As the spotlight turns to New Orleans for Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII, let's take a taste of the Big Easy.
That could mean po' boy sandwiches, beignets with small mountains of powdered sugar, or a piping bowl of gumbo.
But in New Orleans' cocktail world, one drink reigns supreme: the almighty sazerac.
The recipe contains just a few ingredients: cognac and/or whiskey, bitters, sugar and a glass washed with absinthe. The result is an especially aromatic cocktail with a complex blend of flavors that's a little spicy, an herbal touch of anise from the absinthe and just enough sweetness to make it all go down smoothly.
Can a proper sazerac be found around Sacramento, a.k.a. 2,200 miles away from this cocktail's New Orleans birthplace? Though the sazerac isn't listed on many menus around Sacramento, any craft cocktail bartender who's worth his old-time waxed moustache should be able to make one on demand. The sazerac is considered one of the all-time classics, and sometimes is referred to as the oldest American cocktail.
"Craft bartenders size each other up on their sazerac," said Chris Tucker, who oversees the cocktail program at midtown's Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co. "The sazerac is always a good conversation starter. Its significance is huge and still very much enjoyed."
Or, as Jason Boggs of the Shady Lady Saloon said: "If you call yourself a bartender and don't know how to make one, you're a hack."
The sazerac's roots date back to the mid-19th century, when Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac was imported to New Orleans. A simple cognac cocktail called the "sazerac" was soon born with help from locally made bitters. Peychaud bitters, a key sazerac ingredient, is a New Orleans invention that today is a standard ingredient for any bar.
That original sazerac recipe was switched up following France's phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s. Much of the grape production needed for making cognac was wiped out, and legend goes that bartenders were forced to turn to whiskey for making sazeracs.
Either way, the sazerac has become synonymous with New Orleans, and was named the city's official cocktail in 2008.
More than a century after it was created, the sazerac spirit is thriving in Sacramento. This city is gaining national recognition as a hub for cocktails, including a recent feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Imbibe, a leading cocktail magazine, also listed Sacramento in its Top 10 of "places to visit in 2013."
We popped into a few Sacramento watering holes to see how their bartenders approached sazerac.
The good news is that all showed a reverence for the drink, each with their own interpretation and special touch. Heed their advice and savor a sazerac as the San Francisco 49ers lay the hurt down (we hope) on the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday.
"Making a sazerac, it's the perfect halftime entertainment," said Tucker.
Shady Lady Saloon
1409 R St., Suite 101, Sacramento
Interpretation: Classic rye-based recipe
The Shady Lady was the first stop in this sazerac search in Sacramento. The cocktail list here reads like a drinkable museum exhibit, with such classics as the whiskey old-fashioned and the Tom and Jerry, along with new-school inventions. The sazerac is listed prominently among its offerings.
"We put it on our menu from the very start," said Carl Wenger, a bartender and manager at the Shady Lady. "That drink is taking you back to the 1800s."
Wenger recommends using an old-fashioned glass (or lowball glass) for sipping any sazerac. Even though the typical sazerac recipe yields just a few ounces of cocktail, that extra headroom in the glass helps to showcase the drink's signature aromas. After all, you can't really stick your nose into a coupe glass.
While the most traditional sazerac recipes call for a sugar cube to sweeten the drink, Wenger swears by simple syrup. Muddling a sugar cube with bitters can be timely during a bar's peak hours, and can sometimes leave a bit of grittiness in the drink.
"The simple syrup gives a better texture, and that makes for a better drink," said Wenger.
Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar
2718 J St., Sacramento
Interpretation: Time-honored rye-and-sugar-cube formula, with minimalist approach.
The typical sazerac doesn't look like much, just a few ounces of whiskey- colored liquid sans ice. While lemon peel is often used for a garnish or rubbed along the glass's rim, Matt Nurge of the Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar tosses that to the side.
"I believe in the classic recipe to disregard the lemon," said Nurge. "It's an aesthetic thing to me. I don't want anything to get in the way of my enjoyment, and like to keep absolutely as simple as possible."
Some bartenders skip the sugar cube for making sazeracs, but Nurge welcomes this approach. He likes the rustic touch a sugar cube gives over simple syrup, while still being mindful not to oversweeten the drink.
"I like a sazerac on the drier side," Nurge said. "Too much sweetness can overshadow other tastes."
Nurge's main sazerac twist is adding a dash of Angostura bitters with three dashes of the mandatory Peychaud bitters. He says the Angostura bitters add depth to the lighter-bodied Peychaud bitters. But in the end, it's all just four basic ingredients: spirits, water (in the form of ice in the mixing glass), bitters and sugar.
"That's what makes a cocktail," said Nurge. "Everything else is just 'a drink.' "
Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co.
1630 S St., Sacramento
Interpretation: Classic cognac sazerac, with a modern spritz.
Brad Peters' sazerac blends the old and new by mixing 1 ounce of cognac with 1 ounce of rye. While other bartenders use a few drops of absinthe to prepare their sazerac glass, Peters uses an atomizer. It's a sprayer for adding small amounts of spirits to cocktails, such as spritzing vermouth over a Manhattan.
"This is ideal for getting the aromatics on top of the drink," said Peters, who also serves as vice president of the United States Bartenders' Guild chapter in Sacramento.
Peters' sazerac was the sweetest one tasted on this jaunt. His recipe calls for 1/2 ounce of simple syrup, whereas others might opt to sweeten with just 1/18 of an ounce, or a bar spoon of simple syrup.
Bar manager Tucker said the perfect sazerac is a matter of taste.
"If you like straight rye sazeracs, then play with different types of ryes," he said. "It's all about fine- tuning."
BOTTOMS UPKnowing how to make a proper sazerac is a must for any bartender who reveres the classics. The recipe calls for just a few key ingredients, but the right execution results in an especially aromatic cocktail. Many sazerac variations exist.
Here's one time-honored recipe to get you started, from "Old Man Drinks: Recipes, Advice, and Barstool Wisdom" by Robert Schnakenberg (Quirk, $14.95, 160 pages):
1/2 teaspoon absinthe
1 dash Peychaud's bitters
1/2 teaspoon simple syrup
2 ounces rye whiskey
Coat the bottom of a chilled old fashioned glass with absinthe. Add bitters and simple syrup, then rye. Garnish with lemon twist.