The scene opens in Haiti and the slave revolt of 1791. As violence engulfs the island, the Peychaud family flees back home to France. Except the son, Antoine, who is separated from them but somehow finds his way to New Orleans.
Not a bad start to a cocktail origin story. Especially since the Sazerac is also considered the first cocktail ever created in the US.
Antoine eventually became a New Orleans pharmacist selling his own Haiti-inspired ‘curative’ bitters. Bitters that were apparently even more ‘curative’ if you mixed them with spirits. Antoine himself used to mix his bitters with brandy for his Mason friends, and they loved him for it.
As Peychaud Bitters caught on, one New Orleans coffee house (‘coffee house’ being temperance-eluding code for ‘drinking den’) started using it. It was an importer of Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac (Sazerac to its friends), and even called itself the Sazerac Coffee House. It was here in the 1850s that a barman came up with the original Sazerac cocktail.
Now, eagle-eyed readers might have picked up there is no cognac in the modern Sazerac. For that you can blame the phylloxera aphid which devastated European grape vines in the 1880s. No grapes. No cognac. So the Americans improvised with rye whiskey which later became bourbon.
Along the way, someone added an aromatic splash of absinthe for luck, and the cocktail we know today was born.
The one constant in the Sazerac story has been Peychaud Bitters. And like all bitters, it’s really about ‘seasoning’ the drink. You shouldn’t really taste bitters but you should know immediately if it isn’t there.