On the trail of the Sazerac

In Drink, Travel by Lenore NewmanLeave a Comment

I’ve been away from my blog as I’ve been on the road, traveling to New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. One of the things I love about traveling is the experience of exploring other local foodways, and all three of these cities are rich in interesting culinary history and innovation.

New Orleans is a particularly wondrous city for a food adventurer, and amazing in terms of urban geography as well. Bourbon Street is definitely touristy, but it is a very interesting, and very old and rich space. The predominant drink on Bourbon Street these days is the Hurricane, a foul mix of sugar and food colouring and four ounces or so of hard liquor. It is typically drunk in rotation with the aptly named hand grenade by tourists from Middle America who run a little wild when they find themselves in a small corner of their buttoned-down country where they are allowed to run wild far from church, state, and the next door neighbours. With luck the result of an evening of hurricane guzzling is nothing more dire than a morning of rainbow coloured vomiting. But this shouldn’t indicate that I dislike Bourbon street; on the contrary I have great respect for a place where anything goes and has indeed gone for hundreds of years,  and further up the street towards the residential area of the quarter the street is really rather charming, complete with gaslight and the clop of horses on cobblestones. And I wasn’t there to drink hurricanes. I was hunting the perfect Sazerac.

The Sazerac is one of the oldest known cocktails, and is a long standing traditional drink of New Orleans. It is by any measure a fussy drink; the ingredients are usually 1 cube of sugar, 1 1/2 ounces of rye whiskey, 1/4 ounce of Herbsaint, 3 dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters and a lemon peel. To prepare one requires two glasses of the type used for the Old Fashioned. The first glass is packed with ice, and then in the second the sugar and the bitters are muddled. The Rye is added to the bitters, and then the ice is dumped from the second glass and the Herbsaint is swirled around that glass to coat it. The Rye/sugar/bitters is then added to the chilled coated glass and the lemon peel is used to rub the rim and then tossed in. The result is pleasant, cold, and refreshingly tart, and goes well with the velvet humidity of the New Orleans night. The cocktail was originally made with absinthe instead of rye; the herbsaint or in some cases pernod has been added to recreate the general flavour if not the euphoric buzz of the wormwood.Now that real absinthe is again available, I suppose one could create a classic version.

Our first stop was the Old Absinthe House, built in 1804 and converted into a bar in 1815. As with everything in the quarter, the bar has its connection to the pirate Jean Lafitte, who is reported to have met with Andrew Jackson on the second floor during the war of 1812 to hammer out an agreement to unite their respective forces in order to defend New Orleans from the British. Jean earned a pardon for his privateers out of the deal, and immediately returned to pirating, but the city was saved when the British arrived to find a well equipped band of brigands rather than a tired and ill equipped national force. In 1874 the bar introduced the Absinthe Frappe, and thus gained fame and its name, which lasted until prohibition closed the bar. Tea totalling supporters of prohibition wanted to destroy the marble bar publicly as a show that alcohol had no place in a civil society, but the bar disappeared in the middle of the night and likely led quite an interesting life during prohibition, and is now back where it should be. The Sazarac at the old absinthe house was quite pleasant, not too strongly flavoured.

Next up was Pat O’Briens, a sprawling bar located in a converted French theatre. The bar’s history stretches right back to prohibition, when its namesake decided to turn his speakeasy into a legitimate business. They are best known for inventing the hurricane, and the courtyard was full of tourists downing the concoctions from the distinctive glasses pioneered by the bar. We drank our Sazerac in the local’s bar, a cozy backspace where the drink prices are lower than in the piano bar and courtyard. The drink here had a much stronger taste of anise, as they used Pernod in addition to Herbsaint. The effect was pleasant if rather strong. Pat O’Briens also featured the first haunted woman’s restroom of the evening, which seems to be a feature of several Bourbon street establishments.

The final stop of the evening was my favourite, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop pub. The small two story brick and timber building is one of the only remaining French-style buildings in the quarter, and was built around 1770. I liked everything about this place; it is located in the residential portion of the quarter, and so it is much quieter than the madness a few blocks down. The ceiling is low and the lighting was mostly by candle, creating a dark and cozy atmosphere for plotting one’s privateering. Aside from being a place where Lafitte did pirate things, the bar claims to be the oldest continuously operating bar in North America. It was also a gay bar in the 1940s and 1950s, though a change in ownership evicted the gay community, which picked up and moved a few blocks down the street to found Jean Lafitte’s in Exile, which is the oldest gay bar in North America. The bartender was friendly and took a particular pride in his Sazeracs, which were the cheapest off the evening and also the best. The drink was solid, tart but not bitter, and very smooth and delightfully cold. I drank two as we listened to the pianist play by candlelight, which might explain why everything was spinning slightly by the time I got to bed. For those whose taste doesn’t run to the sickly sweet, the Sazerac is a nice alternative way to reach a proper Bourbon street state of mind. A sultry drink for a sultry town.

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