The moment I first tasted a Sazerac something inside clicked and I knew nothing would ever be the same. Even though several years have passed, I know exactly where I was and the circumstances. It is the same for many people. The Sazerac just does that to people.

On a Christmas Eve many years ago, when I was just starting to delve into all things cocktail, Tracy's dad was telling me about a magical drink he had consumed once upon a time in New Orleans. In his tale, a bartender expertly flipped Herbsaint into the air to coat a cocktail glass before adding the brilliant pink-tinged whiskey. Such a presentation certainly influenced him, as I am sure it did many others. The bottle of Herbsaint now residing in his liquor cabinet is a testament to the drink's impression. That is how I first heard of the Sazerac. But there is more—with classic cocktails there is always more.

A myth proclaims the Sazerac the very first cocktail, though this is not true. However, though the Sazerac was popularized sometime in the 1850s in New Orleans, it is actually a variation of the original cocktail, now known as the Old Fashioned, consisting of a spirit, bitters, sugar, and some water (usually as ice). The early Sazerac (cognac, sugar, Peychaud's bitters), notably without the absinthe rinse, firmly fits into this category. The bitters made it unique. Antoine Amedie Peychaud, Sr. brought his secret family recipe for the bitters with him when he fled Haiti. But it was his son, Antoine Amedie Peychaud, Jr., who made them famous. By the late 1830s, Peychaud was producing his bitters just down the street from what would become the Sazerac Coffee House, where the house cocktail was the Sazerac, thus named because it used Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac.

In the 1870s when the phylloxxera epidemic essentially wiped out the vineyards in Europe, cognac became hard to find. Americans' tastes were forced to change to the local, more readily available rye, and so it became the base of a Sazerac. As absinthe became more fashionable, the absinthe rinse was introduced. When absinthe became illegal in 1915, pastis was used as a substitute. But after Prohibition, a new anise-flavored spirit Herbsaint, created and manufactured by New Orleans natives, became a key ingredient.

Of course I knew nothing about the cocktail's long history as I prepared for our next visit to Tracy's parents' house. I came equipped with a recipe and a fresh bottle of Peychaud's bitters and Sazeracs were on the menu (although, I had no plans to toss Herbsaint in the air). If you have no idea what you are doing, Sazeracs are quite complicated. With my cocktail glasses packed with ice, I remember muddling the bitters and sugar with the back of a butter knife. Then I added Bourbon, probably Maker's Mark of all things, and ice. I stirred and strained this into my Herbsaint-rinsed martini glasses and inexpertly broke several lemon twists before plopping them in. I can hear the purists cringing at my beginner's mistakes, which were many. But there is a lesson
here . . . even though I made a barely recognizable Sazerac, it was still the best thing I had ever tasted.

Now, looking back on those early days in home bartending, I have to smile. We all have to start somewhere, and I know that the importance lies on whether what ends up in the glass tastes good. I am no purist. I believe that a recipe can change, that substitutions are sometimes necessary, and that expensive booze isn't always the best way to solve a problem. But there are some things that just taste better the old way, and taste is everything. And the truth is, at least in our house, rye is better than bourbon, syrup is easier than sugar, and if you want more lemon oils in your drink, throw that twist in. And the glass, well if it is clean, use it. But if it's not pretty, don't take a picture.


2 ounces quality rye
1/2 ounce simple syrup
2-4 dashes Peychaud's bitters

In a mixing glass, stir rye, syrup and bitters. Rinse a chilled whiskey glass, or rocks glass, with Herbsaint and add rye-syrup-bitters mixture. Express the oils from a strip of lemon peel over the drink and coat the rim. Lose the twist.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Templeton Rye and Herbsaint Legendre.