Wed 23 Jun 2010
There’s something fitting about this particular Travel Tuesday going up on a Wednesday morning. A few weeks back, I told you about my trip to New Orleans and my highly scientific study of the Crescent City’s signature sandwiches, the po’ boy and the muffuletta. Three of each over the course of the trip…not too shabby.
But that pales in comparison to the dedication with which I threw myself into my third and final quest: a search for the best Sazerac in the city that created the cocktail. To say I’m fond of a well-made Sazerac is a bit of an understatement. Over the course of my trip I tried no fewer than five different versions of the classic rye-and-absinthe drink. I even paid a visit to the Museum of the American Cocktail (an impressive collection within the larger Southern Food and Beverage Museum).
I sought the Sazerac in the classics – the bars that claimed it as their own as well as the ones that have likely been serving it since its earliest days. I tried a few in bars with no obvious connection to the drink besides a commitment to well-crafted cocktails. I even checked out a Bourbon Street bar’s offering for the sake of comparison.
And what did I find? Generally speaking, there’s a reason a bar (or a bartender) becomes a classic. Whether through skill, art or sheer force of repetition, they deliver if you know what you’re looking for. But beware of any place that claims too close an association with something…you’re apt to find the spirit of the thing lost to the marketing and hype that surrounds it.
After the jump, the making of a Sazerac and a run-down on the contenders for my new personal favorite.
The Sazerac is one of my drinks of choice, and it’s the cocktail I use to gauge a bartender’s style. There’s a little bit of ritual to the preparation that takes the form of pouring a small measure of absinthe into an Old Fashioned glass and then spinning or twirling it to coat. From there, the drink is made with rye whisky (Sazerac is actually a brand name, but I find that many of the best cocktails I’ve had have been made with Old Overholt), a few dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, simple syrup and a lemon peel for garnish. Flourishes like flaming the lemon peel to ignite its essential oils are wholly unnecessary if the drink is made well…it’s all about nailing the proportions of rye to syrup and bitters.
So what did I find as I tasted my way through the French Quarter and beyond?
The ostensible home of the Sazerac is off to the left when you enter the Roosevelt Hotel, and it’s clear that they take their connection to the drink’s origin seriously. Even the glassware is branded – kinda makes it hard to order a gin and tonic when it’s served in a glass that screams “SAZERAC!” So I figured I was in for a textbook example of what a good Sazerac should taste like.
As it turns out I was exactly right. The Sazerac here was technically correct, and the bartender certainly knew her way around the drink. But it was a mechanical action, something that looked like it had been broken down into its fundamental steps to ensure uniformity. I suspect if I had stopped in again the next night and ordered a Sazerac from a different server I would have received a nearly identical drink prepared in nearly identical fashion. Good…but not fun.
Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt New Orleans
123 Baronne St.
New Orleans, LA
Over the course of my tastings there was only one Sazerac I actually tried with a meal. I had stopped by Lüke, acclaimed chef John Besh’s downtown brasserie, for dinner because I definitely wanted to visit one of his establishments and this one happened to be on the way back to my hotel. I had come for the pate de campagne, but I decided to wash it down with a Sazerac to add to my list of comparisons.
I’m so glad I did. I had snagged a seat at the ornately carved bar where I watched the bartenders prep cocktails and serve up everything from gulf oysters and gumbo to charcuterie and steak. It was impressive to watch them handle the numerous bar diners (Luke is adjacent to the Hilton St. Charles and seems to do a pretty brisk trade with the hotel guests stopping in for a quick bite). When I ordered a Sazerac I got a smile from the bartender and a curious look from the Texan couple sitting next to me. As we all watched the drink come together, I got the impression they’d be ordering their own soon enough.
I hope they did. This was a smooth, warming version of the Sazerac that started out with the acid of the lemon peel (which had been run around the rim), then quickly passed to the licorice-like flavor of the absinthe and then dissolved into the mild burn of the rye. I could have easily made a night of it at the bar, enjoying several of these and the upscale bistro food, but I was on a mission. Without a doubt this one earned a place in my top three Sazeracs of all time.
333 Saint Charles Ave.
If I were really going to say I’d tried the Sazeracs of New Orleans, though, I would need to stop by a few of the more traditional bars in the French Quarter for the sake of comparison. I was skeptical of Tujague’s, located as it is on Decatur street within spitting distance of Cafe du Monde. I was afraid it was one of those old places that gets by on tourists and the glory of days gone by.
