Depending on who you ask, the history of the Sazerac is as muddy as the Mississippi Delta. The cocktail world’s warrior poet/historian David Wondrich, for example, has thrown cold water on the Sazerac’s origin story—including the common declaration that it was America’s first cocktail. But whatever mythmaking might have helped place the Sazerac within the pantheon of great cocktails, the strong, spicy drink deserves to be made with care. That includes using the right bottle of whiskey at its base. Typically made with rye (or if you’re a Sazerac fanatic, ALWAYS MADE WITH RYE, YOU TROGLODYTE), a Sazerac also has big, pushy flavors coming from the absinthe and heavy dashes of Peychaud’s bitters. So while you don’t want to lose out on the spiciness and complexity that rye provides, you also don’t want something so spicy that the ingredients are all fighting against each other. Here, our picks for the best bottles to make New Orleans’ official cocktail.
A list of Sazerac-ready whiskeys couldn’t possibly be complete without the rye of the same name. Lightly spicy with some hints of citrus, it’s a spot-on compliment to both the Peychaud’s bitters and the absinthe. If you’re a high roller, you can splurge on the 18-year-old version of the rye, but the 6-Year will work just fine.
It may be a budget bottle, but don’t you dare call it cheap. If you’re an everyday Sazerac drinker, first of all, good for you. But secondly, Old Overholt should be on your bar at all times. Lightly spicy, like the Sazerac 6-Year, but with more bourbon-y vanilla notes, it’s a favorite among bartenders, and at $18 you can’t beat the price.
If you want a bigger punch in your Sazerac, Rittenhouse will give it to you. A “barely legal” rye—one made with exactly the legal requirement of 51% rye—the rye spice here is softened with flavors of brown sugar and vanilla, but at 100 proof it gives you a bit of a boozy punch in the mouth.
This is the point when Sazerac purists grab their absinthe-rinsed rocks glass and hurl it at the wall in a rage. But not everyone likes rye, and those people are just as deserving of a Sazerac or two. Basil Hayden’s is a high-rye bourbon, so it functions like a slightly sweeter version of a low-rye rye whiskey, like Rittenhouse. Just the thing for those looking to tone their Sazeracs down a bit.
For a Spicy, But Still Balanced Sazerac: Few Rye Whiskey ($62)
The newest entrant on this list, Few has only been around since 2011. But it’s already on our shortlist of favorites. It’s a good bet in a Sazerac because of its herbaceousness, which melds beautifully with the absinthe. And with a notably higher rye content than bottles like the Sazerac 6-Year or the Rittenhouse, it will have more of the spiciness that many have come to expect from their whiskey.