Apologies for the brief hiatus since my last word tasting; my wife and I were on a trip on the train called the City of New Orleans to the city of New Orleans, where we spent an enjoyable few days seeing the city for the first time. One pilgrimage I made was to have a Sazerac cocktail, made with Sazerac whiskey, at the Sazerac Bar. There’s really nothing like the original, you know? And this was, indeed, nothing like the original.
Oh, to be sure, it was the classic Sazerac cocktail in its classic home, as it has been served there since 1949. But their recipe is not the original recipe, and they are not its original home. The name Sazerac is unchanged, but what it names has meandered more than the Mississippi River.
Let’s start with what was in the cocktail I was served: sugar, Peychaud’s Bitters, Herbsaint liqueur, and Sazerac Rye Whiskey, plus an orange peel garnish. I will tell you right away that the one ingredient every recipe for a Sazerac has always had is Peychaud’s Bitters, a herbal mixture (or an herbal mixture, if you prefer) created in New Orleans by Haitian-born apothecary Antoine Peychaud in the 1830s. The recipes often but not always include the sugar and orange peel as well. But neither the liqueur nor the whiskey is in the original.
How could Sazerac Rye Whiskey not be the original whiskey of a Sazerac? It’s not like the case of the Martini, which (it is generally thought) was originally a Martinez but drifted its name to the name of the vermouth used in it (and now you can get a “Martini” that has exactly none of the original ingredients, just vodka and fruit juice served in a conic spilly glass). No, this Sazerac Rye Whiskey is a century and a half newer than the cocktail. It hit the market in 2006.
So the whiskey is named after the cocktail, right? Well, sort of. It’s also named after the company that made the original cocktail, a company that owns the rights to the name Sazerac, a company that since 1970 has been the owner and producer of Peychaud’s Bitters, a company that in the past quarter century has been on a buying spree to make it one of the world’s hugest liquor companies – you’ll be amazed to see all their brands, and if you drink liquor at all you’ve very likely had some of them – but somehow hadn’t ever bothered naming a whiskey after itself until 2006. Before that, the cocktail was made with whichever rye whiskey (preferably from Kentucky) the barman preferred.
But there was a liquor bearing the name Sazerac. It’s the liquor after which all of this was originally named, but it was not whiskey and it was not made by the Sazerac Company. We’ll get to that.
So is the cocktail named after the bar? Of course not. Nor is the bar named after the cocktail – well, not exactly. The Sazerac Bar is named after the original place that made the cocktail, a place that itself was named after either the cocktail or the liquor after which the cocktail was named. If you’re having trouble following, fix yourself a drink and I’ll spell it out.
The Sazerac Bar is just off the swanky lobby in the Roosevelt Hotel, a Waldorf-Astoria hotel. It opened, as I mentioned, in 1949. It was named in honour of the just-closed Sazerac Bar nearby on Carondolet Street (which is what Bourbon Street becomes when you cross Canal Street). I say “in honour” because the modern Sazerac Bar is not owned by the Sazerac Company, although they clearly have a lot of cooperation in their branding, right down to the glassware. The Sazerac Bar on Carondolet that it was named in honour of, on the other hand, was owned by the Sazerac Company. But it was not the original Sazerac Bar either.
There was, you see, a hiatus in official Sazerac consumption, thanks to Prohibition, which was in effect in the US from 1919 to 1933, even in New Orleans (lord knows they resisted – they even tried classifying liquor as food). The Sazerac Bar on Carondolet opened in 1933. The original Sazerac House, which was originally the Sazerac Coffee House, was a bit east, across Canal Street in the French Quarter; there are tiles on Royal Street indicating where its entrance was.
Coffee House! Does that mean that the Sazerac originally had something to do with coffee? No, not at all, sorry. Drinking and meeting establishments in the late 1800s in New Orleans were commonly enough called coffee houses. We need not talk of coffee again; it’s a red herring.
Prohibition was not the only legal contretemps affecting the Sazerac. You may have seen the name Herbsaint in the cocktail ingredients and thought, “What’s that?” And if you’ve had a Sazerac in some place that’s not New Orleans, you may recall a different liquor: absinthe. This is because absinthe was used in the original cocktail – and when I say “in,” I should qualify it: you’re supposed to rinse the glass with it and toss out any extra. (Modern bartenders often use a little spray bottle to mist it.) But absinthe was banned in the US in 1912, because it was very high in alcohol and also contained small amounts of a hallucinogen (thujone, from the wormwood in it).
