Episode 107 - Attack of the Sazerac!

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What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Welcome to episode 107 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast!

Thanks for joining me for this little in-between-isode, where I’m going to give you a preview of a cocktail industry conference and trade show called Tales of the Cocktail. I and the rest of the Modern Bar Cart squad are gonna be rolling into N’Awlins Louisiana for this event very soon (weather permitting - which I’ll cover in a few minutes here). And I wanted to share this experience with you, our home listeners, because I think it’s one of the coolest cocktail-focused events that takes place in the world.

The nice thing is that it’s not just for bartenders, distillers, and brand reps. YES - they make up a large volume of the attendees. But there’s also a great deal of home enthusiasts who attend the conference, and that’s why I want to run through the basics with you here. My goal is for you to get a really good sense of what Tales of the Cocktail is, then check out our video and audio coverage of this year’s event as it rolls out over the next few weeks, and decide if this is the sort of thing you might want to attend in the future.

We paid for plane tickets, hotel rooms, and seminars, and YOU just get to be a fly on the wall and soak in the highlights.

The Origins of the Sazerac

But before I spill all the juicy details, let’s take a really REALLY thorough look at this episode’s featured cocktail, which is the mighty Sazerac.

Now, obviously, when you’re talking about New Orleans, the Sazerac is absolutely the first cocktail that springs to mind. It’s legendary. It’s the Old Fashioned that somehow managed to be cooler and more delicious than the Old Fashioned, which is quite a feat indeed. But many questions arise when discussing this legendary tipple: 

  • Where and when did it phylogenetically branch off from the Old Fashioned?

  • What’s the “proper” recipe, considering that multiple interpretations exist?

  • And what role does it play in the history of the American cocktail?

To begin answering these questions, I think we need to start with the city of New Orleans, its heavy French influence, and its original spirit of choice: brandy.

If you were paying attention in history class, you’ll know that New Orleans came into United States ownership in the year 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase - arguably one of the best real estate deals in history - at least for us.

So, as reason would dictate, there was a healthy French and creole population in the city of New Orleans, and a lot of trade ties with France, even after the territory was ceded fully to the United States.

As a result, for the first half of the nineteenth century, the preferred spirit of New Orleans was French brandy. Grape distillate, which, by all accounts at the time, was often aged in charred oak barrels - a practice relatively new to the spirits world. So as we move forward in history here to the days of the Sazerac, let me make one thing abundantly clear:

Barrel-aged spirits became popular around the same time that the city of New Orleans began to exert its drinking culture upon the surrounding areas of the United States.

This is where things get complicated, hairy, and indistinct. It seems like every bourbon brand named after an old white guy has a story about when the rickhouse burned down and they discovered that charred barrels were the future. But I think there are other, perhaps more plausible reasons why American distillers started putting their juice into charred oak barrels.

My two leading hypotheses (supported by existing scholarship) are as follows:

A.) Because France and Scotland were leading the way with barrel aging, soon to be followed by Ireland, it made sense for American producers to do the same in order to compete with foreign spirits.

And 

B.) Barrels remain expensive commodities to this day. In order to form them into their characteristic shape, you need to heat the staves, which is subject to human error. This could be the happy accident that led to charred oak barrels. But so could the process of “re-purposing” a barrel that had previously held something a little objectionable (like fish). So, to purge it of its former character, you’d put it to the torch and fill it anew.

Phylloxera: The Bug That Killed Brandy

So to recap - by the middle of the 1800s, New Orleans was a French influenced town exerting its preferences on American whiskey makers, who were sending barrel-aged spirits down the Mississippi to compete with French brandy, when one crucial event occurred: the phylloxera outbreak of the 1850s.

Phylloxera is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart because, in my opinion, it’s one of the pivotal moments in spirits and cocktail history. What happened was, some British scientists (of course, blame the British), took samples of North American gape vines and root stock and transported these samples back to Europe. But little did they know that they had a stowaway in the form of the phylloxera nymph. This is a pesky little bug that feeds on vines until they die, and although American grapes had the opportunity to develop some immune responses to the organism, no European grapes could withstand the blight.

