The Sazerac: The mysterious (and confusing) history of this iconic classic

Cara is our Melbourne-based drinks writer. She is the co-owner of Goodwater in Melbourne and the face and talent behind the cocktailing YouTube channel Behind the Bar. You can email her at

A few years ago, I decided to make a video about the Sazerac. How hard could it be? It’s a pretty well-known drink that retained reasonable popularity even through the cocktail dark ages. I expected that its story would be quite well documented, with perhaps a squabble over which exact bar in New Orleans had first mixed one, but instead, I opened a can of worms.

The story which I had always heard was one made famous by Stanley Clisby Arthur, author of 1937 book ‘Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em’. He said that Antoine Peychaud, a New Orleans pharmacist, liked to serve and drink his eponymous bitters mixed with cognac in little cups (called coquetiers). Meanwhile, another New Orleans based businessman was importing brandy, specifically Sazerac-du-Forge et Fils cognac. That same man was also involved with the Merchant Coffee House, which, despite the name, was a bar. There, at some point around the 1850s, they started mixing the cognac with Peychaud’s bitters, and this would have been known as a ‘Sazerac cocktail’. In the 1870s, absinthe was the cool new cocktail ingredient on the block and that got added to the mix (by whom exactly is also up for the debate). The story then goes that phylloxera, a root disease which crippled France’s wine and brandy industry, made cognac hard to come by and so the indigenous rye whiskey was substituted, eventually becoming the norm. When absinthe was banned in the US, bartenders also turned to Herbsaint as a replacement for the herbal element.

“[David Wondrich] also pointed out that the whole Peychauds – coffee house – cognac – Sazerac cocktail link is pure conjecture. The first written reference to a Sazerac Cocktail is in 1899, and it was definitely a rye cocktail.”

Peychaud’s ‘coquetiers’ have been promoted by New Orleans as the root of the word cocktail, conveniently crowning them the birthplace of the cocktail. However, David Wondrich is widely acknowledged as the foremost cocktail historian in the world, and as such he has a rather annoying habit of actually checking dates and looking at facts. He pointed out that since the first written instance of the word cocktail was in 1806 and Peychaud was born in 1803, he probably can’t claim it. He also pointed out that the whole Peychauds – coffee house – cognac – Sazerac cocktail link is pure conjecture. The first written reference to a Sazerac Cocktail is in 1899, and it was definitely a rye cocktail.

By this point I was a bit confused, because at some point in my career, I was taught that if someone asked for a Sazerac I should ask if they wanted a New Orleans (which would be full rye), or a New York Sazerac (which splits the base between rye and cognac), and so far there has been no mention of that last version. So here I am, ready to start writing a script about the rivalry between NY and NOLA styles, and I gaily type ‘New York Sazerac’ into the search engine – nothing. The only article about it I can find is in this very magazine, in an article from 2015. So, I put it to the Melbourne Bartender Exchange hive mind. The response from bartenders was overwhelming that while they would always ask the guest’s preference, their own favourite was a New York style. But then a few Americans started chiming in, saying they had never heard of a New York Sazerac; the plot thickens.


With a bit more digging and discussion, we figure out that Dale de Groff, the bartender and author at the forefront of the craft cocktail revolution included a split base Sazerac as a nod to the cognac origins tale in his 2002 book ‘Craft of the Cocktail’, which was my bible (and that of many of my peers) when starting out in the industry. The Sazerac never went away in the States, as much as it may have fallen out of fashion a bit, but for many international bartenders, this may have been the first time they’d ever even heard of the drink and not realised this recipe was unusual. De Groff is not the only person to have experimented with this, but he is very influential and has strong ties with overseas hospitality. He was from New York, and so the differentiation between his version and the New Orleans one slipped into bartender parlance in the UK and Australia… or at least this is my supposition!

Either way, the split base Sazerac is an excellent drink. The fruity notes of the brandy round out the spicy rye wonderfully and tie in the absinthe and bitters to perfection. When opening an American whiskey-focused venue with friends this year, there was no doubt that we had to have a Sazerac on the menu. We wanted to keep it all American but with a nod to the Australian norm of splitting the base. So, we turned to applejack. It is, without a doubt, the best Sazerac I have ever had.

Goodwater Sazerac

Recipe by John Hallett

50ml rye whiskey (we use Michter’s Straight Rye)
10ml Laird’s applejack
Half bar spoon granulated sugar
4 dashes Herbsaint (or absinthe)
2 dashes Peychauds bitters
Glass: small rocks
Garnish: lemon twist