Wednesday, February 17

Drink Spotlight: The Sazerac

So I realized the other day that the last cocktail I'd written about was the Sidecar way back in mid-December. There just hasn't been much opportunity for cocktails lately, having been focused on the retreat that just ended (phenomenally!) this weekend and prepping to play for that. And now that Lent has officially started, drinking opportunities are going to be rather few and far between; not because I think it's evil or sinful or anything like that, but it is a luxury, and I try to keep those to a minimum to prepare for Easter time. But for Fat Tuesday...

I present to you, perhaps one of the greatest cocktails ever invented. Not for the weak, this is a staple of Bourbon street in New Orleans (though it is made with Rye) and it packs as much of a punch as it does history. The Sazerac.

And because this is a special occasion, perhaps one of my favorite drinks, and one wherein preparation is a major, major component, I've included a lot of pictures to hopefully help you in getting this one right.

First, the ingredients:

The Sazerac:
  • 2 oz Rye whiskey
  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2-3 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
  • Dash Absinthe
Prepare as follows:

I'll also take this opportunity to let you in on the second family of drinks: The Old Fashioned. I'll make a proper one someday, but it's perhaps the oldest and simplest of cocktails. Spirit, bitters and sugar with a citrus peel for garnish. In the standard, Whiskey Old Fashioned, you soak the sugar cube in bitters, add the whiskey and ice and stir well, at which point you make an orange peel and add it, et voila. Not much to it, but a lot of ways it can go wrong, particularly when uninformed bartenders start adding muddled fruit or, God forbid, club soda or Sprite. Barbarians.

As you'll see, the Sazerac is very similar, but has a much more in-depth preparation, and adds the extra zing of Absinthe, which is just phenomenal. First, take two old-fashioned (or rocks) glasses. Chill one, and in the other, place the sugar cube. Soak said sugar with bitters.

Next, put the sugar into solution. Here I'm using a muddler, simply because it's the easiest way that I've found. I also add a small amount of water, as sugar doesn't tend to dissolve well in either alcohol or in a cold environment, both of which are going to be present in any alcoholic drink, and so a bit of water turns into some simple syrup, only with precise control over the water content and sweetness.

Add the whiskey and some ice cubes and stir to chill.

Empty the second old-fashioned glass of the chilling material, and pour a very scant amount of Absinthe (or Pernod if you must) into it. Coat the glass with this expensive and dangerous spirit, and dispose of the excess. I chose to use my mouth, but the sink works just as well when you're not serving yourself. Also, patrons tend to frown upon bartenders drinking out of a glass that their drinks are then served in.

Strain the first old-fashioned glass into the Absinthe-coated one. This leaves you with a chilled and diluted cocktail with no ice in it to dilute further, as well as a nifty bit of presentation.

Finally, make a lemon twist, making sure to spray the top of the drink with the lemon oils.

At this point, there's been much debate over whether to leave the peel out or drop it in. My tastes aren't nearly refined enough (and become even less so upon the consumption of this drink) to detect a difference, though be mindful that, in theory, leaving the peel (or, more precisely, the bitter white pith that is attached to the peel) in the drink should increase the bitterness ever so slightly. As I can't tell, and as the striking yellow peel in the orange drink is visually appealing, I leave it in. Perceptually, and as a psychologist, I certainly believe that a garnish can make or break a drink, even when it should have no reason to alter the taste. Sometimes those tiki umbrellas add just the right amount of spice!

There you have it. Perfection. This drink single-handedly taught me about layers of flavor, about the importance of expressing essential oils over a drink when creating a twist, and just how volatile some ingredients (here, the Absinthe) are; it's easy to go overboard, whereas the smallest amounts can sharpen your senses and focus you on tastes you never knew were there.

Also, apparently the Sazerac has made some inroads into popular culture. In Live and Let Die, James Bond's best CIA friend Felix Leiter orders a round (something I've never noticed, and I have something of an obsession with 007), and while I've never seen the movie, it is a favorite drink of Benjamin Button. Thanks, Wikipedia!


  1. call me ill-informed.... but i though Absinthe was illegal (wormwood or such?)?

    Just curious! :)

  2. Haha, long, long story.

    Rumors started in the 1900's about the dangers of Wormwood in Absinthe. Wormwood is a drug, a deadly hallucinogen in large quantities, and before it was banned, Absinthe was enjoyed by poets, artists, and other Bohemians throughout Europe. Unfortunately, those people were also thought to be the scum of the earth at that time, and so when they were out rousing the rabble (what else are you going to do when you're a poor, starving artist?), Absinthe became the scapegoat. Rumors of it's hallucinogenic properties helped it to get banned in many nations, however those properties couldn't have been ascribed to the wormwood extract (known as Thujone), as it's quantities (in quality Absinthe, that is) were so trace as to be statistically non-existent. A much better explanation for the hallucinogenic properties of Absinthe would be, well, the extreme amounts of alcohol involved. Some Absinthes are up to 180 proof. 200 proof is pure alcohol.

    The US passed a law in 1915 banning any products that contain greater than 10 parts per million of Thujone (which is said to be, statistically, Thujone free) from entering the country. What wasn't commonly mentioned is that all Absinthes of quality (there are plenty of products that were manufactured to take advantage of the rumor that Wormwood extract got you high, and thus upped the Thujone quantity as much as possible), vintage or modern, were considered to be Thujone free by the legal definition, and were thus, actually legal the whole time. The stigma remains, but many countries now allow the sale of Absinthe.

    Interestingly enough, when I went to France about a year ago (a hot-spot for Absinthe production), none of the shops I went to had Absinthe for sale. Some research revealed that it is currently legal to produce Absinthe in France, but only for exportation. You can't buy Absinthe in France. You can only make it.

    But yes, long answer to a short question, Absinthe is legal in the US, and in fact some brands have even been produced here. But you're not too far behind the curve; the Absinthe revival started in 2007 when someone decided to take a closer look at the Absinthe law, so it's only truly recently that you'd have been able to get Absinthe in a well-stocked liquor store. And some states liquor laws are extremely strict, going so far as to have lists of brands (of any liquor) that are allowed to be sold within the state lines. Lucky for me, Missouri is a rather laissez -faire state!