To my mind, displays of humor during a crisis evince a certain resilience and creativity. I found the idea of the “quarantini” — a martini variation to drink under quarantine — uplifting. That seems a lifetime ago. I am comforted, though, by virtual cocktail parties, with people using video conference apps in a novel way so as to drink not-quite-alone.
At the same time, some communities are being much harder hit by the pandemic than others. New York City is top of mind for many of us who have friends or family there. Another city that has been hard hit is New Orleans, a place that has had more than its share of heartache in recent times thanks to hurricanes and floods. Thus this column is dedicated to a cocktail that was invented in the Big Easy and, in a glass, captures some of its mystery, history, and love of life.
The Sazerac was born during the first half of the 19th century and was named after a brand of cognac popular in those days. One key ingredient of the Sazerac was absinthe, the anise-flavored spirit invented in Switzerland and popularized in France among bohemians, artists, and others whom we might refer to today as “creatives.”
Absinthe contained grand wormwood, which itself contained trace amounts of a compound called thujone, thought to be hallucinogenic and highly addictive. Absinthe, with its neon green color, gained such notoriety that, by the early 1900s, it had been banned in all but a handful of countries. It was blamed for murders, insanity, and all sorts of social maladies. It’s no surprise that a movement to ban absinthe coincided with the rise of abstinence movements in Western Europe and America.
Other anise-flavored spirits and liqueurs replaced absinthe. Pernod and Ricard became the most widely used anisettes. And in New Orleans, Herbsaint was invented to keep the Sazeracs flowing. It is drier than the French liquors.
By the way, absinthe has recently been absolved of its sins. Studies showed that back in the day absinthe was being distilled at up to 130 to 140 proof, and it was those proof levels, not the hallucinogenics, that were the real culprit. Absinthe was re-legalized and became widely available in the U.S. again in 2007. The proof levels in modern absinthe are in keeping with normal distillation processes, and there are quite a number of brands available, including small batch, artisanal bottlings.
Another New Orleans-based ingredient in a Sazerac is Peychaud’s bitters, also invented there in the 19th century by the apothecary Antoine Peychaud. You can use Angostura or other good bitters. Nowadays, bourbon and rye have largely replaced cognac as the principal liquor in a Sazerac. If you’re feeling creative (and you have a super well-stocked bar), use a combination of both.
makes one cocktail
Splash of absinthe, Herbsaint, or Pernod
2 ounces rye, bourbon, cognac, or a combination
1/2 ounce simple syrup*
2-4 dashes bitters (Peychaud’s or Angostura)
Lemon peel, as a garnish
Chill a rocks glass (also called an old-fashioned glass) with ice or in the fridge. Splash a second rocks glass with the absinthe and swirl around the glass, discarding any excess. Add rye, simple syrup, and bitters. Add ice and stir (this is one cocktail that should never be shaken — you want it brilliant, not cloudy). Strain into the chilled glass and garnish with a twist of lemon peel.
Raise a toast to New Orleans and enjoy responsibly.
*Why not make a pint or so of this ahead and keep it in the fridge? Heat equal parts sugar and water until the sugar dissolves, then cool.