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 It was originally made with Cognac, but since 1880 or so, rye whiskey has been the standard.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 – overproof (100 or 101) stands up well (recommended: Bulleit, Rittenhouse 100, Old Overholt)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Herbsaint, Rich simple 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 tsp rich simple 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.

manhattan2New York City (1870s)

The Manhattan is where we start to get all fancy and what-have-you. Break out the cocktail glasses. If you don’t like whiskey, you’ll hate this one. And it could care less. Take it or leave it. The Manhattan is commonly made with bourbon, but the real authentic style is with rye. Check out how just two ingredients (whiskey and vermouth) take a couple dashes of bitters for a ride and create an amazing depth of flavor. Here’s where you’ll see why stirring spirits-only drinks makes a difference versus shaking. If you’re curious, try one shaken really hard so you can see the difference – and so you’ll know why to send one back if it’s made wrong.

Like many of our favorite drinks, the origin of the Manhattan cocktail is murky. I’ve heard stories:

  • 1846: Created by a bartender in Maryland to aid a wounded duelist (bullshit, vermouth wasn’t imported to the US prior to 1870)
  • 1860: Created by a bartender named Black near Broadway & Spring (bullshit, see above)
  • 1874: Commissioned by Winston Churchill’s mother at a Manhattan Club party celebrating the election of Governor Tilden (bullshit, she was in England at the time, eight months pregnant)

What we do know is this: vermouth hit the streets of New York City around 1870, and by 1880 it was the hot ingredient in cocktails. Taking the idea of the “improved” basic cocktail of spirit with sugar, bitters, and a touch of something extra, savvy bartenders nixed the sugar and “something extra” in favor of vermouth. They found the dry French kind paired well with gin (Martini, Turf Club) and the sweet Italian kind got along great with rye whiskey (Manhattan).

Vermouth is simply wine that’s been spiked with a spirit, usually brandy (“fortified”) and enhanced with a mix of botanical ingredients (“aromatized”). These botanicals may include wormwood, cinchona bark, gentian, cinnamon, citrus peel, lavender, saffron, vanilla, or dozens of others. Each vermouth maker has their own special blend. If you’re interested, read more about vermouth here.

The Manhattan most likely began as a 1:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth, but I’ve also seen 2 vermouth to 1 whiskey in recipe books from that time. Somehow, over the years, the Manhattan has dodged a bullet and retained its respect, only occasionally dipping to a 2 whiskey to .5 vermouth ratio. That’s still the recipe most dive bars and restaurant bars use (they also will use whatever “well” bourbon is on hand – you really need a good rye here for spicy balance against the sweetness of the vermouth).

A properly-made Manhattan is truly a thing of beauty, capturing balance and brevity in four quick sips and priming your appetite for a great meal.

THE KIT

Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon, Cocktail pick, Hawthorne strainer, Fine-mesh strainer
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirits: Rye whiskey – overproof (100 or 101) stands up well (recommended: Bulleit, Rittenhouse 100, Old Overholt)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Italian vermouth (recommended: Dolin, Noilly Prat, Martini & Rossi, Carpano Antica)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Angostura bitters, Cherry (recommended: Filthy amarena, Luxardo maraschino)

HOW TO

Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.

In a mixing glass, add:

2 oz rye whiskey
1 oz Italian vermouth
2 dashes Angostura 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. Garnish with a cherry pierced on a cocktail pick.

Uncertain origin (1870s)
Knickerbocker Hotel, New York City (1911)

This is The One Martini, if you ask me. Beyond the really annoying Chocotini, Appletini thing. I’m talking about more subtle variations – more vermouth, less vermouth, a dash of olive brine, a dash of Scotch, blah blah. With the right ingredients, this archetypal cocktail doesn’t need anything else. The Martini has even become iconic visual shorthand for “cocktail” – check warning labels and outdoor sign icons. Ignore James Bond’s assertion about shaking Martinis, he just wanted to sound like a tough guy.

It’s supposed to be quick and simple, but somehow it’s taken on this air of mystery and reverence. Seems everyone who likes Martinis gets really anal about exactly how they like theirs. Guess I’m in that crowd now. Old Tom gin rounds out the corners nicely, London Dry will be snappier, Plymouth will be citrusy – see what you prefer.

You’ll notice this recipe follows the exact template as the Manhattan, just swapping ingredients. It’s a winning combo worth tinkering with: two parts spirit, one part aperitif, two dashes of a complementary bitters. Try substituting one or more ingredients out and see what you come up with – after all, bartenders have been doing the same thing since 1870 or so!

The French (AKA dry or white) style of vermouth used here came into being about 100 years after the original Italian (AKA sweet or red) style. They’re both made with a white wine base, actually – the difference in Italian vermouth is the mix of botanicals and sugar – and the use of caramel color or (less commonly) barrel aging.

The exact origin of the Martini is a mystery that may never be solved. Some point to the East Bay, California town of Martinez (home of the similar Martinez cocktail), some suggest Italian bartenders named “Martini,” but the Occam’s Razor answer is simply this: Martini (later named Martini & Rossi) began importing their Italian vermouth to the US around 1870, with the dry French style making its stateside debut around 1900. Folks would ask for a “Martini cocktail” the same way they might ask for a “brandy cocktail” or “whiskey cocktail.” It’s possible the Martinez and Martini were the same cocktail at one time, evolving to distinguish themselves by choice of vermouth style and accent flavors. Even though more vermouth brands became available in the US over time (Cinzano, Noilly Prat, Dolin), the name Martini stuck. For a time in the 1990s, the name “Martini” came to denote any cocktail served up; Thankfully, we’re getting away from that. The venerable Martini deserves more respect than to be saddled with a reputation as frilly and foo-foo.

THE KIT

Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon, Hawthorne strainer, Fine-mesh strainer, Cocktail pick
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirits: Old Tom gin (recommended: Hayman’s) or London Dry gin (recommended: Beefeater, Tanqueray) or Plymouth
Mixers & Liqueurs: French vermouth (recommended: Dolin, Noilly Prat)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Orange bitters (recommended: Regan’s), Pimento-stuffed olive (optional – recommended: Dirty Sue), Lemon twist

HOW TO

Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.

In a mixing glass, add:

2 oz gin
1 oz French vermouth
2 dashes orange 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 chilled glass. Pinch a lemon twist over the drink to express oils onto its surface, then lightly brush the twist around the glass exterior. Discard the twist.

Optionally, garnish with an olive pierced on a cocktail pick.