In the history of the world, we are a young country. The United States of America was paved by people who are not from here. We all came from somewhere else. Whether we were running from something, as my family was, or running towards something, as many families still do, we shed some parts of our identities, and we clung to others. So most of our traditions are borrowed or adapted from our old worlds, molded and intertwined with our American ways and views. When we came to Rochester, it took considerable time and expert testimony to convince my mother that Trix was a food – she said neon colored things that are hermitically sealed and bounce when dropped are not for putting in your body. We may as well eat the markers – they smell the same. Not that much later, she was feeding sugary cereal to my one-year-old and telling me to settle down with my “organicnatural-this-and-that.”
With drinks, too, most of our habits are versions of somebody else’s. Wine is a tradition of Ancient Egypt and beer originated in Mesopotamia. We have eggnogs from medieval British monks and punches come from pirates, who were trying to stave off scurvy, making lime juice more palatable by mixing it with ample amounts of over proof spirits. Without discriminating, we weave these seamlessly into our holidays and first dates, thereby give our relatives and boyfriends a fighting chance through an elevated BAC. But more and more we are turning towards cocktails. And cocktails, my favorite, were born in New Orleans, Louisiana. That’s right – cocktails are our own, an American contribution to our collective joie de vivre.
It does not surprise us, does it, that the history of cocktails lacks clarity and precision. Even where there are written records, the handwriting is sloppy, and the pages are ringed with whiskey stains, words and entire lines washed away in carefree endeavors more important than records. Luckily, it doesn’t matter; the important part survives, and that brings us to the Sazerac. Let’s pause, imagine the smell of creole bitters and absinthe, the cold of the glass against thirsty fingers. You can tell a Sazerac is right by the color – there is no language for this color, you have to come and look at it. It’s not even a color, it’s a glow, somewhere between red and burnt, transparent, like a lens, and about to burst. This is the mother of all cocktails. It encompasses the perfect tension between bitter and sweet, warm with creole notes, and chilled with a long, patient, soundless stir in crystal glass. I learned to mix a Sazerac in New Orleans, where bartending is a profession and drinking is deliberate.
Here is what they taught me: Start with a polished double old fashioned glass and a mixing glass filled two thirds with ice. Poor two ounces of rye whiskey (I like Rittenhouse for this one) and half an ounce of simple syrup (1:1 sugar and water solution) over the ice, add three dashes of Peychaud’s bitters (please, no substitutions – it’s not a Sazerac without Peychaud’s), then grab a long spoon, sink it all the way to the bottom, and run around the inside of the glass. For a while. You won’t over-stir it (more on the chemistry of mixology another time). When you see a fog crawling up your mixing glass, splash some absinthe (traditionally Herbsaint) into the cocktail glass, swirl it around the sides, coat the walls, and dump it. And now... strain the cocktails from the mixing glass into your cocktail glass. Cut a swath of lemon peel to rub on the rim and drop inside. Joie de vivre.