about the official cocktail of New Orleans, the Sazerac. Sparse ingredients—Peychaud’s Bitters, rye whiskey, Herbsaint (or absinthe, now it’s available, but officially, it’s Herbsaint) and sugar—are it.

I was lucky enough to be invited the last Sazerac Academy of the year, which was held at the historic Napoleon House. We learned why the Sazerac is sometimes called “history in a glass.” Indeed, there is a lot to the history of of the Sazerac that parallels the history of New Orleans itself. The drink is, after all, the official cocktail of New Orleans, an appellation gained through the efforts of Ann Tuennerman and a couple of New Orleans area legislators. Ann explained what should have been an easy process was delayed in the face of major opposition by, from what I surmise, lawmakers from less enlightened parts of the state (i.e., most of the state lying north of I-10).

It started with Antoine Peychaud, a French colonial from St. Domingue (now Haiti) who arrived in New Orleans after the slave revolt and subsequent Creole diaspora in the early 1800’s. A planter and a pharmacist, Peychaud’s family concocted a recipe for bitters—various plant extracts infused in alcohol—there were lots of bitters going around back then, we learned. Peychaud set up shop on Royal Street in the building that is now James H. Cohen and Sons rare coin and collectible shop between Conti and St. Louis. That fact blew me away; I always thought Peychaud’s business was located on Chartres where the Pharmacy Museum is located today.

Peychaud dispensed his bitters as medicine, mixing them with Cognac in a little egg cup, or coquetier. The coquetier looks a little like a modern two-sided jigger and is said to be the source of the word cocktail. But, we learned, that may just be legend, as references to cocktails have been found in newspapers from before Peychaud began his establishment.

Sazerac-de-Forge et fils was the brand name of the Cognac Peychaud used to serve his bitters with. Eventually it became the name of the bitters/brandy concoction itself, which then was passed on as the name of subsequent coffee houses (saloons) where it was served, and then on to the most famous of all, the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel.

Changes in the Sazerac reflected changes in New Orleans. Its days as a predominately French city were coming to an end by the 1850’s as more and more Americans flocked to the city. It was then that a string of American businessmen began controlling the Sazerac, finally Americanizing the drink when, in 1872, Thomas Handy substituted rye whiskey for Cognac as the drink’s base spirit. He also began adding small amount of absinthe to the drink’s recipe.

More history: absinthe was banned in 1912 and then all alcohol was banned in 1920. When prohibition was lifted, J.M. Legendre immediately began producing Legendre Absinthe in New Orleans. Two months later the Feds came in and put a stop to Legendre’s absinthe. Their complaint? First, it did not contain wormwood, so it wasn’t absinthe. Second, absinthe was illegal, so he couldn’t sell it as absinthe. Legendre re-labeled his spirit Legendre Herbsaint. Like absinthe, Herbsaint’s predominate flavor is anise; it became the accepted substitute for absinthe in making Sazeracs after prohibition. (Legendre promoted the hell out of Herbsaint, producing some classic advertisements. Collector Jay Hendrickson has many images online here.)

The Sazerac Company is a one-stop corporate source for everything you need to make the official cocktail of New Orleans. It now makes Peychaud’s Bitters using the same recipe as Antoine Peychaud; it produces Herbsaint and a great rye whiskey, too.

After all this history was presented by Ann and Michael (whose last name I didn’t catch, but he’s the head bartender at the Swizzle Stick Bar) [Glassberg-thanks, Mr. Cocktail], Michael proceeded to demonstrate the proper technique for making a Sazerac. We swore our oaths as newly-minted Sazeractivists, then got to making our own cocktails.

It was 11:00 a.m. I had to drive back to work. I could only take a few sips. I was sad.

Here’s the official recipe. As with many culinary masterpieces, the secret lies in the preparation as much as in the ingredients themselves, so pay heed to the instructions below.

The Official Sazerac Cocktail

1 cube sugar
1½ ounces (35ml) Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye Whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon
¼ ounce Herbsaint
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Lemon peel

  1. Pack an Old-Fashioned glass with ice
  2. In a second Old-Fashioned glass place the sugar cube and add the Peychaud’s Bitters to it, then crush the sugar cube.
  3. Add the Sazerac Rye Whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon to the second glass containing the Peychaud’s Bitters and sugar.
  4. Empty the ice from the first glass and coat the glass with the Herbsaint, then discard the remaining Herbsaint.
  5. Empty the whiskey/bitters/sugar mixture from the second glass into the first glass and garnish with lemon peel.

A final quote, on the nature of the Sazerac and why it indeed is, and has always been, spiritually the official cocktail of New Orleans.

If any cocktail can conjure up the image of New Orleans, it is the Sazerac; made with whiskey for its strength, absinthe for its fanciful nature, bitters for its joie de vivre and sugar for its sweet hospitality. -Debra Argen

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4 Responses to Sazerac Academy

  1. Nola on December 10, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    Very cool. And inspirational. Going to make one now. With absinthe. Thanks.

  2. Mr. Cocktail on December 11, 2008 at 6:48 am

    Well Done! And yes, Mr. Michale Glassberg is the “man behind the bar” at the Swizzle Stick Bar and a very capable creator of well crafted Sazeracs.

  3. Absinthe In New Orleans | Absinthe Drink Review on December 23, 2008 at 5:45 pm

    […] Sazerac Academy […]

  4. Robert on January 13, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    I always felt it was a shame to discard the Herbsaint/absinthe. Since my Sazeracs are made in pairs, I’ll pour the absinthe from the first coated glass into the second one, coat, then drink it. Of course, I’m making them for my wife and me not customers in a bar, so there are no health code violations. What do people think of using Angostura bitters in addition to Peychaud’s? That’s how I learned it from watching several bartenders in New Orleans.

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