At first the absinthe in a Sazerac was replaced with pastis, but after Prohibition ended, a New Orleans pharmacist named J. Marion Legendre started producing a version of absinthe he had made. Once the government ruled that you still couldn’t label something as absinthe, he renamed it Herbsaint, said to be after packets of herbs he sold in his store under the label L’Herbe Saint. (If you speak French, however, you might notice that the French pronunciations of absinthe and Herbsaint do sound… a bit similar.) In 1949, Legendre sold the brand to the Sazerac Company.
But there’s one more contretemps that changed what goes into a Sazerac, and it’s the reason that the original liquor bearing the name Sazerac stopped being used in the Sazerac cocktail. That contretemps had the name phylloxera.
The original Sazerac Coffee House was first named the Merchants Exchange Coffee House, but its owner sold it to become an importer of spirits, and around 1850 the new owner named the house after one of the spirits the old owner imported – or perhaps after the cocktail made with the liquor, a cocktail that is commonly said to have been invented by Antoine Peychaud at his apothecary. The spirit in question? A brand of cognac made by Sazerac de Forge et Fils, a company started by one Bernard Sazerac de Forge in 1782. If you have an eye for such things, you may have already noted that the -ac is also seen on other French names such as Cognac, Armagnac, Cyrano de Bergerac, and – yes – Cadillac. The origin of Sazerac, like that of the other names, is largely lost in the mists of time; even the best-known among them have multifarious and controversial theories about their origins.
So, yes, the original Sazerac was a cocktail made with cognac, plus absinthe and Peychaud’s Bitters and sugar. But in the late 1800s an infestation of phylloxera, an insect that had crossed the Atlantic from North America, severely depleted the French grape stocks. The wine industry in Europe ultimately survived by grafting their vines onto rootstock also imported from the Americas, but for a time there was very little wine being made in France, which means there was even less brandy (including cognac) to come across the ocean to America. Which is why the cocktail shifted to being made with rye. Which, in case you don’t know, doesn’t taste much like cognac at all.
Why even keep making this cocktail when the main ingredient isn’t available? Why not make a new cocktail and call it a new thing? Ah, well, not for nothing is Sazerac an anagram of a craze’s. By the time the cognac supply dried up, the Sazerac had already become an exceedingly popular New Orleans institution, as had its home, Sazerac House, with its 125-foot-long bar (which had already passed through several owners). It was not going away, and it has not gone away – in 2008 the Louisiana state legislature proclaimed the Sazerac the official cocktail of New Orleans (sorry to all those Bourbon Street partiers with their big plastic go cups full of Hurricanes, which are a sort of mix of Kool-Aid and disinfectant). So of course one must maintain and honour tradition, even if the details of the tradition wander a bit.
But that’s not the end of it. You can still get a Sazerac made with cognac, and some bartenders use both rye and cognac. (Try all the variations! I have, and I think they’re all delicious.) And you can still get Sazerac de Forge cognac.
Well. Not still. The current Sazerac de Forge cognac is made – wait for it – in honour of the original. The original Sazerac de Forge et Fils company became Sazerac de Forge et Kotniski, and after it was acquired in 1965 the brand name disappeared. But in 2016, capping a year in which it had also acquired several other brands (including Southern Comfort), the Sazerac Company acquired a cognac house named Domaine Breuil de Segonzac (another -ac!). And at that location – not at the original logis of Sazerac de Forge – it started producing, once again, Sazerac de Forge Cognac. The bottles bear labels proclaiming “Maison fondée en 1782” and “Finest Original,” but their website clarifies that the cognac is “named in honor of our roots”: “The Sazerac Company recently returned to Cognac and acquired Domaine Sazerac de Segonzac in order to produce our own ‘Finest Original’ cognac.”
Well, what is original, anyway? When you start trying to trace cultural outputs, be they recipes or be they words, original, like authentic, turns out to be a pretty dodgy concept a lot of the time. The Sazerac Company is not the original Sazerac company; the Sazerac Bar is not the original Sazerac bar; the Sazerac cocktail you get now is not the original Sazerac cocktail – and even if you make it with cognac, it’s not with the original kind of cognac (not even if you use Sazerac de Forge Cognac, and not just because it’s not made in the same place – the taste of French grapes is generally agreed to have changed at least a little since the pre-phylloxera era).
But you can still go to Sazerac House. It’s a museum now, opened in 2019. Aina and I went there and had a nice self-guided tour, complete with free (small) sample cocktails. And it’s in a grand building dating to the 1860s, at the corner of Canal Street and Magazine Street, a mere fifth of a mile from where the original Sazerac Coffee House stood.
What, you didn’t really think it was going to be the original, did you?