Mastering the Sazerac With St. John Frizell

At the 140-year-old Gage & Tollner, a purist’s take proves the value of time-honored technique.

“I learned how to be an adult in New Orleans,” says St. John Frizell, a graduate of Tulane University. “And the Sazerac was a really sophisticated, local’s way to order at the time.”

The bracing combination of rye, absinthe, sugar and bitters was one of the first cocktails that Frizell, owner of Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance and partner in the soon-to-open Gage & Tollner, learned to make back in 2006 while tending bar at The Good Fork. (Owners Ben Schneider and Sohui Kim are also his partners at Gage & Tollner.)

“It’s always been my favorite drink to prepare, because there’s ritual to it,” says Frizell. “Icing down the glass is part of that—and sets a good Sazerac apart from a bad one, in my opinion.”

The original formula of the cocktail, which was likely invented at New Orleans’ the Sazerac House in the mid-19th century, remains the subject of debate, with some citing rye as the proper base spirit and others Cognac. (The latter notion has largely been debunked by historian David Wondrich, who asserts that the drink did not gain wide acceptance until the 1890s and was always made with rye.)

For the base, Frizell, a purist, prefers Old Overholt, a widely available and affordable rye. He cites as its primary appeal its mellow, earthy cocoa profile, which works particularly well in combination with absinthe. “It’s a bit controversial, because it’s only 80 proof, but to me, using a higher proof rye makes for a too-hot cocktail—it’s not like there’s ice to dilute it,” he says, referring to the Sazerac’s traditional composition, which omits ice from the serving glass. In his version, Frizell combines 2 ounces of Old Overholt, and a scant quarter ounce of simple syrup. “Muddling a sugar cube is cute and old-timey, but simple allows you to control the level of sweetness,” he says. “It also assures there’s never a little pile of sugar at the bottom of the drink.”

While living in New Orleans, Frizell found himself captivated by the specter of absinthe. “Any impossible-to-procure spirit is catnip to a bartender,” he says. At the time, Herbsaint—the locally made anise-forward liqueur, invented in 1934—was the default substitute for absinthe, which was banned from 1912 to 2007 for its alleged psychoactive properties. “When I started bartending, absinthe was still widely unavailable, including the time I worked at Pegu [Club] under Audrey Saunders. She used Pernod [pastis], rather than Herbsaint.” To this day, Frizell still uses Pernod, but opts for their higher-proof absinthe.

Rather than rinsing a rocks glass with the absinthe, Frizell uses a Misto atomizer (“Be sure to pump it first, to pressurize it,” he notes) to mist the glass before chilling it with liquid nitrogen. “When guests smell that anise, it makes them turn around and ask questions. It whets their appetite to order a Sazerac.”

For the bitters component, Frizell adds two dashes of Peychaud’s (“because it’s tradition”) and a dash of Angostura, which brings out the baking spice notes in the rye, something he also picked up from Saunders. “A Sazerac shouldn’t be overloaded with bitters, though,” says Frizell. “It should be smooth and delicately nuanced.”

After stirring and straining the drink into a chilled rocks glass, Frizell expresses a lemon peel into the cocktail. The swath of zest should always be discarded, he says, to avoid upsetting the balance of the delicate drink. “To me, the Sazerac speaks for itself.”

St. John Frizell's Sazerac

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