All too often, the alleyways of New Orleans’ French Quarter are abused by the young. The unseasoned collegiate Bacchae flood NOLA in search of the stuff to write the legends of their twenties. The rookie reaches for the Hurricane, or some other saccharine Slurpiesque booze bucket from any Bourbon Street slinger. And the locals are happy to oblige him. However, to really drink deeply of Nouvelle-Orleans, to let the taste of the Crescent City linger on in your palate (rather than displayed all over the pavement of Jackson Square at 2 A.M. ala Jackson Pollock, in beige) there is only one weapon of choice.
On my last trip to New Orleans, I had an evening of free time to roam the Quarter before an early morning meeting in Baton Rouge. For this evening, my business partner and I chose to make a “restaurant crawl” of a kind, taking each course of our meal at the various “Grand Dames” of New Orleans fine dining–those being Broussard’s, Brennan’s, Galatoire’s, Antoine’s and Arnaud’s. Modern fusion and celebrity-chef establishments have begun to creep into the Quarter, but for me, the Grand Dames invented fusion through the French-Carribean-African-Spanish blend of creole cooking. And those early restauranteurs are the true celebrity chefs of NOLA.
But before that feast commenced, the first order of business was the cocktail that would arrest the attention of my palate (and take off the post-flight jitters). We wander into the back bar in Arnaud’s, where a bartender, always in white uniform, is wiping down the highball glasses with a white rag. The bar–mahogany and brass rail–is empty at the moment, too late for the happy hour and too early for the post-dinner drinks. The barman comes over, says his hellos and asks his question.
We don’t know what to have. I ask, “So, what is the classic New Orleans drink? And I don’t mean the Hurricane.”
The word ricochets off of us. Perplexed, we ask “What is a “SAZZ-ah-rack?”
By this point, Sal, (of course his name is Sal), is walking us through the chemistry of this beverage. Like Jazz and other children of the New World, Sazerac is an American story. In this case, the story is drinkable. Sazerac may very well be the first indigenous American cocktail. The beverage first appeared in New Orleans at a pub called the “Sazerac House” around 1850. It is a variation on the old-fashioned. The beverage starts with an ice cold glass–a luxury in balmy 1800’s Napoleonic Nouvelle-Orleans. The glass is rinsed in absinthe–recently restored to bar racks after a 90-year ban was lifted. Then a muddled sugar cube with bitters goes in the cup. The main course is a young American rye whiskey, three legitimate glugs. The beverage is capped with an abused lemon peel, rimming the glass then plopped into the amber.
Sal says “This…is a sipping beverage.”
He isn’t kidding. The sugar takes the edge off the rye, but the unfamiliar bloom of anise from the absinthe hangs back like a mysterious potential paramour across the room. The lemon corrects any ideas you might have had about the anise, leaving an oddly refreshing feeling on the tongue despite the fact that you just had rye whiskey on an empty stomach.
Now, there is an outfit that tries to sell Sazerac pre-mixed. Like any mix in a contoured plastic jug, you get what you pay for. The ritual of this drink, the care taken with the muddling, rinsing, glugging, rimming and plopping cannot be duplicated in some pre-fabricated party mix. Don’t bother with it. Do this beverage justice, honor your heritage and sip.
Fortified, the Sazerac prepared us to tackle the Grand Dames and every thick gumbo, ettoufee, and Bananas Foster that they could throw at us. The lesson was learned. To do New Orleans right, you have to sip and savor, not binge and bulge at the seems.