The Sazerac Cocktail was first made in New Orleans at the Sazerac Coffee House. It is said that Aaron Bird, the proprietor of the Sazerac Coffee House created the drink in the 1850s. It was named for the cognac, Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils, the main ingredient of the cocktail at the time it was invented. The Sazerac Coffee House changed ownership a few times in the next couple of decades and in the early 1870s, Thomas Handy became the new owner of the establishment. At about the same time, Phylloxera was devastating the wine grapes of Europe and cognac was becoming scarce and expensive, so Handy started making the cocktail with rye whiskey instead of cognac.
I have looked for the recipe for the cocktail in both Jerry Thomas’ and Harry Johnson’s cocktail books from the late 19th century and failed to find the recipe. I also checked The Ideal Bartender by Tom Bullock from 1917 and failed to find the recipe. I have a couple of other less well known cocktail books from the pre-Prohibition era and failed to find any mention of the Sazerac Cocktail. I believe that the recipe must have been proprietary to the Sazerac House and that is why none of those books printed the recipe. It could also be that the drink was popular in New Orleans, but not in the rest of the United States. I did find the recipe in post prohibition cocktail books and that leads me to believe that the former case is the reason that you don’t find it in pre-Prohibition cocktail books. The trademark restrictions were expired by the end of Prohibition.
The first recipe I found is from the 1934 book The Official Mixer’s Manual by Patrick Gavin Duffy.
Dissolve 1 lump of sugar in a teaspoonful of water, 1 Dash Peychaud Bitters, 1 Dash Absinthe, 1 Jigger Rye whiskey, stir well with cracked ice, strain into another glass which has been cooled, and squeeze a piece of lemon peel on top.
My next step was to check in the 1935 edition of Old Mr. Boston Deluxe Official Bartender’s Guide. This is always a good source for recipes popular at the end of prohibition.
Dissolve 1 lump of sugar in a teaspoonful of water, 1 dash bitters, 1 dash absinthe, 1 Jigger of Old Mr. Boston whiskey. Shake well with cracked ice and strain into an Old Fashioned Cocktail glass. Garnish with sprig of fresh mint.
The 1957 edition of Old Mr. Boston has a slightly different recipe.
Put ¼ teaspoon Absinthe Substitute into an Old Fashioned Cocktail glass and revolve glass until it is entirely coated with the Absinthe Substitute. Then add: ½ lump of sugar, 2 dashes bitters, sufficient water to cover sugar and muddle well, 2 cubes of ice, 2 oz. Old Mr. Boston Rye or Bourbon whiskey. Stir very well. Add a twist of lemon peel. (For best results, put glass on ice for a few minutes before using.)
Finally, I looked into Gary Regan’s The Bartender’s Bible to see how he made a Sazerac Cocktail.
1 teaspoon Ricard, ½ teaspoon superfine sugar, 2 dashes Peychaud bitters, 1 teaspoon water, 2 ounces Bourbon, 1 lemon twist. Pour the Ricard into an old-fashioned glass and swirl it around to coat the glass: discard any excess. Place the sugar, Peychaud bitters and water into the glass and muddle thoroughly with the back of a teaspoon. Almost fill the glass with ice cubes. Pour the Bourbon over the ice cubes. Garnish with the lemon twist.
I find these recipes very interesting in that the “histories” I have found all state that the drink was created with cognac and then that was substituted with rye whiskey when cognac became rare and expensive in the late 19th century, yet none of the recipes that I found mention cognac at all and only one version mentions rye whiskey specifically. The recipe has been adapted over the years and I suspect that rye was less common after repeal and the recipes call for Bourbon as it was more likely to be found at any bar.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller