May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
The vodka martini. I enjoy an icy shot of vodka with a salty fish canapé, or the kick of a well-made Bloody Mary. But I like a big taste and thus prefer the gin martini, sublime with all its intricate flavors: floral, citrus, and herbal notes supported by the bracing astringent alcohol base—truly the king of cocktails.
The Sazerac. This drink dates from the dawn of the cocktail, which was first documented in 1806 in a New York State periodical called Balance, and Columbian Repository , whose editor explained: “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” The key difference between this drink and the rum punches, bishops, and grogs that preceded it was the addition of bitters; bitters defined the early cocktail.
Bitters were introduced by Antoine Peychaud, who came from a family of plantation owners who were driven off what is now Haiti during eighteenth-century slave uprisings and ended up in New Orleans, where Peychaud operated an apothecary shop. In the mid1790s he created an all-purpose flavoring and health tonic from herbs and Caribbean spices that is believed to be the first commercial bitters in the Americas, Peychaud’s bitters. He gave his bitters to friends and guests after mixing several drops of them in a French cognac called Sazerac de Forge et Fil. He served this drink in an eggcup, called a coquetier in French, a word that may have been anglicized into cocktail; the drink became known as the Sazerac.
The Sazerac, which later evolved into a rye drink, is a subtle layering of complex flavors that should be served cold but not over ice. Unfortunately, a correctly prepared Sazerac may be found at only a few bars around the country. This holds true for many of our classic cocktails. The following recipe is my tribute to the tradition of the Sazerac:
1 ½ ounces rye whiskey 1 ounce VS cognac 4 dashes Herbsaint liqueur (if unavailable, substitute Ricard or Pernod) 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters (you may need to search for this) 2 dashes Angostura bitters ¾ teaspoon superfine sugar Lemon peel
Season a rocks glass by swirling, then tossing out, the Herbsaint. Fill the same glass with ice and set it aside to chill. In another rocks glass, add the two bitters and the sugar and muddle well. Add the spirits and ice cubes. Stir and strain into the first glass without ice. Twist the lemon peel over the drink, then drop it in.
This is a classic sipping drink to be enjoyed slowly. There are layers and layers of flavor, some released slowly as the drink warms to room temperature.