You really can’t go long when reading about New Orleans before you come across the Sazerac. It has a long history and has evolved through the generations to become the drink it is today. It’s very hard to get one outside of New Orleans and get a good one.
The trick is in the ingredients. The purported tradition is to use Sazerac Rye Whiskey and Peychaud Bitters, both New Orleans inventions and products. This no doubt being due to the the promotion departments of these local products. Like any local specialty, people are passionate about a good sazerac. Who has the best? What is the correct way to make it? What are the perfect ingredients? Lots of opinions and none are fully right or wrong. When reading the online foodie boards (Chow, Yelp, etc.) there seems to be a regular question about who has the best in New Orleans, and as always with these sites the answers reflect the responder’s experience and taste (or lack thereof). But sometimes you can find thoughtful, well-researched responses that influence your decisions.
We decided to settle this question for ourselves with a Sazerac Crawl. We picked 6 places from these “best of” lists that were close enough together to walk a route between them. They represented a mixture of the traditional and the new, the places that are famous for doing it one way for decades and the new bars who are riding the wave of the current haute cocktail culture. Some of them served food, a necessity to keep us able to work through the night with clear heads. We’ll also add a bonus Sazerac from dinner the night before, making a total of 7 to review.
Here’s a link to the map route in Google Maps.
There was a fairly wide variation in ingredients and techniques across the bars we visited. The type of Rye Whiskey, the use of Cognac in addition to, or instead of the Rye, whether the class was seasoned with Pernod, Herbsaint or Absinthe, and whether Peychaud bitters or other bitters were used. Here is our rundown of each one we sampled. We’re rating the drink, the experience and the service.
1. SoBou – New, high end cocktail Bar in the W Hotel, French Quarter.
Their drink was called Taylor Bird Sazerac. SoBou uses a combination of Sazerac Rye and Cognoc, seasoned the glass with an Herbsaint spray, and finished the drink with their own blackberry and walnut bitters, crowned by a twist of lemon peel. The cocktail was very smooth, and the ingredients were all very present.
The mixologists, Andrew and Abigail (who writes and excellent blog called RyeGirl) are knowledgeable and engaging on a variety of topics but their passions about cocktails are clearly evident. We chatted with other patrons, a couple from Alabama who were sampling a variety of cocktails, so it was excellent to see these bartenders in action.
No good crawl starts on any empty stomach so we ordered some cracked, spiced olives and a blue crab mousse with a mix of blackberry and caviar, with long spiced crackers. All was delicious.
Sazerac: 5 Service: 5 Experience: 5
2. Old Absinthe House, Bourbon Street
Upon entry it was evident that this establishment had sacrificed its history (opened in the 1700s) for the party-hearty Bourbon street tourist dollar. The walls were covered in stapled-on business cards and NFL helmets were hanging from the ceiling.
The Sazeracs were made with a Pernod swirl, Sazerac Rye and Peychaud bitters. Half-way through, the bartender decided to re-tie her ponytail and get right back to making them. The glasses were wet when we got them. Were they rinsed clean? The cocktail was thin tasting. The whiskey was barely there — watered down maybe? The other ingredients were prevalent, but the drink was pale and disappointing. We left un-finished drinks on the bar.
Sazerac: 1 Service: 1 Experience: 2
3. Arnaud’s French 75
We were accosted by Cigar smoke as we entered the bar. I recalled reading that this was a cigar bar, but it wasn’t bad at all once inside. It actually set an ambient tone that was helped by the dark walnut panelling and the bow-tied and business-like bartenders.
Arnaud’s Sazerac was the real deal: Old Overholt Rye (a popular substitute), a Pernod swirl and Peychaud bitters, made in the classic style. It had a nice citrus nose from the lemon peel rubbed on the glass rim, and the bitters came through. This was a very, very good Sazerac.
We talked with a nearby couple who visit the city every month and took dinner recommendations, which we definitely needed by this time.
Sazerac: 5 Service: 3 Experience: 4
It was half-time in our crawl and we definitely need to take a break and eat something. GW Fins had been recommended at our previous stop. They posted a great fish-oriented menu, so in we went.
As we sat down, hot sweet biscuits were brought by our table and were served to us directly off the baking sheet. They were crumbly and delicious. We started with grilled shrimp with a smoky onion relish.
