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 It was originally made with Cognac, but since 1880 or so, rye whiskey has been the standard.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

Daiquiri2

Caribbean Islands (1600s)
Santiago & Havana, Cuba (1900 – 1920)

The Daiquiri is nothing more than a basic “sour” of spirit, citrus, and sugar… but somehow transformative. Done right with the best limes you can find, a Daiquiri will astound people who only know the slushy Slurpee kind they churn out at the chains. If the classic, up style of serving this drink was good enough for JFK and Hemingway, it’s surely good enough for Joe Blow.

Soul-brother of similar sours/daisies (Margarita, Sidecar, Jack Rose, Whiskey Sour), the Daiquiri was popularized by Jennings Cox, an American mining engineer working in Santiago, Cuba around 1896. But mixing rum with lime and sugar was nothing new to the Caribbean, nor to British sailors who were issued daily rations of rum, limes, sugar, and water as “grog” as far back as 1740.

In the beginning, a “sour” was any spirit with lemon and sugar – and not necessarily tart, as the name would suggest. Cocktail historian David Wondrich has uncovered an 1856 menu from Mart Ackermann’s Saloon in Toronto, Canada that lists a Gin Sour and a Brandy Sour. In his pioneering 1862 book “How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion,” Jerry Thomas includes the Gin Sour and Brandy Sour as members of a family of drinks, along with their antecedents: punches, crustas, and daisies. A recipe for a Rum Sour appears in the 1895 cocktail book “The Mixicologist.” Shaking the old rum, lime, and sugar “grog” formula with ice may have been the official crowning of the Daiquiri as we know it, sometime in the late 19th century. The Daiquiri began to appear in recipe books during Prohibition, while Hemingway was living in Havana, Cuba and enjoying a range of Daiquiri variations made by El Floridita bartender Constantino Ribalaigua Vert.

Balance is the key to this drink. A quarter-ounce more or less of any ingredient, a bit too much dilution, and the whole thing falls apart. With drinks like this (small, specific measurements), quality makes a difference. Use the ripest limes you can get. And don’t skimp on the rum. Many mass-market brands cut corners to keep up with demand. The gold standard for many bartenders is Havana Club (in either the blanco or 3-year aged expression). We’re living under a frustrating and harmful embargo against Cuba here in the United States, in place since 1960. If you live abroad or don’t mind the risk of smuggling contraband, use Havana Club (but pay attention to the label – Bacardi recently bought the rights to sell a rum made in Puerto Rico called “Havana Club” in limited US markets – it’s not the real deal). Your next best choices are Flor de Caña 4 from Nicaragua or Cruzan Aged Light Rum from St. Croix. The 86 Co. is starting to broaden its distribution of the excellent Caña Brava, made in Panama.

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, Jigger
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirits: Light rum (recommended: Havana Club blanco or 3, Flor de Caña 4, Cruzan, Caña Brava)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Simple syrup
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Spent lime hull half, Lime wheel

HOW TO

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

In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:
2 oz light rum
1 oz lime juice
3/4 oz simple syrup
1 spent lime hull half

Shake well to blend and chill, then double-strain (to catch small bits of ice and citrus pulp) into the chilled glass. Garnish with a lime wheel, either notched on the rim or floating.