In Search Of… The Sazerac

In search of the Mai Tai, I realized that I hadn’t been following an authentic recipe and while the fruity homemade concoction I called a Mai Tai tasted fine, allowing my home version to evolve into a cocktail closer to the Trader Vic original was a huge improvement. Will the same be said of the Sazerac?

We’ve been making the Sazerac with bourbon, absinthe, simple syrup, Peychaud’s bitters, and lemon rind but history of the cocktail indicates that it began with cognac. The story begins in 1850s New Orleans at the Sazerac Coffee House (AKA saloon). Proprietor Aaron Bird began serving a new drink made with Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac and a bitters made by the local apothecary, Antoine Amedie Peychaud. Around 1870, with new owner, Thomas Handy, the Sazerac Coffee House changed its namesake cocktail from cognac-based to whiskey-based, the main impetus for the change being Europe’s phylloxera epidemic which devasted much of France’s vineyards, cutting off imports of cognac.

The earliest Sazerac recipe in print is in William T. Boothby’s The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them (1908). Through the turn of the 20th century, rye whiskey remained the main ingredient even after cognac became easily available again. Absinthe, another ingredient of the Sazerac, was banned from the United States from 1912 to 2007 due to the belief that the high-proof green spirit made with botanicals such as grande wormwood, green anise, and sweet fennel, was hallucinogenic. During this time other anise-flavored liqueurs were substituted, most notably Herbsaint. Currently, we use a product called Absente, marketed as “absinthe refined” that is made with southern wormwood, a genetic cousin of grande wormwood.

The Sazerac, closely associated with New Orleans as its place of origin, has become New Orleans’ official cocktail and in 2019, the Sazerac House opened to the public as a museum for New Orleans cocktail culture.

Sazerac Ingredients Primer
Cognac is a distilled spirit made from fermented white grapes from defined geographic regions (crus) in Cognac, France, twice distilled, and aged in French oak casks for at least two years.
Rye and bourbon are whiskeys made from a distilled grain mixture known as a mash bill. American rye whiskey must be made with at least 51% rye, while bourbon must be made with at least 51% corn. The remaining 49% of the mash bill may be a combination of grains, including barley, corn, and rye.
Absinthe is an anise-flavored spirit that originated in Switzerland in the late 18th century. It is made from wormwood, green anise, sweet fennel, and other medicinal and culinary herbs.
Bitters are a neutral spirit that has been infused with herbs, spices, fruits, and other botanicals. Although bitters were original marketed in the 1800s for medicinal purposes, they are mostly used today in cocktails such as the Sazerac, Manhattan, and Old-Fashioned.

In this drink lab, we’ll work our way through the evolution of the Sazerac beginning with the original made with cognac. Then we’ll make two additional cocktails using the same recipe but substituting the cognac with rye and bourbon.

Sazerac (original with cognac)


  • 1.5 oz cognac (Courvoisier V.S.)
  • Splash of Absente
  • 2 – 3 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
  • 1 sugar cube
  • Lemon peel for garnish


  1. Chill a coup glass with ice water.
  2. In a shaker, muddle the sugar cube with the bitters. Add a splash of water if needed to dissolve sugar.
  3. Add ice and cognac to the shaker and shake gently.
  4. Remove ice water from the coup glass and coat the glass with a splash of Absente.
  5. Strain the contents of the shaker into the glass.
  6. Rub the lemon peel around the rim of the glass and use as garnish.

Tasting Notes

After successfully returning to the origin of the Mai Tai, we have great expectations for the original Sazerac as well. This version is smooth and lightly sweet. The cognac’s fruit and vanilla flavors combine well with the licorice and lemon notes. Peychaud’s adds a hint of bitter to the party. Overall, it’s drinkable, but slightly disappointing as it’s not quite as enjoyable as our own bourbon version.

The late 19th century version using rye whiskey in place of cognac doesn’t prove to be an improvement either. Bulliet Rye Whiskey produces a Sazerac that is spicier but lacking in oak and general complexity. The rye adds notes of clove with a peppery finish.

Many modern iterations of cocktails, such as the Manhattan, have substituted bourbon for rye whiskey. We’ve followed the trend, using Bulliet bourbon for Sazeracs for several years and enjoying corn sweetness and light oak in combination with the anise notes from the absinthe. Recently we’ve found that Woodford Reserve bourbon, with its flavors of maple, barrel char, pepper, and clove, does an even better job of creating a complex, satisfying cocktail with very few ingredients.

Our conclusion is that neither the cognac nor rye versions will supplant bourbon, particularly Woodford Reserve as our spirit of choice for the Sazerac. Additionally, we’ve found little difference in taste in using simple syrup instead of muddling a sugar cube. If you have simple syrup on hand, it’s quicker and easier.

Sazerac (our favorite with Woodford Reserve)


  • 1.5 oz. bourbon
  • Splash of Absente
  • 2 – 3 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
  • ¼ oz. simple syrup
  • Lemon peel for garnish


  1. Chill a coup glass with ice water.
  2. In a shaker, add ice, bourbon and bitters and shake gently.
  3. Remove ice water from the coup glass and coat the glass with a splash of Absente.
  4. Strain the contents of the shaker into the glass.
  5. Rub the lemon peel around the rim of the glass and use as garnish.

Unlike my search for the perfect Mai Tai, where a bit of research and experimentation with different ingredients led to a cocktail epiphany, I came full circle in my exploration of the Sazerac, realizing that what I started with was pretty darn good!

Published by J Reilly

Boozy Lifestyle: Elevate The Everyday With Booze As Your Muse by Julia Stacey Reilly is available on Follow J Reilly @boozy_lifestyle on Twitter and Instagram.

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