In 1987, at the beginning of the waitressing career that is possibly my true calling, I started working at New Orleans.
New Orleans, Brisbane.
Tucked away in the back of a shopping centre on Queen Street Mall, New Orleans was essentially a fancy food court with a liquor licence. But in Brisbane, in those heady days when KFC was Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a hairdresser was Brisbane’s biggest celebrity, New Orleans was revolutionary.
I had an apron and a boater and some of those arm garter things. I looked a little like a young and sassy tray-totin’ barber shop quartet mascot.
Beyond being called New Orleans and occasionally piping jazz through the PA, there was nothing particularly Big Easy-ish about this place. Demand was higher for Sweet and Sour Pork and local beer than for Gumbo and Sazeracs, the cocktail created in the real New Orleans, Louisiana (aka NOLA) around 1850.
Not once did I take an order for this fine old cocktail.
The Sazerac cocktail took its name from a brand of cognac that was popular in the USA until the Great French Wine Blight of the mid-1800s made it harder to come by.
Nowadays you will find it more frequently made with the rye whiskey that they swapped to when the cognac ran dry, but if you want the original, clearly you go for cognac. But either works well.
There’s a bit of simple but impressive-looking bartendery stuff in making it, so it’s a fantastic one for whipping up at home and having your guests ooh and aah at your skills and sophistication.
Wash the inside of an Old Fashioned glass with a small amount of Absinthe, fill it with ice and let the two sit in one another’s company for a while. Then up-end the glass with a flourish (or not), leaving just a coating of Absinthe. Place a sugar cube in the bottom of the glass and add a few drops of Peychaud’s Bitters.
Peychaud’s is one of the few aromatic bitters brands that existed before Prohibition. It’s an acquired taste, spicier and more peppery in flavour than Angostura. That it still exists is thanks solely to private social clubs which held fast to traditional NOLA cocktails requiring Peychaud’s.
(One of the theories behind the nickname The Big Easy is that it was easy to get hold of outlawed booze during Prohibition there, because virtually no effort was made to enforce the Federal ban. Which I like).
Over the top of your Peychaud’s you add your cognac or rye whiskey. Some recipes say rocks, some say straight up. Your choice.
Then drink it Freddy.
You won’t find an enormous number of references to the Sazerac in popular culture, although it did appear in Roger Moore’s first outing as James Bond in 1973’s Live and Let Die.
Moore was the fourth actor to play Bond (after Lazenby, Niven and Connery*) and did so over 12 ridiculous years and 7 ridiculous films. It is high camp James Bond era and I loved it, especially that apex of absurdity, Moonraker.
Moore holds the record for being the oldest actor to play Bond for the first time – a ripe old 45 when he made Live and Let Die.
Of course his love interests in the movie were aged 22 and 24 years old. Because Hollywood.
The other movie where you’ll find a bunch of Sazeracs is State of the Union, a Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy vehicle that involved a man’s run for the Republican Presidential nomination and the ultimate realisation that his values and the respect of a smart woman were more important to him than power.
Hepburn downs many Sazeracs and we all fall a little more in love with her and watch and hope for old Spence to grab her by the pussy in the fine tradition of Presidential candidates.
Classic offerings both, but a fraction of the number of a cinematic features of the Sazerac’s IBA The Unforgettables stablemates like the Martini, Manhattan, Old Fashioned or Daiquiri. The reason for this, I suspect, is the great Absinthe ban that occurred in the USA from 1912 to 2007.
Absinthe was invented in Switzerland in 1792 by a man who, based on his mild-mannered alias, I suspect to have been an early Marvel superhero . Step forward Dr Pierre Ordinaire!
Our man Pete Ordinary, came up with an all-purpose remedy that was given to French troops as an anti-malarial in the 1840s. Everybody loved it and 5pm became known as The Green Hour (l’heure verte).
But then, because some people never know when enough is enough, the party was cancelled for everyone.
Absinthe is a heavy-duty spirit, no doubt about it. It has a very high alcohol content – 55 – 75%, compared with whisky’s 40% – which makes it 110 to 150 proof.
So yes, it is serious and should be diluted kids.
There is a technical term for what happens to the body when one has too much Absinthe.
It is known as getting “shit-faced”.
This condition does indeed impair one’s judgement. But can occur with any alcoholic substance taken in excess.
Back in less-enlightened times though the green fairy was considered to be the root cause of both homosexuality and multiple-homicides and Absinthe was banned in the USA, Switzerland and a bunch of other places.
It’s back though and yea verily we no longer need to have our Sazeracs made with Herbsaint. We can have the damned Absinthe. And we can choose the damned rye whiskey or the damned cognac in our damned Sazeracs.
New Orleans Brisbane has long gone (a passing few would mourn I suspect) so we can’t test whether the cocktail is on higher rotation there (although Brisbane does now have its own Sazerac Bar with a proper – albeit rye – Sazerac recipe on the menu – so things have definitely changed in 30 years).
You could go to NOLA – where The Sazerac Bar at The Roosevelt Hotel serves up tens of thousands of Sazeracs each year, making it, I suspect, about an intimate a cocktail experience as a Singapore Sling at Raffles or a Daiquiri at La Floridita.
Or you can make this fine old cocktail a welcome addition to your domestic cocktail hour. Whip one up at home for a friend and enjoy your own l’heure verte.
*You may be wondering about the Diane referred to in the title? James Bond #1 Sean Connery was married to one Diane Cilento who was born and died in Queensland and who, in all likelihood, never once visited the New Orleans restaurant in Brisbane.