New Orleans, Louisiana (1830, then 1880)
The Sazerac is an unusual old-school drink with the fine distinction of The Official Cocktail of New Orleans. No garnish, no ice, no citrus juice – but deeply refreshing and smooth. It was originally made with Cognac, but since 1880 or so, rye whiskey has been the standard. And that’s a good thing: Rye’s peppery intensity gets a serious flavor going up front where Cognac might just lay back and take it.
Peychaud’s bitters and Herbsaint are two New Orleans-local ingredients that give this drink its one-of-a-kind character.
It’s easy to think of the Sazerac as a transitional cocktail: similar in its template of spirit/sugar/water/bitters to the Old Fashioned, simply known as “Cocktail” prior to the later 1800s. It’s kind of like what Jerry Thomas called “Improved” cocktails – those enhanced with absinthe and a bit of maraschino or curaçao. And it’s served “up” (without ice) like a Manhattan, but in a rocks glass. Credit for this drink goes to Antoine Amédée Peychaud, a Creole apothecary from New Orleans by way of Haiti, who would mix his proprietary Peychaud’s bitters with French Cognac and a bit of sugar for his customers, in the style of the day. The drink became immensely popular in New Orleans, so much so that the Sazerac Coffee House was opened in 1840 to serve the thirsty masses (named after the Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac the drink was made from).
But a little aphid-like bug called phylloxera had other plans: a plague of Biblical proportions that brought on the near-total destruction of France’s grapevines between 1863 and 1890. It’s estimated between 66% and 90% of all Europe’s vineyards were demolished by this pest.
When faced with adversity major or minor, though, New Orleans always rises: a simple switch from Cognac to rye whiskey around 1880 kept the Sazerac on track. And after the totally-unfounded absinthe ban hit the United States in 1912, locals J. Marion Legendre and Reginald Parker started producing the absinthe-subtitute Herbsaint from techniques they learned in France while serving during World War I.
And it’s this formula that stuck: rye whiskey, sugar, and Herbsaint with Peychaud’s bitters. Some like one dash of Angostura in place of part of the Peychaud’s – although not traditional, it’s delicious. You can certainly do a bit of time-travel by mixing this with some good Cognac (try Pierre Ferrand 1840) and a more traditional absinthe like Pernod for an idea of what the Sazerac tasted like originally… but a funny thing happens sometimes when disaster strikes: things get better as they recover.
Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon, Hawthorne strainer, Fine-mesh strainer
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Old Fashioned glass
Spirits: Rye whiskey (recommended: Rittenhouse)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Herbsaint, Rich demerara syrup (2:1)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Peychaud’s bitters, Lemon twist
Chill an Old Fashioned glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.
After it’s chilled, add to the glass:
1/4 oz Herbsaint
Over the sink, tilt and slowly rotate the glass to coat all interior surfaces with the Herbsaint. As a last step, tilt the glass upside-down to drain out any excess drops, then return it to the freezer.
In a mixing glass, add:
2 oz rye whiskey
1 barspoon rich demerara syrup
4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Add a mix of ice cubes and cracked ice to cover well above the liquid level. Stir well to blend and chill, then double-strain (to catch small bits of ice) into the prepared, chilled glass. Pinch a lemon twist over the drink to express oils onto its surface, then rub the twist around the glass rim to coat. Discard the twist.
Don the Beachcomber (1934)
Southern California’s longest-running contribution to the world’s cocktail culture is the deliciously goofball world of tiki. The brainchild of world traveler and bootlegger Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt (who later legally changed his name to Donn Beach), tiki was a melange of the authentic and the completely fabricated. South Seas cultural artifacts mixed with Carribean rum mixed with Chinese cooking, this faux-tropical getaway world captured the imagination of Hollywood in the 1930s and took off from there like hot lava. Tiki dominated cocktail culture in the ’50s and ’60s, then faded as late-’60s culture labeled it “square,” something their parents enjoyed.
Don the Beachcomber’s original 1934 Zombie was created (in all likelihood) as a collaboration with his four Filipino bartenders, who worked hidden away in the back kitchen, out of sight of the front-room bar (to keep the mystery and protect his secrets). One of those bartenders, Ray Buhen, went on to open Tiki Ti in Hollywood in 1961; the place is still there today, run by his son and grandson. In an interview, Ray called out Donn Beach’s authorship claim: “He’d say anything. He said he invented the Zombie, but he didn’t. Or hardly any of his drinks.” Donn’s recipes were jotted down in notebooks passed from one bartender to the other, transcribed in code in case they fell into enemy hands. You’d just have to know what “Don’s Mix” or “Markeza” or “Golden Stack” was to make the drink correctly. He changed the recipe several times over the years; not sure why, because this version’s the best. Potent and dangerously delicious, Don the Beachcomber enforced a strict two-per-customer rule on this drink. Breaking this rule has risks: in 1936, Howard Hughes struck and killed a pedestrian while driving home drunk after one too many Zombies at Don the Beachcomber’s.
