The first time I had a Sazerac cocktail I had to make it myself, and it took me a couple of years to do it.
I didn’t find out about this enduring New Orleans classic by stumbling upon it in an old-line French Quarter bar, as pretty much everyone else who knew the drink back then did: while there had been a time when you could safely order a Sazerac in just about any cocktail bar in America, that time was long gone. Outside of its hometown, where despite being at least a decade over legal drinking age I had shamefully not yet been, the Sazerac was history—which is where it was lurking when it first leapt into my imagination.
OK, “lurking” is perhaps a little misleading: can one lurk in the pages of the New York Times? Because that’s where I first noticed it. I must have come across the drink before—it has a cameo in the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die, and I had certainly seen that prime slice of 1970s film-cheez more than once, and it was certainly listed in the two or three well-thumbed old bartender’s guides I had on my bookshelf. But it didn’t really register until January, 1992, when the paper’s wine writer, Frank Prial, dedicated a column to the late, great A. J. Liebling, chronicler of the sporting life and gourmand extraordinaire.
In it, Prial quoted a 1952 New Yorker article in which Liebling describes the lunch routine of Dominick O’Malley, publisher of the New Orleans Item, as executed one day back around the turn of the century and related to him by an old sport of his acquaintance who had been there to witness it:
“His ‘prandial relaxation’…began ‘at the bar of the St. Charles Hotel, where he had a three-bagger of Sazeracs,’ moved on to Hyman’s bar on Common Street ‘where he increased his aperitif by four silver gin fizzes and after that over to Farbacher’s saloon on Royal where he had a schooner or two of Boston Club punch.’ After this workout, O’Malley strolled on to Antoine’s where he consumed an immense meal accompanied by ‘a magnum of Chateau La Mission-Haut-Brion of the year of the comet ,’ a dipper of Calvados from a cask brought to Louisiana from Normandy in 1721, and an espresso fetched by the maitre d’hotel from ‘a dive operated by the Mafia.’”
Now, Silver Gin Fizzes I more or less understood: they had to be something along the lines of the lunch-hour Ramos Gin Fizzes I used to sometimes order at the terrace bar of the Century City Hotel in Los Angeles, back in 1985 when I was a file clerk for a law firm in one of the nearby office towers. Calvados I knew, albeit not so very well. The Boston Club Punch sounded complicated, and I wasn’t particularly interested in punch anyway, while as a mere graduate student I could put such rarefied pleasures as comet-year Haut-Brion right out of my mind. (Espresso from a mobbed-up dive, however, I could get pretty much anywhere in my part of Brooklyn.)
But that “three-bagger of Sazeracs” intrigued me mightily. The Sazerac, when I looked it up, seemed right up my alley. But what the hell was a bagger? Was a three-bagger something that Sazeracs came in, like cans of Miller Lite came in six-ring holders? Were there also six-baggers and twelve-baggers? This being before the Internet, it took me a while to find out that “three-bagger” was nothing more than old baseball slang for a triple.
By then, though, “three-bagger of Sazeracs” had become a catchphrase for my wife, Karen, and me. It was the all-purpose, over-the-top sporty drink order, used as a punchline: “Would you like anything else, sir? —Oh, just a three-bagger of Sazeracs.” “Let me slip out of this Dry Martini and into a three-bagger of Sazeracs.” “A loaf of bread, a three-bagger of Sazeracs and thou, dear.”
Of course, our devotion to the TBOS was purely theoretical, because even if we managed to find a bartender in New York who was willing to look up the recipe, track down a barspoon and a couple of Old-Fashioned glasses, and take a crack at mixing one, we weren’t going to get any such thing as a real Sazerac.
A Sazerac, as by now just about every drinker knows, is made of straight rye whiskey with sugar and Peychaud’s Bitters, served in an absinthe-rinsed glass. In New York in the early 1990s, there was for all intents and purposes only one brand of rye whiskey available, Old Overholt, and even that was damned hard to find, particularly in bars. Absinthe was, of course, illegal and Herbsaint, the approved Crescent City substitute, hadn’t been seen in the city for years and probably even decades.
