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Robb Report Vices

A Taste of New Orleans

Shaun Tolson

On June 23, 2008, the Louisiana House of Representatives appointed the Sazerac the official cocktail for the city of New Orleans. According to Russ Bergeron, beverage manager at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, the complex libation—a seamless marriage of sweet, bitter, and herbaceous flavors—is one of the oldest cocktails in the world; and while stories suggest differing dates for the cocktail’s birth, most historians agree that the modern iteration of the drink can be traced back to the mid 19th century.

During its early days served along the bars of New Orleans’s saloons, the Sazerac was a Cognac-based cocktail, which harkens back to its earliest days in France. It wasn’t until the European phylloxera epidemic—a plague that destroyed much of France’s vineyards over a 25-year period during the late 19th century—that the cocktail’s roots shifted from Cognac to rye whiskey. That whiskey iteration is the one that has enjoyed a renaissance, thanks to the classic-cocktail movement that began sweeping across the United States about a decade ago. Naturally, there are some enthusiasts who prefer the elder version of the drink, but as Bergeron explains, the chilled glass of Cognac with Peychaud’s bitters and a dissolved sugar cube lacks the complexity that whiskey can provide. “The rye works better in the drink because it’s not as sweet,” he says. “I like to toe that line right in the middle between bitter and sweet; that’s where it needs to be.”

On paper, the Sazerac is a simple cocktail to construct—an absinthe- or Herbsaint-coated rocks glass filled with a strained mixture of rye whiskey, dissolved sugar (or simple syrup), and a few generous dashes of Peychaud’s bitters. But as most Sazerac aficionados have experienced, not all Sazeracs are created equal. It all comes down to proportion, says Bergeron, who previously worked the Sazerac Bar at the hotel.  “Don’t add too much sugar initially,” he instructs. “If you use one sugar cube, that’s enough. You can always add more if you need to, but you can’t subtract.”

Conversely, he advocates a heavy hand with the Peychaud’s bitters. Most published recipes only call for a dash or two, but that’s likely not enough. A proper Sazerac should be closer to red than to pink.

Sadly, Sazerac devotees who make the pilgrimage to the Big Easy in hopes of raising their glasses at the cocktail’s birthplace are destined for disappointment. That establishment, the Merchants Exchange Coffee House, shut its doors long ago. Fortunately, New Orleans enjoys a lenient open-container law, which means Sazerac Bar patrons could take their beverages to go; and should they want to stroll down memory lane, Exchange Place, the alley where Merchants Exchange once sat, is only a 5-minute walk from the Roosevelt Hotel.

We admit, pouring the contents of a chilled rocks glass into an incongruous plastic cup seems a bit sacrilegious, and asking your tuxedoed bartender to give your red Solo cup an Herbsaint rinse likely won’t go over well. But it never hurts to ask.

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