With Mardi Gras coming next week, people of all kinds and creeds are searching for a way to celebrate without slipping into bejeweled, beaded hell. Fat chance. You're one of those souls whose skin takes on a ghostly pallor when you're dressed in purple, gold and green? You habitually cower from thrown beads after that incident on Bourbon Street back in '98? Tough. Fat Tuesday is a time for general outrageousness and overall tackiness -- a natural in mainstream American culture. But the Sazerac cocktail, which may be America's finest contribution to drinking culture, is a classy exception.
The Sazerac, a combination of rye whiskey, Peychaud bitters, sugar and an absinthe rinse, is not the official cocktail of Mardi Gras. That honor might well go to the Hurricane, a once proud and downright healthful juice-and-rum drink that is now usually prepared from artificially flavored powder. But it is the official drink of New Orleans, thanks to a bill passed in 2008 by the ever-diligent Louisiana legislature.
While the Sazerac's contemporaries are busy being the liquid equivalent of a Girls Gone Wild VHS, this venerable cocktail is like All The King's Men's Willie Stark, a slick bayou politician with a sordid side.
Many claim the Sazerac is the oldest American cocktail in existence. That's a difficult thing to prove, but the drink's composition isn't far from that of the original "cock-tail", which dates back to the early 1800s. Named for the brand of cognac that was once its main ingredient, the drink was popularized by its namesake bar, the Sazerac House, in New Orleans. Its ingredients were shaped by the bar's geography -- Peychaud's bitters, made by the alchemist down the street; rye whiskey that distillers floated down the Mississippi to replace the cognac and absinthe because -- well, why the hell not?
The craft cocktail revolution has only stiffened the Sazerac's cred in NOLA. Witness the scene in the dearly departed HBO drama Tremé , in which Kim Dickens tosses a Sazerac in Alan Richman's face for the crime of dissing New Orleans cuisine. ("They gotta be kidding! Nobody throws a Sazerac!")
Dazzle Restaurant & Lounge is not quite a bastion of Southern comfort, but good jazz, good booze and comfort food are close enough to the New Orleans experience for me. Dazzle's superb Sazerac ($9),a product of a fresh cocktail menu revamping, makes use of Rittenhouse Rye (a fine, mid-priced whiskey) and Creole-style bitters. A strong absinthe made its mark in my glass, while lemon peel and the spicy honey flavor of Rittenhouse reflected merrily off each other.
At Dazzle, I enjoyed the drink in elegant surroundings, while the sounds of guitar tuning wafted through the lounge and a nattily-dressed trio awaited their drinks at the end of the bar. What in this world could be finer?
Louisianans are quite particular about their Sazeracs, so let's not try anything crazy. The inclusion of Leopold Bros. Maryland-style Rye Whiskey and Colorado-made Redux absinthe does, however, stake a small Yankee claim on this drink.
The Denver Dandy's Sazerac Ingredients:
2.5 oz. Leopold Bros. Maryland-style Rye Whiskey 3 dashes Peychaud's Bitters (or sub Angostura) 1 sugar cube (or sub .5 oz simple syrup) Redux Absinthe (for rinse) Lemon peel
Procure two Old-Fashioned glasses. Muddle sugar cube with water in one and rinse the other with dashes of absinthe. Pour out excess. Add ice to the sugared glass, then pour over rye and add bitters. Stir and strain into the absinthe glass, squeeze and drop peel. Best served as an after-dinner drink or tossed into Alan Richman's face.
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With every installment of Coming of Age with 21 Drinks, I'll be featuring a cocktail recipe cooked up by me or the bar itself. Have a suggestion for a place I should visit? Post it below.