At most bars, signature cocktails are the product of constant evolution. Subtle tweaks typically alter the formula little by little over the years. At New Orleans’ Cure, the evolution of the house Sazerac began well before the bar opened in 2009, and was solidified by 2010. The recipe hasn’t changed since.
“To find where Cure’s Sazerac begins, you can go back pre-Cure,” says owner Neal Bodenheimer. Not necessarily all the way back to the murky late-19th-century origins of the NOLA classic, but Bodenheimer waves in the general direction of the cocktail renaissance of the mid-aughts.
In particular, the version Bodenheimer views as the starting point is bartender Chris McMillian’s take, served at The Ritz-Carlton in 2007: two ounces of rye, plus a sugar cube muddled with a splash of water and Peychaud’s bitters, presented in a glass rinsed with Herbsaint or Pernod.
This was the version that Bodenheimer used as his master recipe when he relocated from New York to New Orleans that same year. He recalls offering this interpretation to his guests at The Delachaise, a wine bar and bistro, with an optional orange peel garnish—a personal choice he preferred—though lemon peel was the traditional finishing touch. And this version would become the starting point for what—after many, many R&D sessions—would become the house Sazerac at Cure.
Cure opened in 2009, but the “Cure Collective,” a group of bartenders including Bodenheimer, Kirk Estopinal, Ricky Gomez, Danny Valdéz, Rhiannon Enlil, Maks Pazuniak and Turk Dietrich, began dissecting the drink long before the doors ever opened to the public.
“When we got together at Cure, we’d have a weekly meeting where we’d break down classics and have debates about cocktails,” Bodenheimer recalls. “The Sazerac was one of our most raging debates.”
Eventually, the team boiled down the iconic drink to a handful of key attributes: It’s essentially an improved whiskey cocktail, that is, a drink that relies on a small measure of liqueur in addition to the requisite spirit and bitters, with double aromatics—meaning both absinthe (or Herbsaint) and lemon contribute to the drink’s fragrance—made with a proprietary bitter, namely NOLA’s own Peychaud’s. The presentation is distinctive, too: It’s typically served “up”—without ice—but is served in a rocks glass rather than a coupe.
The workshopping that followed yielded what may be the most precise, meticulously calibrated Sazerac in the city.
Though numerous ryes were considered, the team landed on Sazerac 6-year-old rye as the base for their signature serve. “We’re lucky that Sazerac has made it a priority here in New Orleans,” Bodenheimer says. “It’s available here; we know it’s a luxury.”
From there, the drink is mixed with Demerara sugar, Estopinal’s choice. “That was a huge debate,” Bodenheimer recalls. “I was a white sugar guy, Kirk believed in dark sugar for it. Ultimately, we all agreed Kirk’s use of Demerara sugar was a better call, we all agreed it made a better Sazerac.”
Though it was easy to agree on Peychaud’s bitters, the amount required some experimentation. For precision and consistency, Cure relies on drops from a medicine dropper instead of dashes, which can vary based on the dasher opening and fullness of the bottle. Specifically, they landed on 21 drops, roughly the equivalent of three dashes.
That said, Dietrich, Cure’s longtime general manager (now managing partner of new agave bar VALS, also part of the Cure empire), opted for 23 drops. “It was a style preference,” Bodenheimer recalls. “He liked Michael Jordan, [and] he thought it made a better Sazerac. It’s not the recipe I’d put forward, but Turk probably made the most Sazeracs at Cure, and there are a lot of people at Cure who now make a 23-drop Sazerac. It’s a stylistic thing.”
While Cure’s original Sazerac used absinthe as the rinse, Bodenheimer switched to Herbsaint, an herbaceous liqueur made in New Orleans, when it was reformulated and a 100-proof version was released in 2010. That locked in the formula. “Herbsaint was the last piece,” Bodenheimer notes. “It hasn’t changed since then.”
Naturally, the technique was as finely tuned as the recipe itself.
The liquids are stirred without ice to integrate them, and then stirred again, with five or six Kold-Draft ice cubes, for 40 to 45 revolutions. “There’s a lot to lose as you’re stirring the drink, you have to be aware of it,” says Bodenheimer. “Like any cocktail that’s going up, there’s not a lot of forgiveness. The last thing you want to do is overstir it and have it taste watery. But also you can’t have it be too warm and boozy.”
From there, a chilled glass is pulled from the freezer, and prepared with its “double aromatics:” four atomizer sprays of Herbsaint on the inside—rinsing and dumping the excess was deemed wasteful—and lemon peel expressed on the exterior of the glass, so it will linger on the guest’s hands. “We’re careful to get [the Herbsaint] on the inside, not outside, of the glass,” Bodenheimer says. “Save that for the real estate of the lemon oil.”
Finally, the drink is strained into the prepared glass. Bodenheimer is adamant that this particular drink should be poured slowly, and as close to the glass as possible to avoid creating aeration or bubbles. “These are textural cocktails, you want to maintain the texture as much as possible,” he explains. “Some people do everything right and just pour it in as fast as they can and the cocktail is not everything it could be.”
The meticulously crafted drink hasn’t changed in over a decade, even as the recipe has “infiltrated New Orleans” as Cure-trained bartenders move on to other venues.
“We turned the screws on it so hard in the beginning, that once we felt it was done right, we felt like we’ve done it right for 12 years,” says Bodenheimer. “It’s one of the few we hold hard-and-fast rules on. We like to say nothing’s sacred at Cure, but the Sazerac is kind of sacred.”