sazeracNew 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 It was originally made with Cognac, but since 1880 or so, rye whiskey has been the standard.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.

THE KIT

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

HOW TO

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.

milk-punchEngland, 1500s
New Orleans, 1800s

Milk Punch may be the ultimate “oh, why the hell not?” drink.

Just about as soon as folks in England figured out how to distill beverage alcohol, they figured out booze went great with milk and a little sugar, mixing up all kinds of Egg Nogs and punches. They drank their Milk Punch hot, out of a big sweaty communal bowl, and cut with lemon juice. That’s all well and fine for the time, I suppose. 16th century, what are you gonna do? But people in New Orleans already knew all about hot and sweaty – so they got this drink back on the right track by cooling it over crushed ice, softening it with vanilla, and making it purty and fragrant with a dusting of nutmeg.

Our friends down in New Orleans have perfected the art of day-drinking (and night-drinking, too, now that I think of it). That’s not to give any credit to the boorish bros and misguided tourists on Bourbon Street – they’re not included among our friends. You and I, we prefer the finer things in life. And there are few things finer than this soothing combination of spirit, milk, sugar, and vanilla. In New Orleans, it’s not uncommon to enjoy a Brandy Milk Punch with breakfast, a Pimm’s Cup while waiting out the muggy afternoon storm, a Sazerac before dinner… all best enjoyed with a savory, gut-busting meal and the company of a good friend.

Try this with a good brandy or cognac (or 50/50 with an aged Jamaican rum). Bourbon is also common, but makes for a slightly sweeter drink. This is also a chance to use that delicious batch of homemade vanilla syrup – but in a pinch, you can use regular simple syrup and three drops of real vanilla extract.

Look, this drink won’t do your waistline any favors. But somedays… just getting out of bed is enough of an accomplishment. Cut yourself some slack.

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Muddler or mallet, Lewis bag, Nutmeg Grater or Microplane
Ice: Ice cubes, crushed ice
Glassware: Old Fashioned glass
Spirit: Brandy or cognac (recommended: Germain-Robin Craft Method) or Bourbon (recommended: Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey 81)
Mixers: Whole milk, Vanilla syrup
Garnish: Freshly-grated nutmeg

HOW TO

Using a Lewis bag, crush enough ice to fill an Old Fashioned glass about two-thirds full to a fine, even consistency by pounding with a muddler or mallet.

In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:

oz brandy (or cognac) or bourbon
oz whole milk
3/4 oz vanilla syrup

Shake well to blend and chill, then double-strain into the ice-filled glass. Top with a dusting of freshly-grated nutmeg.

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ramosginfizzNew Orleans, Louisiana (1888)

The Ramos Gin Fizz doesn’t mean to be difficult, really. It’s just that creating a glassful of pillowy heaven does take a bit of work and attention. Even the name – which shouldn’t be difficult – is: the correct Spanish pronunciation is “RAH-mose” but most people I know say this as “RAY-mose.” To make things more confusing, in New Orleans, some say it “RAY-muss.” Whatever. As they say, “Call me anything you want, just don’t call me late for breakfast.”

This drink evolved from the basic Sour 2:1:1 formula (spirit:citrus:sweet) into a Fizz (by adding seltzer, like a Tom Collins but without ice) and from there into a group of fancy Fizzes (egg white makes a Silver Fizz, egg yolk makes a Golden Fizz, whole egg makes a Royal Fizz). Adding cream and orange flower water was the masterstroke by barman Henrico “Henry” Charles Ramos at the now-extinct Imperial Cabinet Saloon in New Orleans back in 1888. The drink became so popular, Ramos employed a line of up to 35 “Shaker Boys” to pass the shaking tins down an assembly line, vigorously shaking each drink in succession for up to 12 minutes total.

