Dig Baton Rouge

History of The Sazerac

By Joey Goar

I call myself a mad scientist, most call me a mixologist, but what I really am is a historian. When people come to see me, they come for a drink. I give them that, but I also like to give somewhat of a lesson. 

Last week, I explained the history of the cocktail. It was the first of its kind, but it created numerous offshoots. One of these is still quite famous to this day: the Sazerac.

The earliest references to the Sazerac begin in 1850. A man by the name of Sewell Taylor sold the bar he owned, called the Merchants Exchange Coffee House, and started importing liquor. The man he sold it to was Aaron Bird, a barman from the Merchants Exchange.

As a favor to his old boss, Bird began ordering and using product from Sewell in his bar. One of these spirits was a Cognac by the name of Sazerac de Forge. In his pursuit to make a signature cocktail for him new bar, Bird created a cocktail using this new Cognac, and bitters made by local apothecary Antoine Peychaud.

Remember what made an original cocktail? Water, sugar, spirit and bitters. Bird wanted to distinguish his new creation from every other cocktail available, so he named it the Sazerac.

At this point in time, Cognac was bright, fruit forward and lively. Peychaud’s bitters fit the spirit perfectly due to the slightly sweet taste and anise notes it carried.

In a short amount of time, the Sazerac cocktail gained so much popularity in New Orleans that Bird changed the name of the bar to The Sazerac Coffee House.

Sadly, tragedy struck in the most peculiar form across the sea in the mid to late 1800s.

Sometime in the late 1850s, avid botanists in Victorian England collected and brought back samples of American grape vines to their home. They brought with them a crafty little bugger as well.

Phylloxera is a near microscopic bug related to the aphid that was native to North America. This cheeky little bastard lives on the root stocks and feeds on the grapevines, all the while excreting a substance that stops the vine from healing. American vines had developed a defense mechanism for the crass little cad by secreting a sticky substance that clogged its mouth.

Sadly, European vines had no such defense, and were nearly eradicated by the pest. It seems like the British truly do screw up everything they touch. Bollocks.

Since the grape vines were virtually lost, wine and Cognac became increasingly more difficult to procure. This is a gap that absinthe tried to fill, but that is a story for another time.

Back in New Orleans, Cognac was first blended with the next most popular spirit, rye whiskey. While it was still a primarily Cognac based drink at first, necessity is the mother of all invention.

Absinthe hopped the pond sometime in the 1860s and was liked well enough for the wealthy elite to start experimenting.

By 1869, Cognac was almost completely absent in the Sazerac when the bar was purchased by Thomas H. Handy. In 1873, it was abandoned altogether. That pseudo-modern version of the Sazerac is the only recipe many bartenders know, if they know of it at all.

If you ever want to indulge your curiosity as to how the original Sazerac might have tasted, feel free to swing by for a drink. I essentially live in my corner, Les Bons Vivants, at the Cove. I am the resident mad scientist/mixologist/historian and I have quite the assortment of toys to play with. I also have a plethora of stories to tell.


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