The story behind the Sazerac

Scott Gold
Scott Gold

New Orleans has plenty of inventions to brag about -- the King Cake, Cafe du Monde, Carl Weathers -- but the Sazerac remains, perhaps, its most impressive contribution. Legend has long held that the historic NOLA drink might even be America's first cocktail, and, while there are some holes in that story, the origins of the Sazerac are fascinating even without that title.

Antoine Amédée Peychaud is the man most associated with those beginnings. Just in case you're behind on your pharmaceutical history, he ran a drug store in New Orleans in the 1830s and created Peychaud's Bitters -- an ingredient still served in Sazeracs to this day. Peychaud was born in Haiti, but fled to Louisiana as violence erupted between the slaves and French colonists, and he eventually set up his own dispensary. On top of filling prescriptions, he apparently served his customers toddies mixed with his bitters and Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac. They became so popular that a bar called the Sazerac Coffee House started buying his bitters and pouring a blend of the Sazerac cognac, bitters, sugar, and absinthe as their signature cocktail. Eventually they purchased the rights to the bitters outright, and subbed the cognac for rye whiskey, a swap that probably caused Forge et Fils to say "sacrebleu" and other French words.

Peychaud's bitters
Flickr/Graeme Maclean

Things got complicated for the trendy cocktail when absinthe was banned in 1912, but the Sazerac-hungry public was fine with bartenders splashing anise-flavored liqueur around their glasses in its stead. Despite the government's shutdown of one of the Sazerac's key ingredients, it gave the drink the official thumbs up in 2008, when it was deemed the city's official cocktail by the Louisiana House of Representatives.

Now that you know all the gory details on this essential rye drink, mix one up for yourself with this recipe from famed NOLA bartender Chris McMillian. And make sure to toast your pharmacist when you do. You never know what those guys are capable of.

Kristin Hunt is a food/drink staff writer for Thrillist and would like to ask her numerous family members with medical backgrounds to quit being lazy and invent some cocktails already. Follow her to the test runs at @kristin_hunt.