The Crescent City's contribution to the American cocktail canon
By JJ Goode
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B orn in the great drinking city of New Orleans, the Sazerac is reputed to be the first cocktail ever conceived. Common wisdom has it that the drink's inventor is Antoine Peychaud, who in the 1830s opened an apothecary shop in the French Quarter, where he started selling bitters made from a family recipe. By 1838, he was serving a concoction of brandy and bitters in a vessel called a coquetier -a word that some say morphed into "cocktail."
Yet there are two problems with the standard tale: First, Peychaud may have mixed brandy and bitters, but the Sazerac wasn't really a Sazerac until it incorporated absinthe. Stanley Clisby Arthur's Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em (1937)-a sacred text on the subject-attributes the addition of this liquor to a bartender named Leon Lamothe, who may have introduced absinthe as early as 1858 or as late as 1870. Second, the drink could not possibly have been the first cocktail: In 1806, five decades before the earliest purported birthdate of the Sazerac, the publication The Balance and Columbian Repository provided its readers with a definition of the word cocktail: "Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters."
Over the years, the still-somewhat-obscure drink has changed slightly. Herbsaint, an anise-flavored liquor made in New Orleans, replaced absinthe when the latter was outlawed in 1912, and rye whiskey took the place of cognac, such as the Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils for which the drink was named. Opinions diverge as to why rye overtook cognac as the main spirit in the Sazerac-perhaps it was phylloxera, the nasty bug that decimated French vineyards, or a surge in affection for American spirits over foreign ones-but most agree that the drink is much tastier for it.
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