Eleven years ago we threw a post-Katrina party to celebrate New Orleans and its survival from horrific floods that nearly washed away the city we knew and loved.
It was right before Christmas and everyone was in the mood for high jinks. Zydeco blared from the speakers, plates were laden with shrimp etouffee and jambalaya—and in the spirit of the Big Easy, we made the drinking simple: Our bartender mixed only Sazeracs.
Oceans of them.
There was enough booze to elevate the entire neighborhood—and then some. To all those who misbehaved, I say, “No worries. Your secrets are safe with me.”
Ahem. I’m talking about you, sir. Yes, you: the righteous gentleman who, after a few too many, lurched into the Christmas tree, tilting it 45 degrees, sending ornaments crashing to the floor. Our party-girl springer spaniel, confined to Serendipity’s bedroom, added her indignant howls to the din.
The next morning B ran into one of our guests, a big blonde who was trying to walk her own pup while nursing a devastating hangover. When he confessed that he too might have overindulged, she blurted out, “Oh thank God, I thought I was the only one.”
But let’s get to the Sazerac: This cocktail is said by some to be the quintessential New Orleans drink. (Others lean towards the Ramos Gin Fizz, famously shaken to a froth while being passed up and down a line of bartenders. But that is another story.)
According to The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David Embury’s classic 1948 guide to cocktails, the Sazerac is simply a variation on the All-American whiskey cocktail: rye or bourbon and a dash of aromatic bitters poured over cracked ice, garnished with a lemon twist.
The New Orleans connection begins when you add a dash or two of Peychaud’s Bitters to the cocktail. This rosy-hued concoction was created in New Orleans in 1830 by a Creole apothecary named Antoine Amedie Peychaud, from a family recipe brought from the French colony of Saint-Domingue, today known as Haiti. A drop or two of Peychaud’s—sweeter and fruitier than Angostura, though brewed from bitter gentian root—are considered an essential addition to a cocktail that was (shudder) originally made with brandy.
The other ingredient is Herbsaint. A Johnny-Come-Lately addition, this anise-flavored liqueur was invented in New Orleans by J. Marion Legendre and Reginald Parker in 1934 as a substitute for absinthe. Herbe sainte or “sacred herb” was the French Creole name for Artemisia absinthium or “wormwood,” from which the infamous “green fairy” was made—though this version never actually contained wormwood. (Wikipedia notes that Herbsaint is an anagram for absinthe, if you take out the “r”.)
Embury’s 1948 recipe instructs us to swirl a chilled glass with a drop of absinthe before pouring in the whiskey mixture—hence, perhaps the newer recipe which calls for the same motion with Herbsaint.
Anyway, there was just one difficulty with serving Sazeracs at our party: We couldn’t find Peychaud’s Bitters or Herbsaint anywhere within 300 miles of our home.
So B did what he usually does: He went straight to the top and made our problem known to the president of the Sazerac Company, which coincidentally sells all the ingredients for the cocktail. He must have been persuasive because a few mornings later, we awoke to find a handsome wooden crate on our doorstep. In addition to several bottles of Peychaud’s and Herbsaint, there was a fifth of the Sazerac Company’s first run of straight rye whiskey (bottle no. 903 out of 1,000, to be exact).
On an attached tag were the following words: “Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus. Merry Christmas!” A good time was had by all.
I hate to play Scrooge, but am obliged to report that David Embury didn’t think much of the cocktail. “Even among my New Orleans friends, I have yet to find a Sazerac addict,” he sniffed. He added, “…anyone at all familiar with liquors who has ever tasted this drink essentially knows that it is merely an Old Fashioned made with Peychaud’s Bitters…and flavored with a dash of absinthe.”
Of course, if you, like B and me, think the Old Fashioned—especially made with rye instead of bourbon—is one of the world’s great cocktails, you’ll love the Sazerac.
The Sazerac Company’s official recipe is a bit complicated. It calls for chilling one glass packed with ice while, in a second glass, crushing a sugar cube with a few drops of Peychaud’s and stirring in the liquor. You then discard the ice in the first glass, rinse it with Herbsaint, add fresh ice and pour the alcohol over it. Top with a strip of lemon peel.
And this brings us, finally, to the Meyer lemon.
About a month ago, while dining at Bouley Restaurant in New York, B decided to see if the bartender was up to the challenge of making a Sazerac. He needn’t have worried: Not only was the cocktail expertly made, but it arrived in a glass with a broad strip of Meyer Lemon zest resting atop a single large ice cube.
The Meyer lemon turned a fine drink into one that was downright amazing. We could see the fragrant oils beading on the surface of the golden skin, and the aroma that wafted from the glass was citrusy and bittersweet, with enticing floral overtones. The fragrance seemed to soften the flavors, harmonizing all the ingredients, creating a cocktail that in the end was smoothly elegant.
In the waning days of winter, a drink garnished with Meyer lemon zest might just make you feel that spring really is around the corner. Maybe that, and a pot of daffodils.
Here’s a simplified recipe for a “modern” Sazerac. I’ve eliminated the anise-scented Herbsaint, since even a drop overwhelms the fragrance of the Meyer lemon, and to make the mixing easier, substituted simple syrup for the sugar cube. You can always use bourbon, but my choice is rye.
New Orleans Sazerac with Meyer Lemon Zest
To make one cocktail
1 teaspoon simple syrup
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
1-1/2 ounces straight rye (or bourbon if you prefer)
1 large strip Meyer lemon zest
1 large ice cube
Chill a short glass in the freezer.
In a mixing glass, combine the simple syrup and Peychaud’s bitters. Stir briskly. Add the rye and, again, stir briskly to combine.
Place a single large ice cube in the chilled glass. Pour the rye mixture over the ice. Top with a big strip of Meyer lemon zest, slightly bruised to release its fragrance.