In Search of the Ultimate Sazerac

We asked 14 of America's best bartenders to submit their finest recipe for the Sazerac—then blind-tasted them all to find the best of the best.

When is the best time to drink a Sazerac?

For St. John Frizell, owner of the Brooklyn bar, Fort Defiance, and a former resident of New Orleans, the cocktail’s spiritual home, the answer is all the time. “I drink them as often as possible,” he says. “Afternoon, at lunch, before dinner.”

Is it also a nitecap, as the late Sasha Petraske believed? Sam Johnson, a bartender at Clover Club in Brooklyn and Death & Co. in Manhattan, isn’t certain. “It could be an after-dinner drink because it’s drier,” he suggests. “But for a nitecap, I look for a little more decadence.” But, he adds, “It has this wide window of opportunity, in terms of time, circumstance, etc.”

Meanwhile, Chloe Frechette, PUNCH’s assistant editor, thinks the drink is appropriate any time you need a refresher. “I think of Sazeracs as smelling salts,” she says. “You shake it off with a Sazerac.”

When is the best time to drink 14 Sazeracs? Clearly, it was a recent Monday at noon in the PUNCH offices, where Frizell, Johnson, Frechette, PUNCH social media editor, Allison Hamlin, and myself gathered to sample a baker’s dozen, plus one, of Sazeracs made by some of the best bartenders in the United States. Our hope was to find the epitome of the time-honored mix of sugar, Peychaud’s bitters, anise-flavored liqueur (typically either absinthe or Herbsaint) and rye whiskey (or Cognac, but more on that later).

The cocktail is currently enjoying widespread popularity not seen since the early years of the 20th century. In the decades following the repeal of Prohibition, the Sazerac ever so slowly receded from the national stage, eventually becoming little more than a regional favorite in the city where it was born, New Orleans. It was there that many curious, young cocktail bartenders (many traveling to the town for the annual Tales of the Cocktail convention) rediscovered it. They then took the drink back to the bars they worked at in their native towns.

This corresponded with the phoenix-from-the-ashes rebirth of the drink’s various ingredients during the first decade of the current century. More distilleries started making the once-almost-vanished rye whiskey; absinthe, thought to be banned in the U.S. for nearly a century, returned to shelves; and the distribution of Peychaud’s, a New Orleans product, expanded beyond Louisiana.

Today, you can get a good Sazerac almost anywhere, including New York, Boston, Kansas City and Portland, Oregon, where a few of the bartender competitors hailed from.

As has been the case in past PUNCH “Ultimate” tastings of the Negroni, Old-Fashioned and Whiskey Sour, the judges were surprised by the degree of variation they found from drink to drink. Some were weak and watery; others dense and dank. In many cases, one flavor component of the four dominated, rendering the drink too sweet or too bitter. Fairly frequently, the judges were surprised to see the character of the spirit vanish in the mix, suggesting that the Sazerac, if done poorly, can be less a whiskey drink than a flavored-whiskey drink.

“It’s like an Old-Fashioned,” said Johnson, “in that you’re dressing up a spirit.”

The Sazerac offers a lot of choices for the bartender, and a number of the contestants availed themselves of those freedoms. The most rigid dogma surrounding the cocktail commands that it be made with rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, Herbsaint or absinthe, a muddled sugar cube and a twist of lemon, which is traditionally expressed over the drink and then tossed away.

However, a number of bartenders supplemented the Peychaud’s with Angostura bitters. One drink left the lemon twist in the glass. Another did without sugar altogether. As for spirit, several participants reached for Cognac, either as the sole base liquor or as an addition to rye. There is wide precedent for this practice. A popular history of the Sazerac has it that the drink was, in the mid- to late 1800s, originally made with Cognac. When the Phylloxera plague of the late 19th century decimated European grape vines, making Cognac hard to come by, Americans switched to using rye in their Sazeracs. Recent scholarship by cocktail historian David Wondrich, however, has revealed this to be largely balderdash, asserting that the drink didn’t gain wide acceptance until the 1890s and was always made with rye—never brandy.

But cocktail myths, like Bruce Willis, die hard, and many bartenders continue to make Sazeracs “the original way,” with Cognac. Taste-wise, this isn’t such a crime. Cognac Sazeracs are delicious, but after more than a century of use, rye possessed the ideal flavor the judges were after.

That said, one of the two top drinks (there was a tie) slipped some Cognac in under the judges’ noses. The base spirit from bartender Tom Macy, of Brooklyn’s Clover Club, was composed of an ounce and a half of Hochstadter’s Straight Vatted Rye and a half-ounce of Louis Royer Force 53 Cognac. Otherwise, the drink was fairly standard, using a teaspoon of rich demerara syrup, four dashes of Peychaud’s, one dash of Angostura and a rinse of Pernod absinthe. Macy was very specific in his instructions for the lemon twist. It was to be expressed four to six inches above the surface of the drink. This may have given him an edge; the panel encountered a few Sazeracs marred by an overpowering hit of lemon oil.

Equaling Macy in votes was Frizell. His recipe fell very close to that of Macy’s, but he called on simple syrup, fewer dashes of Peychaud’s and a full-rye base of Old Overholt. The judges found it lighter in body than Macy’s, but high-toned and pleasant.

Holding third place was a drink from a bar known for New Orleans drinks, Maison Premiere. (It was a big day for Brooklyn.) Maison recently began a tableside Sazerac service, and the submitted recipe, from bar director William Elliott, is one of the recipes offered at the bar. The panel sensed the specimen was a bit of an outlier, but kept coming back to it, finding its medley of flavors deep and intriguing.

The drink’s distinctive flavor came from three non-traditional twists: the use of Bitter Truth Creole Bitters in addition to the usual Peychaud’s; the strongly flavored absinthe, Jade 1901, the work of absinthe expert, Ted Breaux; and green anise-infused demerara syrup. The whiskey in question was Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye.

Also received favorably was a rye-Cognac, split-base Sazerac from bartenders Lynnette Marrero and Jim Kearns, a recipe they used when they worked at Rye House in Manhattan; another split-base drink from Tim Miner of Long Island Bar in Brooklyn; and a straight-ahead rye Sazerac from Ryan Maybee of Manifesto in Kansas City.

Somewhat surprisingly, none of the entries from New Orleans placed. But I doubt the bartenders hailing from that proud city care much what a bunch of New Yorkers think. You can take the Sazerac out of New Orleans, but you can’t take the Sazerac from New Orleans. It’s roamed far and wide over the past decade, but it will always belong to the Big Easy.

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