Mardi Gras is cancelled this year, but there’s no reason you can’t celebrate the triumphant spirit of New Orleans vis-a-vis a brilliant drink: the Sazerac. It’s a drink with a complicated, hotly debated history, but most accounts trace its provenance to New Orleans (which will issue forth a sad trombone this Fat Tuesday, February 16th). And our 2020 Chefs’ Collective member Alba Huerta, a superstar of the drinks world whose cookbook Julep we love, has the recipe you need.
The basics of a Sazerac are simple: rye, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, and an absinthe rinse. This is the drink for those of you who tuck into an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, or hot toddy after a long, hard day. It is a strong drink for strong people. We love Alba’s riff on the classic, which incorporates Armagnac, a rustic, slightly fruity French brandy that tends to get sweet and caramelly as it ages. Do seek out Abbott’s Aromatic Bitters, too, which you can use in your Manhattans. And don’t skip chilling the cocktail coupe; this is a beautifully aromatic drink you’ll want to sip slowly and appreciate in all its nuanced glory. Happy Mardi Gras!
Many take it as gospel that the original Sazerac was a cognac-based cocktail created in antebellum New Orleans. But the truth is elusive. Others say that the Sazerac morphed into a rye whiskey–based cocktail primarily because the phylloxera blight nearly obliterated France’s wine- and grape-based spirits industry, drying up the cognac supply and forcing improvisation. Still others assert that the Sazerac was always a rye-based cocktail. Bits of each theory are supported by what we do know about New Orleans in the middle of the nineteenth century. The busy port city received shiploads of French spirits, so it’s conceivable that cognac was in sufficient supply to inspire the cocktail—if indeed New Orleans is even its birth city. (Even this aspect of the story is debated in some circles, while in others the presence of absinthe is all that’s needed to prove the Sazerac’s Big Easy provenance.)
Wherever or from whatever it was born, a well-made Sazerac showcases all that’s right with the classic cocktail’s spirit- bitters-sugar-water formula, while its obscure origins inspire people like me to consider what other spirits might have appeared in its earliest incarnations—or might be used today. These musings led me to Armagnac, a more rustic style of brandy than cognac. The result was amazing, even before I tweaked the formula to adapt to Armagnac’s austerity. That’s where the barrel-aged Abbott’s bitters come in: they are really important to round out the flavor.
Barware: 5.5-ounce cocktail coupe, chilled
2 cups raw turbinado sugar
1 cup water
Absinthe mist* or 1⁄4 ounce absinthe, for rinsing the coupe
1 ounce 100-proof bonded rye whiskey
1 ounce Armagnac, such as Marie Duffau Napoleon
1 barspoon Turbinado Syrup
4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 dashes Abbott’s bitters
1 swath lemon zest
Make Turbinado Syrup:
Combine the turbinado sugar and water in a saucepan and stir to combine. Place over medium heat and bring to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat and simmer until the sugar is completely dissolved and the syrup is slightly thickened, about 3 minutes.
Remove from the heat and let cool. Transfer to a glass container with a tight-fitting lid and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Makes about 2 1/4 cups or 18 ounces.
Mist the glass with the absinthe or pour in 1⁄4 ounce absinthe and turn to coat the sides and bottom thoroughly. Set aside. Pour the rye, Armagnac, 1 bar spoon Turbinado Syrup, Peychaud’s bitters, and Abbott’s bitters into a mixing glass. Fill the glass with ice cubes. Stir 20 times with a barspoon. Strain into the chilled glass. Garnish with the lemon zest.
* Mist of bitters
In certain circumstances, a mister is a perfectly efficient way to use bitters, such as Angostura, Herbsaint, or absinthe. The mister distributes the bitters completely and efficiently either into a glass as a rinse or over a cocktail as a garnish. We use Misto sprayers; a glass atomizer is a good option for home use. Alternatively, use 2 or 3 dashes of bitters as garnish or 1⁄4 ounce for rinsing the glass.
You’ll find this recipe and more like it in, Julep: Southern Cocktails Refashioned, by Alba Huerta with Marah Stets (Lorena Jones Books, 2018).