This cocktail from 19th century Louisiana has stood the test of time

Philip Salter
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WHEN I was about 17, I decided to get a piercing through one of my eyebrows. It didn’t change my life except that whenever I met new people they would ask if it hurt to get done. After about the hundredth time of going through this charade I decided to take it out. I much prefer talking about the weather.

Writing about cocktails presents a similar dilemma. People ask the question “What is your favourite cocktail?” A reasonable question, of course, but a tricky one.

The cocktail you want to drink will depend upon the time and place. If you’ve got a spare 20 minutes before a date, it might make sense to go for a Martini – to take the edge off your companion’s less attractive qualities (physical or otherwise). If you’re engaged in a debate about the NHS versus continental alternatives, an Old Fashioned, or any short bourbon or whisky-based drink, will ease the disagreement. If you’re out partying with friends in the early evening or with colleagues after work, a Caipirinha – the perfect vehicle for drinking cachaça, Brazil’s famous fermented sugar cane drink – could be for you.

So, what do I say when people ask me what my favourite cocktail is? I just go with whatever I’m currently drinking the most of. And this, for the last month or so, has been the Sazerac.

The Sazerac is known as America’s first cocktail (even though it isn’t). Nevertheless, it is certainly one of its oldest, dating back to pre-Civil War New Orleans. And in this instance the old ones are the best – in fact, the people of The Big Easy like it so much that on 23 June 2008 the Louisiana Legislature proclaimed the Sazerac to be the official cocktail of New Orleans.

I drunk my first Sazerac, at least the first that started me on this current preoccupation with the cocktail, in the unlikely environs of the top floor of John Lewis, Oxford Street.

The impressively knowledgeable Andy Evans, wine and spirits specialist at the department store, was treating me to cocktails from the prohibition and pre-prohibition eras.

Although similar to the Old Fashioned, Andy thinks (and I agree) that the Sazerac offers a more complex flavour. On that occasion Andy was using the store’s Sazerac Rye Whiskey, but different bartenders use different ingredients.

The recipe below is a slight variation on one found at (a vital resource for all alcohol enthusiasts).

The only problem is that having found that John Lewis on a Tuesday evening is the best time and place to drink the Sazerac, I’m finding it increasingly tricky to get away with sneaking into the store to concoct one – I’m running out of hiding places among the toasters and bedding.

■ 15ml Absinthe
■ Chilled mineral water
■ 45ml VSOP cognac
■ 30ml Bourbon
■ 8ml Sugar syrup (2:1 sugar/water)
■ 3 dash Angostura Bitters
■ 3 dash Peychaud’s Bitters
■ Pour the absinthe into an ice-filled glass and top up with water and leave to stand.
■ In a different glass, stir the other ingredients with ice.
■ Discard the contents of the first glass (yes, that is right, you will be pouring away the absinthe) and strain the contents of the second glass into the absinthe-coated glass.
■ Garnish with lemon peel.