The first Sazerac I ever ordered was in 2008 at a bar in Brisbane, Australia, called The Bowery, one of the only places making serious cocktails at the time. Like many of my bartending compatriots, during the early days of the cocktail revival I pored over David Wondrich’s Imbibe and did countless hours of my own research. I’d heard of the Sazerac. I did not, however, expect my order to be met with an automatic response in the form of a question: “New York or New Orleans style?”
“New Orleans style,” in the Australian vernacular, means 100 percent whiskey. The so-called “New York–style Sazerac” or “New York Sazerac,” which is typified by a split base of rye whiskey and brandy in equal proportion, was, and remains, the standard version in Australia. Today, it’s so ingrained in the Australian bartending psyche that if you want a Sazerac as it would be served anywhere else—i.e., “New Orleans style”—you have to ask for it specifically. Before I set foot in The Bowery, I’d never heard of it.
The written record of the New York Sazerac is, unsurprisingly, muddled. In New York, the drink’s logical birthplace, there are scattered references to the split-base formula and its attendant name. For example, Milk & Honey, one of the most influential cocktail bars in America, had the “New York” version on the menu in 2013 when it moved to the Flatiron District. (The bar’s original location on Eldridge Street famously had no menus.) The New York Sazerac also appears as a variant in Milk & Honey alumnus Sam Ross’ Bartender recipe app—but then again, he’s Aussie. More recently, beloved Harlem bar 67 Orange Street’s cocktail list also featured a New York Sazerac with a split base.
But apart from these few examples, influential as they may be, almost all other references to the drink come from Australia. A 2015 article in Australian Bartender magazine, the country’s primary industry glossy, is the top result on Google when searching “New York Sazerac” (quotes included). Difford’s Guide, the world’s largest online repository of cocktail recipes, makes no mention of a “New York Sazerac” anywhere in its thousands of entries, despite a split-base variation appearing as a personal preference of British founder Simon Difford.
On a visit to New York in 2012 I inquired around town about the city’s variation. No one I spoke to had ever heard of it. (Clearly, I didn’t visit Milk & Honey.) There, it seemed, as in other American cities I visited, the standard version was 100 percent whiskey-based. Steve Schneider, former bartender at New York’s Employees Only, who has probably pumped out more Sazeracs in the Big Apple than any other living bartender, told me the standard at EO was always made with rye. “I’ve made a lot of split-based Sazeracs,” he says, “but that’s mostly since leaving New York, and I’ve never heard someone call it a ‘New York Sazerac.’”
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To better understand why Australians might associate the split-base Sazerac with New York, it’s important to note that cocktail culture here is relatively new. In the early 2000s, when Australia’s first dedicated cocktail bars were opening, young bartenders, keen to hone their craft but lacking mentorship from an older generation, turned instead to books. Chief among them was Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail, one of the most influential works of the early cocktail revival.
Within its pages, DeGroff’s only recipe for the Sazerac features a split base of rye and Cognac. He doesn’t refer to it as a “New York” version; he simply states that he has modified the traditional rye drink to his own liking with a measure of brandy. But it’s not hard to imagine young Australian bartenders, looking to New York for inspiration, dubbing a recipe from one of the city’s greatest living bartenders “New York style.”
The story in the U.K. appears to be similar, and may be the conduit through which we learned of the “New York Sazerac” here in the Antipodes. Russ McFadden, a bartender at London’s Match—a venue that was, in the mid-2000s, an influential bridge between the ’tini culture of the ’90s and the ultraserious classics of the 2010s—also points back to DeGroff. “I am not 100 percent sure, but I think Dale DeGroff started it off,” he says. “We had the ‘New York Sazerac’ on the list because he described it as the best of both worlds.” Bartenders like McFadden also played a role in popularizing the drink by this name in Australia. Like many from the U.K. at the time, he emigrated to Melbourne in 2008, where he opened an outpost of Match, passing along the “New York Sazerac” as the standard recipe to dozens of young Aussie bartenders.
I’m not sure if our version of the Sazerac, now itself a bona fide modern classic, will ever properly catch on in New York. But to countless bartenders in Australia and the U.K., DeGroff’s split-base version will always be the standard. In retrospect, the fact that New York was so prominent in the title should’ve been a dead giveaway that the drink was not actually “New York style.” As a New Yorker friend of mine’s mother once sagely advised, “If it says ‘New York style,’ it ain’t New York style.”