My Favourite Cocktail: The Sazerac

This post originally appeared as part of Social and Cocktail’s ‘My Favourite Cocktail’ series.

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It may seem strange, coming from a Scotch whisky enthusiast who writes under the name of House of Bourbon, that my favourite cocktail is commonly made with rye whiskey, and before that even used grain-less cognac as a base. But we dipsologists can be a contrary bunch, and as it is best to approach tipular fixing with an open-mind, I feel no compunction in announcing that my favourite cocktail is the Sazerac.

Now the Sazerac isn’t the sort of brightly coloured drink you see fooling around with sparklers and fancy fruit embellishments. In fact, in its purest form it should be served without any garnish at all. And that is the first limb of its charm. Before serving your Sazerac straight up in an unmarked glass the bartender will pause to sell you the dummy of a twist of lemon peel. After expressing the oil he will whisk it away, with suitable distain, and allow the rich flavour of the rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters and absinthe to have untrammelled control of your senses.

The second charm of the Sazerac is the ritual by which it is prepared. You cannot simply toss everything into a shaker, rattle to a count of thirty and strain. A Sazerac is built from the bottom up and then inverted into a pre-chilled, pre-rinsed glass (or in my preference, goblet).

Thirdly, the Sazerac has appeal because it is a survivor. It has faced some tough times in the 150 years or so of its life. First came the phylloxera epidemic that devastated northern Europe’s wine crops in the 1870s (so cognac became rye). Then, in 1912, came the US ban on absinthe (so absinthe became Herbsaint). Then came Prohibition (and the drink withered, or at least all the ingredients apart from the sugar cube and the lemon peel were likely made in an old bathtub). Finally, after the blessed relief of the 21st Amendment, Sazerac aficionados noticed with despair that most of the USA’s rye distilleries had not survived the great drought and so the rye became bourbon.

After a history as complicated as this, it is no small miracle that the complex Sazerac, now back to its purest 1850 recipe has survived, nay flourished, and that can be put down to the fourth inherent and most profound joy of the drink: the combination of the butch, spiced notes of rye tempered with the sweet, cinnamon of the absinthe and bitters. A bracing, complex marriage enhanced by the markedly apparent suggestion of fresh lemon, all contained in the mysteriously rich red-brown tipular.

Fix the House of Bourbon Sazerac as follows:

  1. Fill an old fashioned glass with ice and leave it to stand.
  2. In a second old fashioned glass muddle a sugar cube and five dashes of Peychaud’s bitters.
  3. Add a large measure of rye whiskey and a handful of ice cubes to the sugar and bitters solution and stir well.
  4. Discard the ice in the first glass and rinse it with a teaspoon or so of absinthe until the inside is coated.
  5. Strain the whiskey, sugar and bitters into the absinthe-rinsed glass.
  6. Garnish with the oil from a twist of lemon and discard the peel.
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Rusty Nail

Photo courtesy of Clearly Ambiguous, some rights reserved

Rugby and drinking go hand in hand, and you need look no further than The Famous Grouse’s long association with the Scottish national team to know that whisky and rugby are a natural combination.

My early rugby watching was done in sunny south London rather than the frozen north, so rugby for me was always associated with beer.  Normally the warm flat stuff that men with beards drink – remember the Tetley’s Bitter Cup and Greene King as ‘official beer’ of the England rugby team?   Even when I moved north, much of my rugby watching was accompanied by a plastic pint cup of lager for the Heineken Cup and occasionally Magners for the Celtic League, at least in part for its prominance on the shirts of Edinburgh and London Wasps in the mid-2000s.

Since then however, I have wrapped up warm for enough afternoons and evenings at Murrayfield and one particularly chilly November day on the Aberdeenshire coast where even the players came out to warm up in tin foil coats under sleeping bags.  As a result I have developed an appreciative understanding of the use of the hip flask and the variety of concoctions it can contain.

The obvious choice for the hip flask is straight whisky, but with tastes differing so much from person to person as you pass it down a row of seats, it’s far safer to mellow the whisky with the addition of a drop of Drambuie, the ‘satisfying’ blend of malt whisky, honey, herbs and spices that was supposedly gifted to the Clan MacKinnon by Bonnie Prince Charlie after a hard day at Culloden in 1746.

