The Mix: Labour Day Sazerac
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The Mix: Labour Day Sazerac

For the inaugural edition of our new cocktail column, we introduce you to the working-class origins of late-summer's perfect drink.

sazerac
The “Last (Long) Weekend of Summer” is upon us. For some of us, that means the kids are going to school. For others, it might mean one last trip out of town before real work begins again. Perhaps you might even spare a thought for the actions of the Typographical Union (and their many supporters), whose actions laid the foundations for the many rights we enjoy in the modern workplace.

Cocktails are often depicted as fashion accessories for the sun-kissed vacationer, or the dapper gentleman. They’re practically part of the furniture on Mad Men.

In celebration of Labour Day, Torontoist looks at a drink with working class connections; one created (at least in part) by a pharmacist, and adopted as an official drink of New Orleans. Step forward, the sazerac.

To explain how a pharmacist ends up in the business of cocktails, it’s important to mention that once upon a time, bitters were considered “medicine”. As such, they were popular ingredients for all kinds of potions and elixirs. Antoine Peychaud’s family had immigrated to New Orleans from Haiti, and brought their family recipe along with them.

By the time Peychaud was an adult running his own business in the 19th century, bitters were being used less for their medicinal qualities, but had become an essential ingredient in any cocktail (which had a much narrower definition back then—liquor, sugar, water, and bitters). There are varying theories to how—and by whom—the Sazerac was invented, but it’s clear Peychaud and his bitters played a role.

One of the other key players, absinthe, was long considered to be a hallucinogen capable of driving people barking mad, and disappeared for much of the 20th century. Thankfully, it has since been proven to be completely harmless, and is back on shelves pretty much everywhere. In its absence, a wormwood-free replacement—herbsaint—was developed.

The Sazerac is a smooth, spicy, sweet cocktail with a lovely hint (but just a hint) of that anise flavour that makes it so well suited to summer nights. It’s a short, but infinitely satisfying, drink that will put you in a good place.

To make a good Sazerac, you need the spiciness of a rye whiskey (not a bourbon). Sazerac Rye Whiskey is the obvious choice, but Bulleit is a delicious, affordable alternative. LCBO carry herbsaint and absinthe, but in a pinch you could use Pernod, Pastis, or Arak (although it won’t be quite the same).

There are quite a few variants, as there are for most cocktails. Here is a recipe pulled and slightly adapted from Esquire, which features both Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, for a really spicy finish.

1 sugar cube (or 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, or 1/4 ounce simple syrup)

2 1/2 ounces rye whiskey

2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

1 dash Angostura bitters

Absinthe

lemon peel

2 old-fashioned glasses

As that piece goes on to explain, a Sazerac is typically made using two separate old-fashioned glasses, rather than a mixing glass. Part of the performance of this drink is the interplay between the two glasses.

First, you will need to chill one glass (by putting it in the freezer for a few minutes, or by throwing in some ice and topping with water).

While you leave that glass to chill, muddle the sugar with a few drops of water (no need to muddle if using syrup), then add ice, whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, and Angostura bitters.

Prepare the first glass by tossing out the ice or removing it from the freezer, and rinse with a small amount of absinthe (rinsing is simply coating the glass by swirling). Discard any excess absinthe.

Stir the contents of the second (whiskey etc.) glass, and strain into the first glass. Garnish with the lemon peel.

If you don’t feel like mixing your own, head out to Bar Isabel ( 797 College Street) for a fine example of a classic sazerac. The Ontario Sazerac at D.W. Alexander (19 Church Street) is a modern take, with their own apple and fennel infused rye. At Linwood Essentials (930 Queen Street West), a blowtorched absinthe rinse provides a really smokey, fragrant finish, especially if you ask for a rye-cognac split.

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