Maureen had a grilled scallops and mushroom risotto. I had grilled grouper with a red pepper and sweet potato hash. It was rich and succulent. Both our serving sizes were perfect. By American standards, they were skimpy, but the fish was fresh and the dishes were complete.
With full bellies were were ready to get back to the crawl:
4. The Sazerac Bar, Roosevelt Hotel
This is purported to be THE place for Sazeracs. Hell, they named the whole bar after the drink. What you find out, of course, is that it’s a licensed name and the claim to tradition is somewhat suspect. But that’s fine. It was a elegant bar in a fine hotel with history all of its own. The biggest thing it had going against it was a bar load of hollering frat boys and shrieking 20-something girls making the place very loud. Ugh.
This was the first bar to offer a choice of Sazeracs, one based on cognac and one using Sazerac rye. I tend to see a Sazerac as a whiskey drink, the other ingredients there to soften the rye and to add to the experience. I found their rye-based sazerac to have an good partnership between the whiskey and the other ingredients. It had the most whiskey burn of all the Sazeracs we tried.
The Cognac-based drink is a thing unto itself. It doesn’t compare and doesn’t stand up to the whiskey version. I am happy to chalk this up to personal preference, and it shows the wiggle room there is in choosing ingredients for this classic cocktail.
The spoiler for the evening was that the bill for the two drinks came to $29. The Cognac version was $17. In other locations, the price averaged, $7-10 per drink. The bar was clearly milking any association they had to the history of the cocktail, but the price was unwarranted.
Sazerac: 4 (Rye) 2 (Cognac) Service: 3 Experience: 2
5. Mr. B’s Bistro
This drink was shaken into glasses, so its ingredients had a different impact on one other. The other ingredients were the star here. You could taste the Pernod, Peychaud bitters and lemon distinctly. The whiskey was barely present, however the drink was pleasant and unique among the ones we tried.
We were sitting at the bar and all of the food being delivered to our neighbours looked spectacular. In our pre-crawl research we noted that Mr. B’s BBQ Shrimp were a must-have. Who were we to argue. We ordered a serving each not quite knowing what to expect. The bar staff were moving a mile a minute and while harried, they were friendly and helpful.
This dish’s relationship to BBQ as we know it is in name only. Sautéed head-on shrimp were finished with a sauce that was rich with butter, black pepper and Worchestershire. It came with a small load of good French bread because there would be much sopping to do. We were both quite surprised at how good this dish is. It may just be the best thing I have put in my mouth, and that’s not just the sazeracs talking. We’re going back for these before we leave, AND we’ll be recreating them at home to be sure.
Sazerac: 4 Service: 4 Experience: 5
6. The Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone
Our final stop on tonight’s crawl brings us to the famous bar in the Monteleone Hotel. The Carousel is a beautifully appointed space, but very loud this evening. We find a small table, the only available, at the very outskirts of the bar, near the dining area. This does nothing for ambiance or the experience. Sazeracs seem best enjoyed belly up to a bar with fellow patrons to strike up conversations with.
The sazerac at the Carousel is dominated by the whiskey. It is less strong than the cocktail at Roosevelt but more so than at Mr. B’s. We sip our drinks for a bit and quietly leave. It’s fair to say that by this time in the evening, remaining objective becomes difficult. Having 6 of any drink will create an uphill battle for whoever is 6th in line, but we did attempt earnestness in our appraisal.
All in all, it’s been a terrific evening, not just for the Sazeracs, but for experiencing the establishments and the people you meet on the way.
Bonus Sazerac: K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen
We tried the Sazerac at K-Paul’s the night before our crawl. Having done so, I should warn against ordering the Sazerac there as a before-dinner drink. By definition you have an empty stomach, and their Sazerac is easily a double, maybe even a triple.
It was a very good one, with evident whiskey, and bitters notes and smooth, yet with s slight whiskey burn, but there was way too much and it hampered the enjoyment of the meal, which was notably very good
Sazerac: 3.5 Service: 5 Experience: 4
To experience a Sazerac closer to home in Ottawa, we’ve found that Absinthe, Town and Union (albeit with a cognac variation) all make cocktails that hit the mark. To make it ourselves, we found it was next to impossible to source the Peychaud Bitters in Ottawa but finally were able to order some online from an American Bartending Supply company, and next time we make one, we’ll be applying some of the techniques we learned on this trip.