As a result, the ensuing 20 years was a sad time for grape growers across the pond, and correspondingly, the wine and brandy industries were all but wiped out.

Changing Cocktail Sensibilities

If you’re following along at home, you’ll notice the curtains parting to allow for the dominance of U.S. made whiskey in the New Orleans market for the first time following the 1850s. And that little opening provided by phylloxera was all American whiskey needed.

Combine this with the turmoil of the American Civil War in the 1860s, and we have a drinking and social culture that’s primed for a shake-up in the 1870s and beyond, with new social structures emerging, new families and financial interests taking hold, and the frontier moving beyond New Orleans to the boom towns of the Mid-west, Texas, and the west coast.

This was a time when railroads criss-crossed the nation, and when telegraph wires revolutionized communication. It was a time of rapid expansion westward. The Manhattan and the Martini rose to power following the influence of French vermouths and London dry gins. Things began moving faster and faster, and in the drinking world, two classes of people arose. There were those who didn’t appreciate the watering down of the cocktail with lots of prissy ingredients, and there were those who embraced the rise of elaborate pre-prohibition creations wholeheartedly.

The sazerac stands betwixt these two groups as a drink that bridges the gap between the past and the future of what the cocktail would become. According to David Wondrich in his book, Imbibe!:

The Sazerac wasn’t just an improved whiskey cocktail, it was the improved whiskey cocktail. [...] the sazerac took what for the rest of the country was a quick station stop on the cocktail’s hurtling progress from that watery thing they were making in the Hudson Valley (read: the Manhattan) to the icy, streamlined, dry martini, perfected it, understood it, and learned its secret name.

When the rest of us wen whoring after vermouth and orange juice and other adulterants, or locked our tastes down to Highballs and Old Fashioneds, they [the people of New Orleans] stuck with what they knew was good.

The reason why I paint this picture (with heavy assistance from Mr. Wondrich) is to explain why the Sazerac is what the Sazerac is. It’s an “in-between” cocktail. More adventurous than an Old Fashioned, but much more conservative than the French-inspired vermouth-powered cocktails that flooded in during and after the 1870s. In other words, when it first appeared in print in the late 1890s, the Sazerac had a firm grasp on where it came from, but also, a comfort with free play and experimentation in the ingredients category.

The Sazerac Cocktail Recipe

And I think this would be an ideal time to talk about what those ingredients are.

To make the Sazerac cocktail, you’ll need:

  • 2 oz rye whiskey (or cognac, if you’re a Frenchy McFrench-Face who’s still mad about phylloxera)

  • 1 sugar cube, or a half oz of granulated sugar

  • Several dashes of a creole-style Aromatic bitters (like Peychaud’s or our Embitterment Aromatic Bitters)

  • And Absinthe

In a mixing glass, soak your sugar cube with several generous dashes of bitters, add a tiny splash of water, and muddle the mixture until you’ve got an aromatic slurry that’s partially dissolved. Then, add ice and your whiskey and stir for 20 seconds until properly diluted and chilled. In a rocks glass, add ½ oz of absinthe and coat the bottom and inner sides of the glass, then discard, shoot, or return the absinthe to its bottle as you please. Add ice, strain the cocktail into the absinthe rinsed rocks glass, and garnish with an expressed lemon twist.

You’ll notice that the process I just explained is much more complicated than a traditional Old Fashioned. And this is due, in large part, to the Absinthe rinse.

Absinthe, for those of you who don’t know, if now legal again in the United States. It was banned in a number of places around the world for bad evidence that it made people hallucinate and do crazy things, but these stories have been largely discredited over the years. But back in the days when the Sazerac came to power, it was just another one of those French spirits that was in vogue, and so of course, it found its way into the cocktail.

Of course, there’s the glass rinsing method I just described, but it just feels a bit wasteful for me to pour out a bunch of sweet, delicious absinthe that I just used to coat a glass.

