The Sazerac and the Cocktail as Ritual
Rituals are just methods and techniques — and they can be refined.
The Sazerac is one of those cocktails that you only make every so often, but every time you do, you think: Why don’t I make more Sazeracs?
At least, that’s my experience. This is a cocktail that’s widely known and liked, but outside of New Orleans, and a handful of bars that have decided to prioritize it, the Sazerac sometimes seems more like a curiosity, a regional variation on the Old Fashioned that tourists try once and cocktail nerds make a few times but don’t return to regularly. I’m not saying the Sazerac is obscure or unknown, merely that it rarely gets the sort of sustained popular love and attention that the Old Fashioned or the Manhattan get.
I don’t really have an explanation for this. If I had to speculate, it’s that the shadow of the Old Fashioned — arguably the cocktail that has defined the last 15 years of fancy drinks — looms so large that the Sazerac has never quite had its moment in the sun. It may also have something to do with the fact that one of the defining elements of the Sazerac, Peychaud’s bitters, were quite difficult to obtain during the 1980s and 1990s. Now, of course, you can buy them in most modestly stocked liquor stores — or, for that matter, Amazon.
It’s not that the Sazerac never receives any popular love: The Sazerac plays a small but pivotal role in David Simon’s HBO series about New Orleans, Treme. (“Nobody throws a Sazerac!” is a great line. Note: Please do not throw your Sazerac.)
There’s a whole scene in Another Round — a truly delightful Mads Mikkelson movie about a group of middle aged guys who decide to deal with mid-life malaise by maintaining a mild alcohol buzz all day long — in which the movie’s main characters get together to make and drink Sazeracs while listening to music on one of those hi-fi vinyl setups that looks sort of low-key and vintage but actually costs thousands of dollars.
The movie is great, although I definitely don’t recommend all-day drinking, or quite agree with the way it suggests making the drink. (A Sazerac should not be served over ice!) But even in that scene, the Sazerac is treated as an interesting oddity, something a little bit exotic. One of the guys in the scene has to teach the other how to make the drink, because it’s assumed that even this gang of seasoned drinkers don’t really know what a Sazerac is.
What that scene does get right, however, is that making a Sazerac is a kind of methodical ritual. It’s a drink defined in large part by the techniques used to make it. That doesn’t mean ingredients don’t matter; they do! But we will focus on ingredients less today, since the Sazerac is a cocktail that helps you think about how you make a cocktail and why.
The Sazerac Is a Ritual
Every classic Sazerac consists of four ingredients — rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, and absinthe — plus a lemon peel for garnish.