125 years of practice and refinement have perfected this little number. Some will tell you removing the spring from a Hawthorne strainer and adding it to the shaker will help whip the drink, but in practice, it actually over-aearates the drink. Some will say you have to shake the drink for ten minutes – that’s bullshit, too. Don’t add the seltzer to the mix, either – the shaker will have a hard enough time staying sealed with the egg white and cream expanding as you go. You may occasionally see a couple drops of vanilla in this drink – which tends to overwhelm the delicate flavors, if you ask me. But good ice does make a key difference here, even though you’ll only be using one cube from a Tovolo 1″ ice tray (unless you’re one of those mad geniuses with a Kold-Draft machine at home). The density of the ice will ensure the drink dilutes, chills, and whips properly. And the right glassware is crucial (an 8-ounce fizz glass like the Libbey 2318 Lexington), to help hold that stasis of booze, air, and protein afloat. Don’t try to make two of these in one shaker – it just won’t work.

This technique was taught to me by 320 Main bartender Shaun Cole, who learned it from bartender, brand ambassador, and consultant Marcos Tello. Word is, Marcos traveled the country gathering techniques from various bartenders and even food scientists, then consolidated the best-of into this recipe. Jason Schiffer, owner of 320 Main, told me this drink “lets bartenders show off their skills like no other drink.” It takes focus and practice to get this one right, but the effort is rewarded. The ideal texture is a tight, dense, almost-meringue-like foam floating atop a creamy, aerated liquid base – not a frothy mass of loose, sloppy bubbles.

If you’re concerned about consuming raw egg whites, try not to be. It’s fine, you won’t die. Just make sure your eggs are cold and fresh, and that you don’t get any chickenshit in your drink.

The Ramos Gin Fizz is perfect for a warm spring or summer brunch, so long as you’re up to the task. Reserve this for a morning that’s not a morning-after!

THE KIT

Hardware: Jigger, Shaker, Eyedropper, Muddler, Tovolo 1″ Ice Cube Tray, Straw, Spoon
Glassware: 8-ounce fizz glass
Ice: Ice cube
Spirit: Old Tom gin (recommended: Hayman’s) or London Dry gin (recommended: Beefeater) or Plymouth gin
Mixer: Simple syrup, Seltzer or Tonic water (recommended: Fever-Tree) or sparkling mineral water (recommended: Pellegrino)
Accents & Garnishes: Lemon juice, Lime juice, Orange flower water (look for a French brand, but Middle Eastern will do), Heavy cream (aka “whipping cream” – but not whipped cream), Egg white

HOW TO

Chill a fizz glass in the freezer at least ten minutes. In a cocktail shaker, combine:

1 1/2 oz gin
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/2
oz lime juice
3/4 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz heavy cream
3
drops orange flower water

In a second container (to avoid contamination from a piece of eggshell), separate:

1 egg white

Discard the yolk and the chalazae (the thick, stringy part connected to the yolk) and combine the egg white with the previous ingredients. Seal the shaker very tightly and dry shake for ten to twelve seconds to emulsify the ingredients. Hold the shaker lid firmly while shaking – the egg whites will foam and expand in volume and will create pressure in the shaker.

Add:

1 ice cube (1″ square)

Whip the shaker vigorously until you hear the ice cube has completely dissolved. Pour, unstrained, into the chilled fizz glass. Hold the glass in one hand, and, using a muddler, tap on the bottom of the glass for a minute or two. Look for the level of the drink to settle down about 1/8″ or so, and for any large bubbles in the foam to dissipate. You’re looking for a thick, consistent foam texture in the drink. Next, to the surface of the drink, add:

2 drops orange flower water

In the used shaker, add:

2 oz seltzer

Slowly drizzle the seltzer straight down the center of the drink from a height of about an inch or two. If you’ve done everything right, you’ll see the foamy head of the drink rising slowly above the rim of the glass. Keep pouring seltzer down the same spot and keep an eye on the foamy head. If it starts to sag around the edges, stop adding seltzer.

Serve with a straw (and a spoon to scoop out those last bits of meringuey goodness), then congratulate yourself on creating a thing of beauty. Kick back the rest of the day, you’ve earned it.

p.s. You may want to keep a spoon handy for scooping out the last little bit of foamy, citrusy goodness.