This is where one of my favorite esoteric cocktail tools comes in - the atomizer. This device is designed to spray a fine mist of something fragrant (like a perfume) over a distributed surface area. So you can see how it might be even more attractive, cost-effective, and aesthetically pleasing to mist the inside of your glass with Absinthe before making your Sazerac.

Now, there’s arguments on either side of the debate - with most purists leaning toward the absinthe rinse - but that’s why we’re going to publish a video in the next day or two here so you can check out both methods and decide which one is right for you.

The last thing I’ll mention regarding the Sazerac formulation is the lemon twist. This is another departure from the Old Fashioned, which employs an orange twist. And really this change is due to the dark, anisey flavor profile of the absinthe and the creole-style bitters. In my view, the lemon is designed to emphasize that this drink is hard to pin down. If you’re indulging in a fine, dark whiskey, there’s a brooding anise flavor in the background. And before that absinthe gets the chance to steal the show, the lemon oils swoop in like a golden ray of light from heaven.

The Sazerac is grounded, but it doesn’t sit still. It’s a momentary respite from reality, but it has its finger on the pulse of the world. That’s why I love it, and it’s why I enthusiastically encourage you to sample one in the comfort of your own home, or in New Orleans, the crescent city, next time you visit.

About Tales of the Cocktail

So, now that you’ve received your ten minute crash course on one of history’s most important libations, let’s talk about New Orleans’ premiere cocktail conference: Tales of the Cocktail.

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Reading straight from their website:

Founded in 2002, Tales of the Cocktail® has grown from an annual walking tour of historic New Orleans cocktail bars, into the world’s premier cocktail festival. Each year the international bar and spirits industry is welcomed to New Orleans for a week of seminars, tastings, networking and special events. With hundreds of opportunities developed specifically for bartenders, distillers and other bar and spirits professionals, Tales of the Cocktail is the industry’s annual meeting place for the exchanging of new ideas, products and techniques.

Now, I’m not sure if you’re the kind of person who attends conferences regularly in your line of work, but if you are, I want to paint the correct picture for you regarding Tales, as it’s affectionately referred to in the industry.

This isn’t the sort of event that’s held at a convention center. In fact, it’s historically been held at some of the most historically important (and not to mention beautiful) hotels in the French Quarter of New Orleans. This year it’s based out of the Royal Sonesta Hotel, and previously it’s been based out of the Hotel Monteleone. So if you’re concerned about putting on miles and miles of walking in a generic mega-building, you’ve got the wrong idea.

The next point I want to make is about the high quality of the education they offer in the form of their “seminars.” These are 1-2 hour panels and tasting crash courses you can attend on any number of subjects, from spirits, to bar management, to cocktail science, to history, and beyond. Just to give you a core sample, my seminars for this year are as follows:

  • Two tasting seminars called “Liquid Apples” (where we’ll get to taste apple brandies from all over), and “So You Think You Know Mezcal” - which seems pretty self-explanatory.

  • Then I’ve got a seminar on the history and theory of cocktail menu design

  • And finally, a seminar on how to cost out a cocktail at a given bar.

The first two are focused on tasting and really digging into the nuances of a specific spirits category, and my other two seminars are more espionage work I’m doing to continue providing you, our dear listeners, with bar hacks you can use at home.

In the past, I’ve attended seminars on the future and science of citrus, podcasting for bartenders (which is the genesis of this podcast), and tasting seminars where I got to try rare Chartreuse products and even a Cognac from 1914.

And the cool thing is: if you spend a nominal amount of money on seminar tickets, you get a wristband that allows you free and unlimited access to all the tasting rooms that are running in the rooms adjacent to the large seminar halls. This is where you can go to meet distillers and mixologists who are sampling out their wares for all to taste.

So from 10 am to 4pm every day of Tales of the Cocktail, you can enjoy premium education, free spirits and cocktails, and all that the great city of New Orleans has to offer. If that doesn’t sound like a sweet deal, I don’t know what does.