The Zombie, with its ten-ingredient list, is a perfect example of a drink that is best (and maybe safest) made at home. Try to get one of these at a busy bar and you’re more likely to get a “pick something else” response. And if you do get a Zombie, it probably won’t be this one. This original 1934 recipe was finally decoded in 2005 by Beachbum Berry after years of research and experimentation.
You’ll need three syrups for this: grenadine, cinnamon syrup, and Falernum – a spiced rum syrup from Barbados (recipes for cinnamon syrup and falernum below, grenadine recipe is linked). Always best to make them yourself at home… but a great alternative is BG Reynolds‘ fantastic line of tiki syrups from Portland, Oregon.
If you’re going through all the fun to make this fantastic drink, why not serve it in a vintage tiki mug? Great finds can be had at thrift stores occasionally, or check online at Etsy‘s vintage shops.
Hardware: Electric blender, Jigger, Medicine dropper, Straws (optional)
Ice: Cracked ice
Glassware: Tiki mug or double Old Fashioned glass
Spirits: Gold rum (recommended: Appleton, Mount Gay, Cruzan), Dark rum (recommended: Coruba, Myers’s), 151 demerara rum (recommended: Lemon Hart)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Falernum, Cinnamon syrup, Grenadine, Pernod or Herbsaint
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Grapefruit juice (white, if you can get it), Angostura bitters, Fresh spearmint
In an electric blender, add:
1 1/2 oz gold rum
1 1/2 oz dark rum
1 oz 151 demerara rum
3/4 oz lime juice
1/2 oz grapefruit juice
1/2 oz Falernum
1/4 oz cinnamon syrup
1/4 oz grenadine
6 drops Pernod or Herbsaint
1 dash Angostura bitters
6 oz cracked ice
Flash blend five seconds to quickly mix – meaning just turn the blender on, then off again. Pour unstrained into a tiki mug or Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with a mint sprig that’s been lightly slapped against the rim of the tiki mug or glass to release its aromatic oils. Optionally, serve with two straws cut to size.
In a saucepan over medium heat, lightly toast 3 cinnamon sticks, crushed lightly. Add 2 cups sugar and 2 cups water, then simmer 10 minutes, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cool & steep 20 minutes, then double-strain into an airtight container to remove particles. Keep refrigerated.
In a saucepan over medium heat, lightly toast 50 cloves, 1 tablespoon whole allspice berries, and 1 whole nutmeg (crushed, not ground). Combine in an airtight container and add 8 oz 151 demerara rum, the peeled zest from 8 limes (being careful to not include any of the bitter white pith), and 1/2 cup grated fresh ginger. Infuse for 24 hours, then double-strain the infused rum to remove ingredients and small particles. Make a rich simple syrup of 2 cups sugar and 1 cup water and let cool. In an airtight container, combine the infused rum, the rich simple syrup, and 10 drops almond extract. Stir to combine. Let rest two weeks, refrigerated, for the ginger to mellow. Keep refrigerated. (recipe adapted from Kaiser Penguin.)
Ritz Bar, Paris, France (1920s)
The American craft of the cocktail hit what many consider its “Golden Age” in the years just before Prohibition. Wouldn’t you know it? Right when things were getting interesting, the squares come along and blow the party – forcing the really great bartenders overseas to places like the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London and The Ritz Hotel Bar in Paris. This drink comes from the Ritz and was one in a family of “Corpse Reviver” drinks intended as hangover cures: easy on the palate, a little sweet, simple to mix. The original Kina Lillet in this recipe is no longer available – substitute Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano for a close-enough approximation. Or, if you can find it, try the excellent Tempus Fugit Kina l’Avion d’Or. Corpse Reviver #2 is a reliably successful (and gentle) arm-twister for those friends of your who say they hate gin – serve one of these and watch their eyes light up.
Hardware: Shaker, Jigger
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirits: London Dry gin (recommended: Beefeater, Tanqueray)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Triple sec (recommended: Cointreau, Combier), Kina (recommended: Kina L’Avion D’Or, Lillet Blanc, Cocchi Americano), Herbsaint
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lemon juice, Cherry (recommended: Luxardo, Filthy)
Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.
In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:
3/4 oz London Dry gin
3/4 oz triple sec
3/4 oz kina
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/8 oz Herbsaint
Shake well to blend and chill, then strain into the chilled glass. Garnish with a cherry pierced on a cocktail pick.