The High Life: Sazerac

SazeracFood and drink are a huge part of my life. Sometimes the whole point of the trip is to eat at the destination. Like Paris. Mmmm, Paris. But that’s another story. Every now and then I’ll have a post on some delicious creation, hopefully with some travel-related material thrown in, and those will be filed in a category called “The High Life.” How much higher can you get than 40,000 feet?

The best part of being an elite frequent flyer, at least for me, is the access to complimentary domestic upgrades to first class. And that means free booze. The quality of spirits and other alcohol on airplanes varies depending on the cabin and the type of flight. For example, standards are low on domestic flights, on which my usual drink is Dewar’s. Atrocious stuff, but if I drink the first one quickly and with a lot of ice, the next several will go down just fine. Once I even had to arm-wrestle an oil executive traveling from Houston to Anchorage who wanted to lay claim to the last four minis. ;)

Fortunately, once home I can draw upon my dangerously overloaded bookcase/liquor cabinet. Mixing cocktails is basically cooking with liquids, and I love to cook.

“Points, Miles, & Martinis” by The Weekly Flyer already has a semi-regular series on cocktails, so please be sure to check out his blog, as well. I did come up with this idea separately before learning another blog had already claimed that turf, but alcohol can be great at smoothing over these little upsets. If you’re reading this, remember that I owe you a drink when we finally meet!

To start off I want to draw inspiration from one of my Christmas presents, a bottle of absinthe, which I specifically asked for because I needed it to make Sazeracs. The Sazerac is one of the oldest known cocktails and is named for the Sazerac de Forge et Fils brand of cognac used in its original form in New Orleans around the mid-1800s.

The problem is that its long history, along with the ban on the production and distribution of absinthe in the 1900s, has led to substitutions and variations. I have several cocktail manuals, giving me a few Sazerac recipes (and their authors’ opinions) to draw upon. After some tastings and revisions, here’s what I came up with:

1 sugar cube (~ 1/2 teaspoon)
3-4 drops Peychaud’s bitters
splash of water
3 oz rye whiskey
1/4 oz absinthe
lemon twist

Fill your glass with ice to chill. Muddle the sugar with bitters and water to dissolve slightly in a shaker. Add ice, whiskey, and absinthe to shaker, then stir—don’t shake. Remove ice from glass and strain your cocktail into chilled glass, adding a lemon twist as garnish.

I like my drinks strong and flavorful, so I sized it up from the recipes I saw. :) Rye whiskey is recommended, but be careful. It is spicier and less sweet than bourbon, and I wasn’t satisfied at first when I used Jim Beam. I eventually used Redemption (95% rye), which has a smoother taste. You could compromise with half rye and half bourbon, and I’ve been happy in the past using just Knob Creek.

In addition, some recipes call for a combination of Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters and use much less absinthe—just rinsing the glass, tossing what’s leftover. I feel that if I want Angostura bitters, I’ll drink a Manhattan. And I do want to taste the absinthe, which is why I measure out a larger portion directly into my shaker. You can play around with it to suite your taste.

This version is close to what I was served in New Orleans last October when I was in town for a wedding. Be sure to check out Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street. It was a welcome oasis after enjoying the juvenile mayhem outside. As you can see from the recipe, it’s very similar to a Manhattan, but with an anise (licorice) flavor that can excite a bored palate.

Another great version of the Sazerac was served to me at the Plumed Horse in Saratoga, CA. I didn’t see the bartender make it, and it appeared to have orange juice. I started trying to replicate it by substituting juice for the sugar and water, but unfortunately I could make it work. If you want to play around with this at home, I’d love to hear your results!

A good drink is always a treat. The Sazerac is not something you can get just anywhere, so save it for a place where the bartender knows what he’s doing, or for home when you have a half hour to spend refining your approach.

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Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • kathy k

    that looks delicious (can you tell I”m still at work?). Usually I drink red wine. My mixed drink of choice is generally a Manhattan. Sometimes a Martini. and once in a while, a Rusty Nail.