New Orleans. Two words that evoke images of colorful masks, colorful beads, and colorful characters, all carried aloft on a tide of alcohol. As with any massive party featuring masks and booze, the whole show could head off the rails at any moment – which, of course, is part of the charm.
Cocktail-wise, you could go one of two ways. Both are deeply ingrained parts of New Orleans’ drinking culture, but they're far from equal.
The Hand Grenade. A cloyingly sweet, tartly sour, impossibly booze-heavy combination that's served on Bourbon Street in an elongated, neon green plastic cup. If you want the world's worst hangover, this is the drink for you. We'd tell you what's in it, but the drink is actually copyrighted by Tropical Isle, the bar franchise that invented the mixture. There's even an infamous $250 reward for anyone providing information on other bars serving a Hand Grenade sans permission.
The Sazerac. A far superior option, and the quintessential New Orleans cocktail. Within its absinthe-washed depths, this drink bears the very history of its city. For that reason (among other paltry factors, like, say, taste, body, and self respect) this drink is the path you should take when in town – or if you're channeling the city's spirit elsewhere.
The Sazerac was born in the mid-1800s, either in a French Quarter apothecary shop owned by Haitian immigrant Antoine Amédée Peychaud, or at the Sazerac Coffee House – named for the Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac sold there. Which also inspired the name of the Sazerac Company, the current largest distilling company in the US.
Which story you follow depends solely on personal preference, but they both tie inexorably to the soul of New Orleans. And like so many parts of that city, the Sazerac’s history swaggers with bluster and bombast.
For example, some – including the Sazerac company – purport the Sazerac wasn’t just the first cocktail made in America, but also the first drink to ever bear the name “cocktail.” The legend goes that Peychaud served them in an egg cup (or coquetier) and the name was mispronounced enough that eventually the drink was just dubbed the “cocktail.” And while this is patently false, as the word “cocktail” had been recorded decades before either Peychaud or the Sazerac Coffee House were slinging drinks, you really do have to admire the confidence of the claim.
Although Sazerac (the company) would probably prefer you to make Sazeracs (the drink) with its own personal brand of booze, you can make it with any rye, really. Cognac was the original base spirit, poured after you've rinsed your glass with absinthe to lend an especially subtle flavor.
The Absinthe Rinse
In 1912, the US outlawed absinthe. The drinking public was panicked, believing the wormwood in the spirit (colloquially known as “the green fairy”) caused hallucinations and death. It doesn't, and as of 2007 absinthe is back to being legal, but the FDA still mandates that it can no longer contain a chemical compound called thujone. Though according to The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, because other culinary plants like sage have more thujone than absinthe ever did. In any case, with the stuff no longer outlawed, you can enjoy your Sazerac the way it was meant to be enjoyed.
Not everyone liked this rinsing aspect when it was first introduced, though. Back in the day when bar owners began adding more adventurous ingredients (like absinthe) to their menus, traditionalists wanted nothing to with them. Instead, they asked for an "old fashioned" cocktail, which eventually just became an Old Fashioned. Think about it – what’s a Sazerac without absinthe?
To rinse your glass properly, pour about a quarter of an ounce of absinthe in a chilled Old Fashioned glass. Swirl it around in the glass to get a nice base coat, then tip and rotate the glass to completely coat the sides and as much as the rim as possible without spilling. Discard (or drink) the remainder.
Alright, enough of the history. Let's get to the good stuff.
1 sugar cube
3-4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
2 oz rye whiskey
A splash of absinthe
Lay out two Old Fashioned glasses and fill one with ice. In the other, muddle the bitters, sugar, and a small splash of water. Keep going until the sugar is totally dissolved.
To the muddling glass, add rye, fill with ice, and stir thoroughly.
Discard the ice from the first glass. Add the absinthe, swirl it around to coat the glass, and discard the excess.
Strain the contents of the muddling glass into the absinthe-rinsed glass.
Twist a lemon peel over the drink to garnish, and enjoy.
As with any massive party, the time you spend drinking in New Orleans largely depends on which boozy path you wander. Whether you go the Sazerac or Hand Grenade route, it'll be a night you’ll never forget. Or, perhaps, never remember.