Not long after the Sazerac hit the scene in the 1890s, the Zazarac followed with a similar formula and presentation as its New Orleanian cousin. While the former is an icon of the cocktail canon, the latter has faded into obscurity. But why? The story of the long-forgotten Zazarac is one of confusion, copyright and quiet evolution both at home and abroad.
To begin, some disambiguation. The Sazerac is, of course, a rye-based cocktail made with Peychaud’s bitters, served in a chilled, absinthe-rinsed glass with no ice. The Zazarac, meanwhile, is a bourbon-based drink made with Angostura bitters and a dash of absinthe, also served in a chilled glass sans ice. Over the course of the early 20th century, however, the drink developed into something far more complex. But first, the name.
As early as the 1840s, “Zazarac” began to errantly appear in newspaper ads in reference to the Cognac producer Sazerac de Forge & Fils. Later that century, it appeared again in a newspaper article referencing a book titled The Zazarac Lying Club, a title more commonly printed as The Sazarac Club. Both were, apparently, little more than spelling mistakes. Around the same time, however, the word (this time spelled “Zazarack”) made its Broadway debut as a character in Archibald Clavering Gunter’s Fresh, the American, a comedy set in Egypt.
It wasn’t until the first years of the 20th century that the word “Zazarac” would appear in reference to a cocktail. In 1904, a drink traveling under the name showed up in newspaper ads for a bottled cocktail sold across the state of Montana, just a few years after Thomas H. Handy & Co. started bottling and distributing its Sazerac Cocktail (and others) nationally. Exactly what was in those bottled Zazaracs remains a mystery, though historian David Wondrich posits that the drink was likely a Sazerac-like cocktail branded in such a way as to evade copyright infringement on the Sazerac name.
But the bottled Zazarac was not alone. In 1910, the first known recipe for the “Zazarack” was published in Jack’s Manual by Jack Grohusko. This version features a bourbon base, sugar, Angostura and absinthe, served down without ice. Grohusko’s recipe instructs the reader to “Set [an] old-fashioned glass in ice for three minutes” to chill. Sounds a lot like a Sazerac, though an expressed and discarded lemon peel is notably absent from the recipe.
As the Zazarac’s life in the United States continued to evolve, it became more complicated along the way. Jacques Straub’s Manual of Mixed Drinks gives the reader a choice between bourbon and rye, and adds orange bitters, anisette and a lemon peel to Grohusko’s recipe from three years prior. Wondrich thinks these additions may have been designed to replicate the Sazerac that Straub likely tasted in bottled form; in recent years, it’s been confirmed that there was a hint of maraschino liqueur in the Handy & Co. bottled Sazeracs.
When Prohibition began, the Zazarac, like many American-born drinks and drink-makers at the time, made a leap across the Atlantic to the new loci of cocktail culture: London and Paris. In Harry of Ciro’s ABCs of Mixing Drinks (1922), Harry MacElhone published a recipe for a Zazarac that’s almost identical to Straub’s—with the notable addition of Bacardí rum. Though MacElhone wasn’t based in the States, could he have tasted a bottled Sazerac from there and wondered what his version was missing? Bacardí was still a pot still rum at the time, and “it would have some of that weird funkiness that maraschino has,” says Wondrich, making it a feasible substitute. In 1930, MacElhone’s recipe was reprinted with a new serving suggestion (up, instead of down) in The Savoy Cocktail Book, which also included a typical Sazerac recipe in its pages.
Even with the pedigree of being included in several notable recipe books, the Zazarac faded from public consciousness after Prohibition. The early 20th century saw New Orleans develop into a major tourist destination, solidifying its many unique attributes, from architecture to music to food and drink, while books like Stanley Clisby Arthur’s Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em, published in 1937, codified the city’s cocktail contributions, the Sazerac chief among them.
Though modern bartenders would have surely noticed the bourbon-based Zazarac in Jack’s Manual, The Savoy Cocktail Book and others, the drink has remained obscured by the long shadow of the Sazerac, an imitation unworthy of resurrecting, or perhaps more likely, a victim of its proximity in both name and construction. “The Sazerac-Zazarac thing is so old and so natural, in America anyway,” says Wondrich, “that it’s hard to put beginnings and ends on it.”