In 2008, the Sazerac was declared the official cocktail of New Orleans. This spicy, liquorice-flavored mixture of sugar, rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, Herbsaint, and a lemon twist has its home at the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel. But its origins lie in a pharmacy just a few blocks away in the French Quarter, near the intersection of Royal and St. Louis streets.
There, in 1832, Antoine Amedee Peychaud prepared and sold his family’s bitters recipe. In the nineteenth century, many pharmacists mixed their own bitters, which were used to treat all manner of ailments. To make his version more palatable, Peychaud mixed his anise-flavored bitters with brandy and sugar. Peychaud’s medicinal drink became widely popular and soon crossed over from something you would order from a pharmacist to something you would order in a bar.
One such location was the Sazerac Bar, so named because it served Sazerac du Forts et Fils Cognac. Patrons would order the mixture made with the namesake cognac, and soon the drink became known as a Sazerac. In the 1880s, a terrible disease destroyed France’s vineyards, creating a cognac shortage, so the owner of the Sazerac Bar swapped out the cognac with more easily obtainable American rye whiskey. He also added a little absinthe to the cocktail. When absinthe was banned in the United States in the early 1900s, a local absinthe maker, Marion Legendre, created a substitute called Herbsaint, and the current recipe of rye, sugar, Peychaud’s and Herbsaint was set.
During Prohibition, the Sazerac Bar closed and Marion Legendre stopped producing his Herbsaint. Peychaud’s Bitters, however, remained available as a medicine. When that dark time ended, the bar relocated to the Roosevelt Hotel, and Legendre restarted his Herbsaint business. By the mid-twentieth century, the Sazerac had become a bit of a relic, something people might make on special occasions or during holidays. But as the craft cocktail gained momentum in the early twenty-first century, the Sazerac saw a resurgence, and it now appears on menus across the city.
Not only has the drink remained popular, but so have the ingredients. Russ Bergeron, beverage director at the Sazerac Bar, once commented that if you open the liquor cabinet in most New Orleans homes, you will find bottles of Peychaud’s Bitters and Herbsaint. They may be a little dusty, he says, but they will be there! You should drink at least one Sazerac cocktail while you are in New Orleans, and the Sazerac Bar is as good a place as any to start.
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