Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: The Sazerac Cocktail

The Sazerac is the traditional New Orleans cocktail. In fact, as of last week, it is the official cocktail of New Orleans.

The esteemed Sazerac combines the spicy flavor of rye whiskey with the anise-licorice of Absinthe and New Orleans' own Peychaud’s bitters. Combine that with sugar and a lemon twist and you're on your way to an amazing cocktail experience.


Absinthe or substitute
Rye Whiskey
Peychaud's Bitters (Peychaud's bitters are difficult to find, but are available at kegworks.com)
Angostura Bitters (Not part of the traditional recipe, but something suggested by Morganthaler which I think works very well)
Sugar Cube
Twist of lemon

To make a Sazerac:

For instructions, read Morganthaler here and here, watch McMillian and check out Drinkboy.

The Sazerac is one of my all time favorite cocktails. It makes sense, I suppose, given that I'm a big fan of both of the major ingredients: rye whiskey and Absinthe.

More than anything, this drink is about spice. There is something wonderful that happens when rye, with its spicy, savory flavors meets that deep licorice taste that you get from the combination of absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters. I really do think this is the king of cocktails.

On my quest for the perfect Sazerac, I experimented with the following three variations.

The Rittenhouse-Lucid Sazerac

Both Morganthaler and McMillian use Sazerac 6 year old rye (Sazerac is both the name of this cocktail and an excellent brand of rye whiskey produced by the Buffalo Trace distillery), but I'm all out of Baby Saz, so
I did my first batch with Rittenhouse 100. Since Absinthe is now legal, I decided to use the real thing instead of Herbsainte or another substitute. For this batch, I used Lucid.

Rittenhouse is a little less spicy than Saz, so I imagine the spice level was somewhat lower, but the Rittenhouse married well with the Absinthe and gave the drink the perfect balance of rye, licorice and sweetness. This was a really wonderful Sazerac which highlighted the flavors of both rye and anise. The sugar and lemon further bring these flavors to the fore.

The Handy-St. George Sazerac

This time, I went for the Cadillac Sazerac, with Thomas Handy Rye, a barrel strength version of the Sazerac brand rye and St. George Absinthe. Now it's true that Handy is a fine rye worthy of sipping neat, but its namesake, Thomas H. Handy, was the nineteenth century New Orleans bar owner who invented the modern Sazerac by substituting rye whiskey for the brandy that had previously been used in the cocktail. Given that history, it only seems appropriate to add Handy whiskey to the cocktail.

Since I was using the barrel strength Handy to make this Saz, I used only 1 1/2 ounces of rye and a half ounce of water.

Interestingly, the bold flavor of Handy didn't come through as strongly as I would have guessed. That may be in part due to the fact that St. George is a much stronger flavored Absinthe than Lucid. Even though there is only a smattering of Absinthe in the drink, I found myself tasting more of the tongue numbing Absinthe and less of the interplay between rye and anise. The combination didn't really work for me the way the Rittenhouse-Lucid version did.

Interestingly, when sipping Rye neat I prefer Handy to Rittenhouse and when drinking Absinthe on its own, I prefer St. George to Lucid...it just goes to show that what you like on its own may not make the best cocktail.

The Smoky Sazerac

The strong flavors and counterpoint of the Sazerac cocktail got me thinking...what would happen if you replaced the spice of rye with another strong flavor, say smoke. I have a lot of very smoky Scotch to choose from, but I ended up picking the Bruichladdich PC5 for this experiment. The PC5 has a cleaner smoke with less ash, char and medicine than some more traditional peated Scotches. For this reason, I thought it would work better in the cocktail than, say, a Lagavulin or Laphroaig.

To make this new-fangled Sazerac I went back to Lucid Absinthe. PC5 is another high alcohol spirit, so I again cut the proportion to 1 1/2 ounces and added 1/2 ounce of water.

Oh...my...God!! This is an amazing drink. My hunch on flavors, though it seemed pretty crazy, was spot on. You might think all of these flavors would clash, but in fact, they meld perfectly. The smoke of the Scotch becomes more understated, marrying well with both the anise and the sweetness of the sugar. The slight acid of the lemon twist pulls the entire combination together. Upon considering it further, it makes perfect sense. Shanghainese cuisine, of which I'm a big fan, often marries these same flavors (smoke, sweetness and anise) with phenomenal results.

With one sip of this concoction, I knew I was drinking something special. Take heed mixologists, you should make this drink! Now, PC5 is a bit hard to find, but the drink should work with Lagavulin 12 year old, Black Bottle or maybe even a Caol Ila.

What fun we've had experimenting with Sazeracs. Something old, something new, something smoky, nothing blue.

Next Wednesday: The Manhattan


Anonymous said...

I like the smoky variation, Steve, I'll have to give this a shot at work tomorrow. I was served an Irish variation recently with the Bushmills 1608 that I enjoyed very much. Here's to further experimentation!

sku said...

Thanks for stopping by Jeff. Let me know what you think.

Hmm, Irish Sazerac. I would think the subtlety of an Irish would get lost in the anise, but I am intrigued. I'll give it a try.

sam k said...

Just found this. Incredible post, Sku!

sku said...

Thanks Sam. Glad you liked it.

jcg9779 said...

Great post, Sku! I've never had a Sazerac cocktail before, but this has me wanting to go pick up some Absinthe so i can give it a try!