Rusty Nail

The original version of the Nail actually dates from the golden sands of Hawaii in the 1940s and not the West Stand at Murrayfield on St Patrick’s Day 1990.  Much like the Dry Martini, purists can argue for days about the ratio of whisky to Drambuie, but 3:1 is just about standard for your hip flask.  It can also be served up, or over crushed ice as follows:

  1. Fill an old fashioned glass with crushed ice.
  2. Add a large measure of scotch whisky (traditionally a blend, but feel free to experiment) and a measure of Drambuie.
  3. Stir gently until frost forms on the outside of the glass.
  4. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

Royal Nail

The Royal Nail is a luxurious alternative to the Rusty Nail, described by its creator, Simon Difford, as ‘two British Royals bittered by a yank’.  It forgoes the Drambuie, uses Peychaud’s bitters for its mellowing, blending effect and was a staple of my hip flask during this summer’s wedding season.  The Royal Nail can also be found ‘straight up’, but is more commonly served over ice:

  1. Add a large measure of premium blended whisky, a measure of Islay whisky and a single sploosh of Peychaud’s to a mixing glass.
  2. Fill the mixing glass with ice and stir well.
  3. Strain into an old fashioned glass over ice and garnish with a twist of orange peel.

Galvanised Nail

The Galvanised Nail uses Drambuie, apple, lemon and elderflower to smooth the edges of the Scotch.  Another Simon Difford creation, dating from 2003, it is usually served up:

  1. Add a large measure of blended whisky, half a measure of Drambuie, half a measure of apple juice, a quarter measure of elderflower liqueur and a quarter measure of lemon juice to a shaker.
  2. Fill with ice and shake well.
  3. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with a twist of lemon.

Cajun Nail

The Cajun Nail is a mix between the Sazerac and the Rusty Nail, which uses whiskey instead of whisky, ramps up the Drambuie content and gives us another chance to practice our Absinthe Rinse.  The Cajun Nail is best served over ice:

  1. Fill an old fashioned glass with ice, add half a measure of absinthe and top up with water.
  2. Add a large measure of whiskey, a large measure of Drambuie and three splooshes each of Angostura and Peychaud’s to a mixing glass.
  3. Fill with ice and stir well.
  4. Discard the absinthe water and ice (offer them to your customer separately if you wish).
  5. Strain into the absinthe rinsed glass over fresh ice and garnish with the oil from a twist of lemon, but discard the peel.

Absinthe Rinse

Photo courtesy of veo_, some rights reserved.

The absinthe rinse is a useful bar technique, and a key step in the creation of a good SazeracVieux Carré or Absinthe Martini.  Of course the rinse technique isn’t restricted to absinthe and can be used with scotch whisky to create an Islay Martini or a peat-infused Manhattan.

The rinse exists to provide a subtle hint of a usually strong-flavoured ingredient, and can be an alternative to the floated dash, where a teaspoon is layered on top of the finished drink, or a spritz from an atomiser.  As a result, a rinse provides a great opportunity for experimentation with unusual or complementary flavours.

To rinse a glass:

  1. Add a couple of ice cubes and a teaspoon of your rinse ingredient to the serving glass.
  2. Stir a few times, liberally splashing the sides of the glass.
  3. Tilt the glass so the rinse reaches the rim and turn slowly to coat the entire glass.
  4. Discard the ice and the excess rinse.
  5. Prepare your drink.

Vieux Carré

Photo courtesy of directorebeccer, some rights reserved.

The Vieux Carré, literally “old square”, is named after the French district of New Orleans where it was invented, by barman Walter Bergeron, in 1938.  Bergeron was working at the Hotel Monteleone, a spectacular Beaux-Arts style hotel, now famous for its rotating Carousel Bar.  Although the Vieux Carré pre-dates the revolving bar, something about its name or story always puts me in mind of the fun fair.

