A chatty bartender deftly mixes a Sazerac for a customer eager to try New Orleans’ official cocktail, a stiff drink that entices visitors to loosen up and embrace the joie de vivre of a city that seems to be in a perpetual state of celebration. He muddles a sugar cube with Sazerac Rye Whiskey in a chilled old-fashioned glass, then adds a generous shot of scarlet red Peychaud’s Bitters. The mixture is vigorously stirred with ice and strained into a second glass that’s liberally coated with Herbsaint, an anise-flavored liqueur that became a substitute for absinthe when it was banned in 1912. A twist of lemon, and there you are. Cheers!
The “customer” can get the recipe, but he can’t actually imbibe because the licorice-scented drink is part of a virtual cocktail demonstration at the Sophisticated Spirits exhibit at the Sazerac House, an attraction that opened Oct. 2 in a historic building in the Central Business District.
An homage to the Big Easy’s longstanding cocktail culture, the facility features a floor-to-ceiling illuminated display of Sazerac products that wow visitors the moment they enter.
The Sazerac House is designed to tell the story of New Orleans’ distinctive history and heritage through the lens of its illustrious cocktail scene, says general manager Miguel Solorzano.
“New Orleans is rich with culture, vibrant personalities and interesting connections with countries around the world,” Solorzano said. “The Sazerac House gives a context to all of that information and to the drinks and traditions visitors will experience in the city today.”
Exhibits unfold on three floors, beginning with a micro distillery on the ground level that produces rye whiskey, the main ingredient in a Sazerac. A large window facing Canal Street offers passersby a glimpse of the 500-gallon still.
The Power of the Dash showcases the production and bottling of the famous Peychaud’s Bitters, another crucial Sazerac ingredient. Visitors can sniff botanicals, dried herbs and spices used to make bitters, demystifying the pungent liquor for the uninitiated.
Antoine Amadie Peychaud is credited with creating the Sazerac, widely regarded as America’s first cocktail, in his French Quarter apothecary shop in 1838. His family recipe for bitters was sold medicinally, and it went down smooth with sugar and cognac.
Over time, New Orleanians started demanding Peychaud’s Bitters just to lift their spirits. When the price of cognac skyrocketed in the 1870s, it was replaced with whiskey, paving the way for the modern version of the beverage.
Free samples containing a couple sips of the cocktail are available at the Sazerac House, but this is not a bar, so if you want to kick back with an iconic New Orleans libation, you’ll have to move on. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of bars in New Orleans, so you don’t have to go far.
Tucked into the swanky Roosevelt New Orleans hotel, the Sazerac Bar is a landmark drinking establishment almost as famous for the Ramos Gin Fizz as for its namesake, the Sazerac. That’s partly because the Ramos Gin Fizz, a creamy concoction made with gin, milk and egg whites, was a favorite of Huey P. Long, aka the Kingfish, the flamboyant Louisiana governor who frequently met with his constituents at the Sazerac Bar on Baronne Street in the 1930s before it moved to its current location in 1949.
According to local lore, Long couldn’t get the cocktail the way he liked it in New York, so he flew the Sazerac’s head bartender to the city in 1935 to show bar staff at the New Yorker Hotel how to make it New Orleans style.
If you order one, tip your bartender generously. A lot of bicep-building shaking is required to get those egg whites to a meringue-like frothiness. Henry C. Ramos, the drink’s inventor, used to employ dozens of “shaker boys.”
The making of a Sazerac involves a bit of showmanship, too. After pouring a soupçon of Herbsaint into a glass, the bartender tosses it high in the air to evenly distribute the aromatic liqueur and catches it as effortlessly as a circus juggler.
Not every bar is so entertaining. Some barkeepers simply spritz the glass with Herbsaint. Where’s the fun in that?
No matter what you’re drinking, you’ll want to stay a while and soak up the sophisticated ambience of another era. The old walnut bar and vibrant murals remain much as they have for decades. If you want to hear a good story, ask your bartender about the bullet hole in the wall.
It’s worth noting that when the bar opened on September 26, 1949, management did something radical; they admitted women. Fashionable ladies came in droves, an episode that became known as “the storming of the Sazerac,” but it was really more of a girls’ night out, not an act of civil disobedience. Local women in their finest vintage attire recreate the event annually.
The French 75 cocktail, named for a WWI French 75-millimeter field gun because of its “fire power,” is as intricately woven into the fabric of New Orleans culture as jazz and Mardi Gras. Imbibers in search of a flawless version of this highbrow champagne and cognac cocktail need look no further than the French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s, a revered institution of fine-dining in the French Quarter.
Some may raise their eyebrows at the cognac. The drink is often made with gin, but this establishment believes cognac was the original spirit. As one of the oldest restaurants in the city, Arnaud’s is all about tradition.
Bar manager Christoph Dornemann, sporting a crisp white jacket and contrasting black bowtie, vigorously shakes lemon juice and simple syrup with Courvoisier VS Cognac, strains it into a chilled champagne flute and tops it with Moet & Chandon Champagne. He slides it across the bar with a smile.
The bar serves approximately 250 French 75 cocktails a night.
Dornemann also makes a mean Sazerac, but this is one of the rare instances where the bar breaks with tradition.
Dornemann explains that “the recipe has been streamlined” to keep up with customer demand.
Instead of muddling a sugar cube, a time-consuming process, simple syrup is used, and chilled whiskey eliminates the need to stir with ice.
But “streamlined” doesn’t mean the bar fails to deliver the spicy, herbaceous flavors customers expect. In fact, this Sazerac delivers an extra punch.
“We have a very high amount of bitters in ours,” Dornemann says. “We use six dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters, where a lot of places do two or three.”
Bitters prime the palate, bringing out the whiskey’s more nuanced undertones.
Like the Sazerac Bar, you get a floor show when the Herbsaint is poured.
“We still toss our glasses here,” Dornemann said. “We aren’t a very theatrical bar, but in terms of flair, this is the one thing we still do that embodies the classic way of making this drink.”
Raise a glass to New Orleans, a city that knows how to mix a cocktail.
IF YOU GO
The Sazerac House.Wed.-Sat. 1-6 p.m. (Hours subject to change.) Free. 101 Magazine St., New Orleans, Louisiana. Free. 504-910-0107, www.sazerachouse.com
Where to Stay
Bourbon Orleans Hotel. This historic French Quarter hotel is close to many of the city’s top attractions, restaurants and bars. $180-$505 per night. 717 Orleans St., New Orleans, Louisiana. 504-523-2222, www.bourbonorleans.com
Where to Eat
Justine. A new upscale French restaurant with a burlesque show. Entrees $21-$34. 225 Chartres St., New Orleans, Louisiana. 504-218-8533, www.justinenola.com
Where to Drink
The Sazerac Bar. The Roosevelt New Orleans, 130 Roosevelt Way, New Orleans, Louisiana. 504-648-1200, www.therooseveltneworleans.com
French 75 Bar. Arnaud’s, 813 Rue Bienville, New Orleans, Louisiana. 504-523-5433, www.arnaudsrestaurant.com
New Orleans & Company. 2020 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, Louisiana. 800-672-6124, www.neworleans.com
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