I needn’t have worried. Tujague’s has earned its reputation as a must-try cocktail spot despite its popularity, not because of it. Bartender Paul Gustings is pretty much an institution in and of himself, and he’s got the kind of personality that assures you he knows more about cocktails than you’ve got the time or the capacity to take in. Even so, he seems to appreciate an earnest interest in one’s drink and was happy to take the time to talk with me about favorite drinks, classics that have fallen by the wayside, and how he’s able to continue serving well-made drinks despite the crowds that throng his bar most every night.
823 Decatur St.
New Orleans, LA
Old Absinthe House
For a different take on “classic” New Orleans, I made my way to Bourbon Street. Passing up the various establishments offering quantity over quality and bright colors over flavor, I made my way to the historic Old Absinthe House. The walls of this old dive are covered with business cards from patrons who have passed through, and as you might expect of a bar that’s right on Bourbon they’re primarily concerned with serving the drinks quickly and moving along. I wasn’t getting my hopes up as I got ready to order my cocktail.
Even so, I was pleasantly surprised to see the bartender stop for a second and pull out a bottle of absinthe to coat my disposable plastic cup before filling it with rye and simple syrup and shaking in the authentic Peychaud’s bitters. It wasn’t the prettiest presentation – and it omitted the lemon peel altogether – but it was still interesting to see the bartender going through a semblance of the ritual even in a busy Bourbon Street bar. I won’t be fighting my way back anytime soon, but it was a better drink than I had anticipated.
Jean Laftitte’s Old Absinthe House
240 Bourbon St.
New Orleans, LA
French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s
Arnaud’s is another one of those not-to-be-missed classic New Orleans destinations. It is routinely recommended for its traditional menu, but it was suggested to me for something else altogether: the French 75 bar. Named for a champagne cocktail, the bar has the vibe of a French bistro and a bar staff that’s both quick and helpful. I saw them make several cocktail suggestions to other patrons who were having a tough time making up their minds, and then I was impressed to see the positive reactions their recommendations received upon tasting. If I weren’t on a mission I might have allowed the bartender to steer me toward something new, too.
But I was there for the Sazerac, and I could tell I was in for a good one when I saw the bartender go to work. The absinthe-coated glass got a full spin in mid-air before being filled with the rye and the other components. A fresh lemon was peeled right in front of me and the curled skin was almost ceremonially placed into the glass. And the taste? It was spot-on. EXACTLY what I had been looking for, head and shoulders above even the drinks from Tujague’s and Luke. I had found my winner, and the new standard by which I’ll be measuring Sazeracs in the future.
French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s
813 Bienville St.
New Orleans, LA
I had one more cocktail experience to attend to before I could leave New Orleans. I had emailed the Passenger’s Derek Brown before my trip, knowing that he has been active with the Museum of the American Cocktail. I asked for some must-try recommendations on bars and cocktails to try while I was in town…besides the Sazerac.
One of his recommendations was right around the corner from my hotel. I was surprised when I walked in, because the bar has a decidedly trendy vibe, but I took a seat at the barand trusted that Derek wouldn’t steer me wrong. He had even mentioned the bartender, Chris McMillian, by name.
I shouldn’t have worried. McMillian is a man who seemed almost as out of place in that setting as I was. He’s a bartender’s bartender, not a mixologist or a bar chef or a cocktail wizard or what have you. And he knows how to make a hell of a cocktail. He asked me what kind of liquor I preferred and continued to talk with me as he worked up a drink of his own creation. Dubbed “Doctor’s Orders,” it combines Bourbon, white creme de cacao and Benedictine. The flavors were all in perfect balance, not to sweet and not too smoky. It was an impressive creation that had me convinced I was in the right place.
So how was McMillian’s Sazerac? I couldn’t tell you – after watching him work his magic from scratch I couldn’t possibly “test” him by ordering a Sazerac without insulting his already demonstrated skill. Just a guess here, but I’m thinking it would have been a hit.
Bar Uncommon at Renaissance Pere Marquette
817 Common St.
New Orleans, LA
So how did I do? Any favorites I missed? I’m already starting a list for my next visit!