When you spend an entire week in the French Quarter in New Orleans, there will be cocktails. Lots and lots of cocktails. Here is one of the great ones.
My most cherished tradition in New Orleans is to head first thing for the French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s restaurant and order a Sazerac. Arnaud’s Restaurant is on Bourbon Street, but if you turn up Bienville and take a few steps, you’ll be there, under the bright blue neon sign.
The French 75 is a small, discreet bar, exquisitely designed and furnished in the quaint style of the 1800s, with gorgeous dark woods, black-and-white tile checkerboard floors, ornate trim and lightworks. The waiters and bartenders are in formal uniform—the bartenders with gorgeous white waistcoats trimmed in black and gold and the waiters in neat basic blacks.
The drink card manages to maintain the most traditional of New Orleans classic cocktails alongside decidedly modern creative cocktails. The staff, led by Chris Hannah, a New Orleans legend, is smooth, elegant, friendly and knowledgeable, and their cocktails are quietly wonderful.
This is one of the finest of Sazeracs in a city that claims the cocktail as its own.
The French 75 Bar is quite particular in how the drink is made. The Original Sazerac is made with Cognac, as Antoine Amédée Peychaud initially prescribed (he was a French-Haitian Creole and at the time New Orleans was a French possession); the revised American version, now considered standard, uses Old Overholt Rye Whiskey.
Again originally, absinthe was used to rinse the glass; however, for many years absinthe was banned in the U.S. so a local spirit named Herbsaint, with anise replacing the wormwood, was used for the Sazerac, and is used today in the French 75 Sazerac. Finally, the eponymous Peychaud’s Aromatic Bitters, devised specifically and magnificently for this cocktail, adds that essential bitter/aromatic essence.
One should not use ice in this drink: it will alter the balance and dilute the effect. To maintain the proper chill, the French 75 Bar keeps a separate deep-chill refrigerator for the Sazerac glasses. A rinse and swirl of Herbsaint in the chilled glass, a strong dose of Old Overholt Rye Whiskey, with its spicy, herbal-tinged and leathery-dry expression, a touch of sugar to bevel off any rough edges, aromatic bitters, and a twist of lemon to add a bright citrus tang—and you have the pride of New Orleans.
Better writers and heavier drinkers have written paeans of praise about the Sazerac, usually after consuming three or four, so suffice it to say that this is one of the truly great classic cocktails, simple, but difficult to make properly because of its simplicity: one must do everything precisely to have a great Sazerac, and the slightest deviation can easily ruin the balance of the cocktail. Yet they make it flawlessly, every time, at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar. You should start your own tradition and make this your first stop and your first cocktail.