A close cousin of both the Sazerac and the Manhattan, the Vieux Carré is naturally one of my favourites and one of the few times you will see me reaching for a bottle of brandy.  The cocktail uses Benedictine as a sweet base, then combines rye whiskey and cognac, and can be served with an absinthe rinse to create a Louisiane.

To make your Vieux Carré:

  1. Take an old fashioned glass and add half a teaspoon of Benedictine, a dash of Peychaud’s, Angostura and any other bitters that takes your fancy.
  2. Add equal parts rye, cognac and sweet vermouth.
  3. Add ice and stir.
  4. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

Variations include the use of dry vermouth instead of sweet, the aforementioned absinthe rinse, and alterations to the balance of rye, cognac and vermouth.

A Twist of Peel

Photo courtesy of Darwin Bell, some rights reserved.

A number of the recipes included on this site so far, and, I’ll wager, a good few more still to come, have called for a twist of peel.  Be it orange or lemon, this is a vital ingredient in the vast majority of the drinks I make.  As well as adding an extra visual ingredient, to help prepare the first-time drinker with the anticipation of a citrus taste, the twist also provides a chance to add a rare drop of citrus oil and to show off some barmanship skills.

The citrus oil is the main reason for including a twist of peel in a drink.  This should sit on top of the cocktail and provide a welcoming citrus scent to the nose of the imbiber.  This also explains why the twist is important in the creation of a Sazerac, even though the purists say it should be discarded and not left to garnish the drink.

The secret to a good twist of peel is to ensure you start with a fresh, unwaxed fruit.  To obtain your twist:

  1. Using a vegetable peeler or a sharp paring knife, cut slowly towards you making sure not to cut too deeply and include too much pith.  Don’t be misguided by the photo above, you are just aiming for a piece of peel large enough for you to hold and twist – no more.  The size of a ten pence coin is about right.
  2. Once you have your piece of peel, twist it above the finished drink, peel side down, so that the oil is expressed into the drink.
  3. After adding a drop or two, run the peel around the rim of the glass and drop it into the drink.

Once you have mastered this, you can introduce the flame effect.  To do this:

  1. Cut a piece of peel about an inch in diameter.  Make this piece a little thicker so it is easier to hold.
  2. Light a match and hold it an inch or two above the drink.
  3. Hold the peel about an inch above the flame, and move it back and forth for a few seconds to warm and soften it.
  4. Twist and squeeze the peel, coloured side outwards and downwards, over the drink.
  5. As the oil passes through the flame, it will flare and then imbue the drink with a caramelised citrus flavour.  With practice you can do this with a swift click of your fingers for added effect.
  6. Finally, run the peel around the rim of the glass and drop it into the drink (or discard if you have a Sazerac in front of you).

Don’t burn your fingers!

Sazerac

I must confess I was a late convert to the Sazerac.  Another cocktail that has claims to being the oldest recorded, its delightful combination of whiskey and anise is rapidly becoming my new favourite cocktail (although claiming to have a favourite cocktail is a lot like claiming to have one favourite song – no drink will work for you all the time).

The Sazerac was the original New Orleans variation of the bittered sling.  Down in the Deep South, just whiskey, bitters, sugar and water was not enough; the drinks required the added frisson of a touch of la fée verte.  Born in the Sazerac Coffee House, New Orleans some time in 1850, the Sazerac was named for the imported Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac which was originally its main ingredient.  Some time between 1875 and 1879 while the great French vineyards were being decimated by cheeky wee aphids, causing production of cognac to fall by two-thirds, the cognac was replaced (out of necessity) with whiskey.  The fine clientele of the Sazerac Coffee House never looked back.

The essence of the Sazerac depends on the inclusion of Peychaud’s bitters, and some records would have you believe that Mr Antoine Amadie Peychaud created the Sazerac to show off his family’s old aromatic bitters.  Legend has it that Mr Peychaud used to serve his Sazeracs in a large egg cup.  We prefer ours in a chilled metal goblet (or a rocks glass will do):

  1. Add a 1/4 teaspoon of absinthe to a rocks glass and spin the glass until it is coated with the absinthe.
  2. Add 1/2 a lump of sugar, five dashes of Peychaud’s and water to cover.
  3. Muddle well.
  4. Add a large measure of whiskey and some ice.
  5. Stir well and garnish with a twist of lemon peel (purists say this should be squeezed over the glass and discarded, mine fell off the rim just as I took the shot, so I decided to leave it in).

