I’ve never been to New Orleans and don’t know nearly as much as I should about its culture, but I do know Mardi Gras is upon us, and I know that’s good news. Again, not entirely certain what this festival entails—I gather it’s some kind of voodoo St. Patrick’s Day with better-looking celebrants and more elaborate costumes?—but I’ve been reliably informed that alcohol plays a prominent role. Cool.
Most booze-pilgrims to New Orleans seem to focus on Abita and Hurricanes, and there’s not a single thing wrong with that. When I finally make it down there, though, first thing I’m going to do, before I even complain about the humidity and overstate my love of jazz, is order a Sazerac.
This New Orleans native is one of our oldest and greatest classic cocktails, although the original recipe called for Cognac where we now use rye. The switch came sometime around 1870, when an aphid blight devastated France’s wine and brandy industries, making Cognac a lot harder to come by than the rye that floated reliably down the Mississippi River from Pennsylvania. The Cognac version is excellent, but I prefer the updated (a century and a half ago) rye rendition. The following recipe will assist you in properly toasting not just Mardi Gras, but each and every fat day that comes your way.
1/2 teaspoon absinthe
1 sugar cube
2.5 ounces rye whiskey
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
1 lemon twist
1. Rinse a rocks glass with the absinthe.
2. Place the sugar cube in a mixing glass, sprinkle a couple drops of water on it, and muddle it into a paste with either an official drink-muddlin’ stick or the back of a spoon.
3. Add a couple ice cubes, then administer the rye and bitters.
4. Stirring time! Whip a long-handled bar spoon, or a whatever-you-got spoon, around clockwise (or otherwise; doesn’t matter as long as you maintain your groove) for 20 or 30 seconds.
5. Strain into your absinthe-slicked rocks glass, garnish with the lemon twist, and get down to business.
1. Purists will insist you prepare your Sazerac in a rocks glass, but there’s no real advantage to that. Any straight-sided vessel of adequate volume will do—pint glass, cocktail shaker, flower vase, well-rinsed Mountain Dew can with its head cut off. You’ve got to strain it into a separate, absinthe’d glass no matter where you mix it.
2. Couple pieces of bad news about absinthe: It won’t make you hallucinate, and it’s pretty damn pricy. Those notable demerits notwithstanding, I think every moderately ambitious home-boozer should have a bottle, because it lasts forever. I’ve probably made 40 drinks with the 200-milliliter bottle of St. George Absinthe Verte I got three years ago, and it’s not half gone. That’s a pretty good value, even at $25 for about 6.5 ounces of liquor. Plus it’s 120 proof, and many brands are stronger than that.
3. I put “1/2 teaspoon absinthe” in the ingredient list, but the truth is you’ll probably need even less than that to coat your glass. You don’t want any absinthe pooling on the bottom; you’re looking for just enough to coat the sides a bit. So tilt the glass and carefully dribble a couple drops in, then swirl the glass around in your hand to spread the absinthe around the circumference, then dump any excess right back into the bottle. Shit’s expensive!
4. A small squirt of simple syrup is a perfectly acceptable substitute for the sugar cube, if that’s more convenient for you. Simmer equal volumes of sugar and water together for long enough to dissolve the sugar, let it cool, and you’re good to go. Simple syrup will keep in the fridge for a few months without incident.
5. Use American rye whiskey, not Canadian rye, which doesn’t have very much actual rye in the mashbill. And try to find something that’s at least 90-proof. If you’re saving up for a bottle of absinthe, then 80-proof Old Overholt rye will do you fine for about $16 per 750-milliliter bottle, but try to spring for something more assertive if you can. Lately I’ve been using the Wild Turkey 101 Proof, which will set you back about $38 per bottle. I used to recommend Rittenhouse, but it gets more expensive by the minute, which is what happens when too many dumb bloggers spend three straight years blabbing about what a great deal it is. Bulleit Rye, same deal.
6. A lot of people like to shake in a drop or two of Angostura bitters. I’m not one of them, but it’s cool if you are.
7. No, of course you don’t need the lemon twist. But it helps, and you should try.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.