A good drink evokes a sense of space, reminds you of a place and time. The best are iconic to a location and timeless — the cool urbanity of a whisky, vermouth and brandied cherries or the gentility of bourbon, mint and chilled silver.
New Orleans is a town that is equally steeped in liquor and history and no drink serves its home like a Sazerac. The Hurricane services addled tourists just fine even though they’ll stow and forget those souvenir glasses before their flight delivers them home. The Sazerac endures, rises above the crowd and the noise with a quiet nobility.
Though I claim North Carolina when people ask, the truth actually starts much deeper south. My earliest memories are datelined with Gulfport, Mobile and Houston, fed by shrimp, crab and oysters, hot slow summers punctuated by thunderstorms and the occasional hurricane. I first met Bourbon Street on my dad’s shoulders on my fifth birthday but mostly remember the zoo.
New Orleans is a mutt of a town, proud of its varied history and neglected by its more boastful siblings. It’s a study in contrast, wealth and poverty, simpleness and complexity, pride and neglect, sweet and savory. An expertly crafted Sazerac evokes all of these, first improvised out of the cultural gumbo that is the Big Easy.
The ingredients belie this — American Rye whisky, Peychaud’s bitters born in the Caribbean, a lump of sugar, a hint of French absinthe and a cut of lemon peel. Stirred with ice to temper the whisky but strained not to water it down, the chilled glass condensing the humid night. I almost never make them myself as it’s rare I ever have all of the ingredients on hand.
Don’t be embarrassed to put on some Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet or Dixieland Jazz Band to strike the proper tone. Personally, I’ve never much cottoned to Zydeco, but it’ll do in a pinch.
Fill an old fashioned glass with ice and set to the side.
In a tall glass or shaker, drop in the sugar lump and add three dashes of Peychaud’s bitters. Don’t substitute Angostura bitters here, Monsieur Peychaud invented the cocktail, you owe the old creole apothecary the dignity of mixing it correctly.
Muddle to break up the sugar, then add one and a half ounces of rye whisky, not bourbon, which lacks the spice of rye.
Fill the shaker with ice then stir, don’t shake, for twenty seconds.
Discard the ice from the old fashioned glass, add just a sip of absinthe and roll the glass at a 38 degree angle to coat the inside. Toss any lingering absinthe.
Strain the whisky into the old fashioned glass, twist the lemon peel over the top to release some of its oils then run it along the rim of the glass. Throw out the lemon peel, it only gets in the way.