(Editor’s note: This is Part 8 of a 10-part series on an Uncommon Journeys trip aboard a Pullman train to New Orleans.)
Heading to New Orleans aboard a Pullman train with Uncommon Journeys, we’re sitting in the lounge car talking about Sazeracs.
What is the bewitching brew? Where to get the best one in the Crescent City? And how in the world did the historic drink ever come to be concocted?
Sure made me hungry to know more and thirsty to taste New Orleans’s official cocktail.
First off, that last part is really true. On June 23, 2008, the Louisiana Legislature agreed to proclaim the Sazerac as New Orleans’s official cocktail.
Some say it is the “first cocktail ever.”
However, that has been proven to be historically incorrect. No matter. In a city that loves to party, the Sazerac pairs perfectly with letting the good times roll.
As the story goes, the blend of cognac, bitters and absinthe was first mixed by a Creole apothecary in the 1830s. It is said that Antoine Amadie Peychaud, the Creole apothecary, moved to New Orleans from the West Indies and set up shop in the French Quarter.
Using an old family recipe, Peychaud mixed his ingredients into a powerful punch said to be quite healthy and invigorating. He served the drink in the large end of an egg cup, called a coquetier in French. That is said to be how the word “cocktail” came into use.
However, records have been found that show the word cocktail first appeared in print in 1803. It’s a good story and a good drink anyway.
HISTORY AND LORE
The drink is some combination of cognac or rye whiskey, absinthe or Herbsaint, and Peychaud’s Bitters. The drink is distinguished by its preparation method and was a great favorite with writers, artists and other literary types. During the Victorian era, it was one of the few drinks considered ladylike and women freely enjoyed it in coffee houses where it was commonly served.
Some of those said to have fallen under the spell of “the Green Fairy” are Edouard Manet, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway.
Made of an extract from wormwood, absinthe was an alcoholic liquor said to cause hallucinations. In 1905, a man named Jean Lanfray became very intoxicated after drinking two glasses of absinthe and murdered his wife and two children. His trial became known as the “Absinthe Murder.” Absinthe was said to be the culprit and a movement soon got under way to prohibit the drink.
On July 25, 1912, absinthe was banned in the US. France banned it in 1915. Absinthe became replaced by various anise-flavored spirits, especially Herbsaint made in New Orleans.
The name Herbsaint originates from “Herbe Sainte” (Sacred Herb), the French/Creole term for Artemisia absinthium. It is also very nearly an anagram of “absinthe.”
In 2007, the absinthe ban was lifted in the US. However, the new absinthe must be relatively thujone-free. Thujone is the natural essential oil of wormwood.
The popular New Orleans cocktail has been featured in several movies and TV shows. In the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Benjamin’s father orders two whiskey Sazeracs when first meeting his son at a brothel in New Orleans.
In an episode of the TV series Treme, chef Janette Desautel (played by Kim Dickens) tosses a Sazerac in the face of restaurant critic and food writer Alan Richman (appearing as himself.) Seems Richman had angered many New Orleansians in 2006 with a GQ magazine article in which he criticized New Orleans’s post-Katrina food culture. Richman agreed to participate in the scene and called Sazarec “a good choice of weaponry because it symbolizes the city.”
Our train passengers agree that New Orleans has several good places to enjoy a Sazerac. In the French Quarter alone, you can stop by the Sazarecv Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel, the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone, Arnaud’s French 75 and the Sylvain.
Seemed appropriate that when I checked into The Westin at Canal Place for my only night in New Orleans, I was greeted by a little card with a recipe for a Sazerac. Here is the Westin version if you’d like a sip of New Orleans official drink:
2 ounces rye whiskey
several dashes bitters
1 sugar cube or 1 teaspoon simple syrup
splash of anise-flavored liquor
Chill a rocks glass. In another glass, muddle a sugar cube with several dashes of bitters. Add whiskey and stir. Coat the chilled glass with anise-flavored liquor. Pour the whiskey mixture into the glass. Twist a lemon over the drink.
For more information: Contact Uncommon Journeys at (800) 323-5893, www.uncommonjourneys.com