Of course if you want to add a touch of flair to your Sazerac making sessions, follow the two-glass method:

  1. Fill a rocks glass with ice and set aside.
  2. Take a second rocks glass and muddle the sugar and water.
  3. Add ice, whiskey and Peychaud’s to the sugar solution.
  4. Empty the iced glass and roll a wee sploosh of absinthe inside until coated.
  5. Strain the drink from the second glass into the first.
  6. Finish with a twist of lemon peel (discarded).

Good luck managing step five without pouring most of the drink over the nearest flat surface – it takes a little practice!

The Bitter Truth

Technically a cocktail isn’t a cocktail without a dash of bitters.  Without the bitters, your bittered sling is just, well, a sling.  Bitters emerged from the apothecary shops of Venezuela and New Orleans, originally conceived as a cure for stomach maladies and other ailments and it wasn’t long til the fine men of the Royal Navy were adding a dash of bitters to their gin to produce the medicinal Pink Gin.

Now a dash of bitters is a pre-requisite of nearly every drink you’d care to mention.  So if every barman needs a bottle of bitters to hand, where to begin?

Angostura is the best-known brand, and you’ll find a bottle of this curiously mis-labelled concoction on the back bar of every drinking establishment you enter.  Named for the town of Angostura in Venezuela, these are the original cocktail bitters and as good a starting point as any. Originally made as an antimalarial for the independence fighters of 1821, Angostura’s main notes are of cinnamon and cloves and it works well in almost any cocktail, and also, allegedly as a cure for hiccups.

Beyond Angostura, Peychaud’s bitters emerged from New Orleans in around 1840.  This blend is lighter and sweeter than its Venezuelan cousin, and was originally mixed with brandy to act as a stomach tonic.  Now it is more famous for its crucial involvement in the Sazerac.  Its nutty vanilla and anise flavour means it is ideally crafted to bring out the liquorice flavour of absinthe.

Further along the scale we begin to enter the wonderful world of flavoured bitters.  These form the rank and file of tiny apothecarial bottles you find on the shelves of the finest cocktail bars.  Many are home-made, but many more come from a number of resurgent bitters manufacturers.  The third most important bitters style is orange, useful for any citrus based drink.  Other flavours for greater experimentation include rhubarb, cherry, peach, lemon, creole, chocolate, celery and dandelion & burdock.

You will find these and more at Fee Brothers, The Bitter Truth and Dr Adam Elmegirab.

Harking back to the golden age when travel was a luxury and every air passenger had access to a well-stocked all inclusive bar, young bitter upstarts, The Bitter Truth have also packaged up a marvelous taster tin of their fine aromatic delights.

Of course, let’s not pretend there’s any chance of getting a tin of these wee beauties past airport security these days, but still, let’s close our eyes and transport ourselves back to the magical era of transport for just a few minutes.

The tin contains 20ml bottles of the Celery, Orange, Creole, Old Time Aromatic and Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters along with a recipe card which gives a little background and a recommendation for each brew.

Old Time Aromatic Bitters – A strong combination of cinnamon and gingerbread gives way to a hint of aniseed, and is recommended for the Manhattan.

Orange Bitters – A bitter orange and nutmeg concoction which the fine gents at The Bitter Truth recommend for your Dry Martini.

Creole Bitters – The classic Peychaud’s nose of bitter sweet aniseed emenates from this bottle, and the recommendation is that you add it to the Improved Brandy cocktail (Brandy, Absinthe, bitters and sugar).

Celery Bitters – Powerful celery and ginger notes dominate this brew, and the suggestion is that this should replace celery salt in your next Bloody Mary.

Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters – The closest match to Angostura, these have a rich fruity nose with an air of cinnamon.  A fine tribute to the legend, Jerry Thomas, and ideal for your Old Fashioned.

A grand addition to any home bar, these wee gems open up a world of possibility for your cocktail concoctions.  Travel the world of fine drinking without leaving your sofa.