Okay, in a pinch you could use bourbon or even Canadian whisky instead of the rye. For the absinthe, you could use Pernod—or, if you were really obsessed, you could try to make your own, after a fashion, by going across the river to New Jersey and buying a couple of bottles of Everclear and then infusing them with wormwood, hyssop, angelica, mint and anise, all purchased from the Wiccan herbalist on Bleecker Street. (I was that obsessed.)
The real problem, however, lay in the Peychaud’s Bitters. By this point—late 1993 or 1994—we had read William Grimes’s groundbreaking new history of the cocktail, Straight Up or On the Rocks, and knew that without this old New Orleans tonic there could be no real Sazerac. But just try finding it in New York City.
No liquor store had them—back then, city liquor stores didn’t stock bitters. That was for grocery stores. It was useless even looking for them at the local Key Food or Gristedes, though; those places were fine for Angostura Bitters, Rose’s Lime Juice or cocktail onions, but that was it. For something like Peychaud’s, you’d have to try the specialty stores; the kinds of places that stocked black truffles from France, Scottish smoked salmon and bottled condiments from the far reaches of the earth, or at least Bermuda. (Outerbridge’s Sherry Peppers, anyone?)
In a normal city, this would make for a quick search: you’d go to the one place, you’d go to their cross-town rival, and be done. But New York had an ungodly number of such joints. Balducci’s, Dean & DeLuca and Zabar’s were the most famous, but there were scads of others scattered throughout the more genteel parts of Manhattan and inner Brooklyn. You never knew what sort of odd, old-school things they would stock. Maybe even, as more than one of these places told me when I called them—they had their own section in the Yellow Pages—a bottle of Peychaud’s Bitters.
Of course, when I actually went to the shop I’d invariably find that they did not have that bottle any more. In fact, as I learned after badgering one of them to follow up on an attempt to reorder, the reason I couldn’t find Peychaud’s was that they were no longer distributed in New York and hadn’t been for at least a decade. So much for our Sazeracs.
Thank God for celebrity chefs (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write). At the time, Karen was working as maitre d’ at Larry Forgione’s An American Place, which was among the top restaurants in the city. Forgione, a genial bear of a man, stood with the likes of Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower as one of the pioneers of the revolution the 1970s had brought in American cooking, and he had a great many friends. One of them was Emeril Lagasse, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, via New Orleans, then perhaps the most famous chef in America, thanks to a wildly successful show on the fledgling Food Network.
One night, Emeril came into the restaurant to see his friend Larry and enjoy some of his fine, fine cooking, and after his meal he and Karen got to talking. He was easy to talk to, pleasant and unassuming, and after a while Karen mentioned, in passing, our quest for Peychaud’s. Two days later, a FedEx package showed up at the restaurant, addressed to her. It was from New Orleans, and in it were two large, pint bottles of Peychaud’s Bitters.
A three-bagger of Sazeracs is pushing the maximum recommended dosage for that particular combination of chemicals, as we discovered the next day. Over the next twenty-three or twenty-four years I’ve made literally thousands of Sazeracs. None, however, have ever tasted better than those first six. Thanks, Emeril!
Here’s the Sazerac as I made it back in the 1990s.
- 2 oz Old Overholt Straight rye whiskey
- 1 Sugar cube
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
- .25 oz Absinthe
- 1 tsp Water
Garnish: Lemon peel twist
Take two 6-oz Old-Fashioned glasses. Fill one with ice and set it to chill. In the other, muddle the sugar cube and the Peychaud’s in 1 teaspoon of water. Add the rye, fill with cracked ice and stir well. Dump the ice from first glass and add the absinthe. Swirl it around to cover the inside. Pour out the excess. Strain the contents of the second glass into the first. Twist a lemon peel over the top.