The Making of the Modern Sazerac

Three top bartenders offer their signature takes on the timeless classic.

“A Sazerac is a really simple cocktail when you break it down,” according to Alex Jump.

Then again, most classic cocktails are—a point that inspires bartenders to riff on them, stretching their imaginations. In the case of the New Orleans–born staple, that simple profile calls for rye, Peychaud’s bitters, a sugar cube and a little absinthe, a tried-and-true combination that doesn’t appear to leave much wiggle room to get creative, until you start expanding on what, at its heart, makes a Sazerac a Sazerac.

For bartenders putting in the work to update it, there seem to be two routes: adding in new components that play well with the drink’s key ingredients, or swapping out one of those key ingredients with something original. (All agree, though, that the rye remains essential; some things shouldn’t be messed with.) Both approaches can offer a fresh perspective on the flavor and essence of this classic whiskey cocktail.

Branded Man Knob Creek

Alex Jump’s Branded Man

Jump takes the first route. Though her Branded Man cocktail—with its Jamaican rum and hazelnut eau de vie—doesn’t initially scream “Sazerac,” take it apart, and you’ll see a bold rye whiskey in Knob Creek® Rye, bitters and that dash of absinthe served cold and down. With heavy notes of coconut, banana and pineapple, it’s more tropical than you might expect from a Sazerac—but, then again, New Orleans, the drink’s spiritual home, can see some fairly tropical weather.

“The flavors together create something unique and bold,” explains Jump, a bar manager in Denver. And, in her opinion, as long as you have about two ounces of rye matched with a little sweetener, bitters and absinthe, you are officially keeping things within the Sazerac family—no matter what else you add. That’s why other bartenders also love playing around with this Senate-approved “official” cocktail of New Orleans, by merely altering or amping up a single ingredient.

Matthew Tanner, a concept beverage manager in Houston, has no interest in “deviating from what the Sazerac is supposed to be,” he says. “When I’m modernizing the Sazerac, I try to remember the general principles of why it’s a classic and not stray too far away from the original.”

Just a Really Good Sazerac Knob Creek

Matthew Tanner’s Just a Really Good Sazerac

That’s one reason he keeps his variant stripped-down, choosing to focus his modifications mostly on the sweetener. While the Sazerac has traditionally called for a white sugar cube muddled a bit with water, Tanner prefers to instead use what he calls a “rich” syrup, a blend of turbinado sugar and light brown sugar. Instead of adding mere sweetness, it injects some serious caramel and molasses notes, which highlight those flavors already inherent in the Knob Creek® Rye.

Similarly, Atlanta’s Kellie Thorn likes to “focus on the little elements that I feel improve the drink.” She agrees with Tanner that altering the sugar is one of the savvier ways to modernize a classic.  “I work for chef-owned restaurants and bars, so we often approach our cocktails from a culinary perspective and often turn to the pantry when developing our drinks.”

Spiced Sazerac Knob Creek

Kellie Thorn’s Spiced Sazerac

In her Spiced Sazerac, she uses the expected rye whiskey, absinthe rinse and Peychaud’s Bitters; the “little element” she tweaks is, like Tanner, her sugar, opting for a juniper-rich gum syrup that she makes herself.

Juniper, of course, is most known for its role in gin, and here it likewise injects some strong botanical notes. Those pair unexpectedly well with the herbal notes in both the absinthe and Knob Creek® Rye, which, Thorn notes, offers a potpourri of flavors like rye bread, baked apples and anise.

“Playing with the homemade ingredient is an easy way for us to get a little creative, but still make a Sazerac,” Thorn says. It’s also an easy way to start attempting twists on the Sazerac. You don’t need to get crazy and make things too complicated, affirms Jump, who jokingly quotes The Office’s Dwight Schrute: “‘K.I.S.S… Keep it simple, stupid. Great advice, hurts my feelings every time.’”

“But really,” she adds as a reminder, “classic cocktails are classics because they are simple.”

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Please drink responsibly. Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 50% Alc./Vol. ©2019 Knob Creek Distilling Company, Clermont, KY. Knob Creek® is a registered trademark of Jim Beam Brands Co. and is used with permission.

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Tagged: Knob Creek, Sazerac