New Orleans: Food Heaven – The Sazerac Cocktail

There is so much social history and culture entwined with the food and drink of New Orleans that one can easily become entranced by the past and slip into a bygone era, forgetting about the present. In New Orleans, the past nourishes the present and the locals like it this way. Less may have changed here over time than in any other great American city, and traditions ( which exist despite the image of New Orleans as a raucus, vulgar, drink-yourself-into-a-stupor kind of place) and the old-ways are held aloft by locals with great pride.

The history of New Orleans steps side by side with the present, and I everyday I spent there I came to realize how much I did not know about the culture and real identity of this magnetic place. And how much I would like to learn. Ignorance is indeed bliss, but enlightenment does have it own rewards.

Imagine my surprise and delight to find out that one entire layer of New Orleans food history is actually a beverage history, one filled with stories and legends of a past and present time that celebrates the vigorous drinks and cocktails created in New Orleans. In fact, there is an event held every year in New Orleans called Tales of the Cocktail, which is a culinary and cocktail festival that features award-winning mixologists, authors, bartenders, chefs and designers in the New Orleans French Quarter for five days of cocktail events such as dinner-pairings, cocktail demos and tastings, seminars, mixing competitions, design expos, book-signings and much more.

This bit of information just added to my enchantment with New Orleans, as if the city needed another reason for it to be compelling and enthralling..…and different. As I learned about the cocktails that originated in New Orleans and the reasons why these drinks originated there, I became fascinated and wanted to know more. Many classic drinks were concocted in the early coffee houses and bars of New Orleans; drinks like the Ramos Gin Fizz, the Grasshopper, French 75, Pimm’s cup, Scarlet O’Hara, the spiced coffee confection called Café Brulôt Diabolique, and of course the number one cocktail in New Orleans, the Sazerac.

The Sazerac uses brown spirits and is a straight-up, no-nonsence blend of rye whiskey, Peychaud’s Bitters, a dash of simple syrup, a ‘rinse’ of Absinthe or Herbsaint and a twist of lemon peel, stirred (or swirled) with ice and served over three small ice cubes in a plain old-fashioned glass.

The Sazerac began its journey from medicinal potion to sophisticated cocktail in the 1830’s. At that time, the distinction between medicine and alcohol was not sharply drawn. Early medicinal remedies were often more snake oil than cure, and the searing sting of a swig of harsh alcohol may have accounted for more cures than the bad medicine did during those days.

Cocktail historians disagree on where the first American cocktail was created, but it is known that the cocktail began its ascent to glory in New Orleans with the arrival of Antoine Peychaud from the island of Santo Domingo sometime about 1775. Antoine was one of many French-speaking Creole immigrants from the Caribbean who brought their culture, music, recipes and yearnings for home cooking with them to New Orleans.

Antoine opened a pharmacy on rue Royal and began to make his family’s potion – Peychaud’s Bitters – a ruby red, herbal concoction that remains a New Orleans household staple today. Initially sold as a remedy, Antoine soon began mixing his bitters with French brandy and serving it to friends in his shop after hours.

One tweaking of these ingredients led to another. In the 1870’s a gentleman named Thomas H. Hardy purchased a popular establishment known as Schillers’s Sazerac Coffee House (in those days, alcohol was not served in bars but in coffee houses ) which had made its namesake drink famous. While Schiller had popularized his drink using Sazerac de Forge et Fils French brandy, Hardy had his own ideas. He changed from using brandy to using rye whiskey, got right to the point and shorteded the name of the establishment to simply Sazerec House, and the official Sazerac cocktail of New Orleans was born.

Today, mixologists are divided between using Herbsaint, a locally-produced, licorice-flavored alcohol and Absinthe, one of the original ingredients. Originally, Absinthe contained wormwood as an ingredient and one of the components of wormwood – thujone-  was suspected of delivering hallucinogenic effects to those who imbibed too much. Today, Absinthe is back, sans the wormwood, and some bartenders have made the switch back, while others have stayed with Herbsaint. When in New Orleans, do as Bob did and try one of these drinks everywhere you go. I guarantee that it will be an intersting and tasty case study !

And in case you would like to know, May 13th 2008 marks the 202nd Anniversary of the cocktail and the first time that the word COCKTAIL was put into print.

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