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Get Ready for Mardi Gras with the Perfect Sazerac

If anything, it's a great drink just for the bottles.
If anything, it's a great drink just for the bottles.
JK Grence

Ring the bell, it's time for Last Call, where JK Grence, bartender at Shady's, serves up booze advice and recipes. Got a burning question for your bartender? Leave it in the comments and it might be answered in a future column.

Mardi Gras is coming up quick. The fuel of Fat Tuesday's debauchery is, of course, freely flowing alcohol. (Yes, and beads, but this is a booze column.) While it's fun to slam down Hurricanes, Hand Grenades, and other massive sugar bombs, the next day's hangover will not be fun. Besides, New Orleans is a legendary drinking town. Some of the world's finest cocktails were created there. This week, I'm sharing one of my favorites.

The Sazerac is believed to be the first cocktail invented in the United States, dating back to before the Civil War. Until this point, a cocktail was simply a beverage including spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. You'll probably recognize that basic recipe as the basis for the Old-Fashioned, and you would be correct. The Sazerac is a cousin of the Old-Fashioned, only more specific with its ingredients and preparation.

When it's made right, the Sazerac is a timeless marvel. When it's made wrong, you'll wish you ordered whiskey and 7-Up. Hell, I think I've been served whiskey and 7-Up when I ordered a Sazerac. I'm going to make sure all of your Sazeracs are good ones.

First up: Spirits. You want rye whiskey. Since the other ingredients are subtle adornments, go for a good rye. I'm somewhat partial to Bulleit. The Sazerac Company makes their own rye, which indeed makes a darn fine Sazerac.

Oh, since this is quintessential vintage cocktailing, you know I have some cocktail history geekery for you. It has to go somewhere, or my brain is going to explode with all of the boozy brain lint. A gent by the name of Sewell Taylor ran the Merchants Exchange Coffeehouse in New Orleans. It was a bar, but "coffee house" was the euphemism those days.

Mr. Taylor started a second business as a liquor importer. He was the sole importer of Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac, which sold like wildfire at the coffeehouse. Antoine Peychaud, a druggist down the street from the coffeehouse, supplied the place with bitters. They're used to this day in the cocktail. Someone who bought the coffeehouse changed the name to the Sazerac Coffee House to reflect the establishment's most popular product.

Then, the phylloxera epidemic in France wiped out French wine and cognac, which brought the switch to rye whiskey. A few drops of absinthe were added at some point. Goodness knows exactly when. A New Orleans-made pastis, Herbsaint, was used during the absinthe ban. Now that absinthe is back, the Sazerac has since switched back to absinthe, but Cognac has never made its way back into the drink.

Oh-kay. Now that I got that out of my system, back to the drink. The preferred bitters are Peychaud's bitters. Sugar can be a cube or a little simple syrup. If you go the cube route, muddle the sugar with the bitters. I just grab the simple syrup and go. The last ingredient is absinthe. Just a touch is all you need, only what clings to the inside of an empty glass.

 

There's a bit of a ritual to the proper assembly of a Sazerac. You can go off the track a little bit, but there's some fun to be had in making it the right and proper way. Pay attention to the recipe, there's a pop quiz later.

Sazerac 1 sugar cube (or ½ ounce simple syrup) 3 dashes Peychaud's bitters 1½ ounces rye whiskey 1 generous dash absinthe Lemon zest strip

Pack an Old-Fashioned glass with ice. In a second Old-Fashioned glass, muddle sugar and bitters. Add rye whiskey and a few ice cubes. Stir well to chill. Empty first glass. Pour absinthe into first glass, roll around to coat, and discard excess (or drink it like I do at home). Strain contents of second glass into first glass. Squeeze lemon zest over drink. The lemon zest is traditionally discarded, but may be added as a garnish.

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