The Origins And History Of The Sazerac Cocktail.
The most complete history of the Sazerac cocktail comes from Stanley Clisby Arthur in his 1938 book “Famous New Orleans Drinks and how to mix ’em.” It is not the oldest written recipe, though. That goes to the 1908 book “The World’s Drinks and how to Mix Them” by Boothby. However, the latter Arthur’s history and recipe are considered canon today.
John B. Schiller was a New Orleans agent and distributor for “Sazerac-de-Forge et fils,” who operated out of a location on Canal and Royal Street. Schiller acquired the site in 1859 and opened a bar in the rear of the building facing Exchange Alley/Place, where he made all kinds of drinks and cocktails elusively with Sazerac-de-Forge Brandy. The location was named Sazerac Coffee House, and a large tiled mosaic of the word Sazerac was placed at the bar’s entrance. While writing this history in 1938, Arthur says the mosaic was still there, but the location was currently a barbershop.
The bar’s namesake cocktail, The Sazerac, was probably more like the recipe in the 1908 Boothby book. Schiller’s original Sazerac is described by Arthur (Who got this history from Leon Dupont, who worked as a bartender there a few years later) as a simple Brandy, Peychaud’s bitters, and sugar cocktail. It’s debated when Absinthe was first added. In 1870 the bar was bought by Schiller’s bookkeeper Thomas H. Handy. The large tile mosaic was just too nice, and Handy kept the mosaic and changed the name to “Sazerac House” since Handy was not an exclusive distributor with Sazerac, he no longer felt obligated only to use Sazerac Brandy in the bar’s cocktails. The Sazerac recipe changed, and the brandy was replaced with rye whiskey, and Dupont says this was when absinthe was added too. The recipe provided here is from the 1938 book “Famous New Orleans Drinks and how to mix ’em” by Leon Dupont. Dupont was a bartender at the Sazerac House under Thomas Handy and claimed this is how they made the Sazerac while he worked there. I did double the volumes since it made a very short drink.
What is Selner Bitters?
In the 1908 Boothby Book, he states that one of the ingredients is Selner bitters. From all the research I could do, I can not find anything on what Selner Bitters were, and no one else ever references them. Boothby’s book is the only book in which these bitters are ever mentioned. But they did exist. On page 5 of the New Orleans Daily Crescent from May 14, 1859, an import distributor named S. Wolff has “Selner’s German Bitters” for sale in his newspaper ad. This verifies that those specific bitters were present in New Orleans when John B. Schiller opened the Sazerac Coffee house. For context, this ad is from there is a slave auction ad above it. What did these imported german bitters taste like? Who knows.
I cannot find any reference to them in other cocktails books from the 1800s, and they are used in only two recipes in Boothby’s book. They were not common. People reading Boothby’s book in 1908 had probably never heard even then, and p. I tried to look in the german newspaper and historical literature websites, but since I do not understand German, I did not get very far. Selner wasn’t the only bitter tonic advertised as a “German Bitter.” There were a few others, the most popular being Dr. Hooflands German Bitters. This makes me wonder if German bitters have a consistent style and taste. Based on the benefits Hooflands German Bitters provided, I would guess they were a juniper, camomile, ginger bitter with cocaine and cannabis. Perhaps it’s a fashion similar to Underberg. We may never know.
Should The Sazerac Be Made With Brandy Or Rye?
Neither way is wrong. It just depends on which recipe you are making and what you like. I don’t doubt the authenticity of Boothby’s 1908 recipe, but the use of Selner’s German Bitters makes this version impossible to recreate. The later 1938 Arthur recipe is the most well know, but even the author says it was first made with Brandy. So it’s up to you. Try both and see which you prefer. I prefer it made with rye whiskey, but both are good.