“Tis the mark of a good sharehouse, that which has a fine drinking tradition to call its own”.
The inhabitants of the Slam Palace certainly thought so. Scotch was our primary tipple, and every Monday, on ‘scotch night, we’d lord over the street on our second story balcony, share affordable single malts and ruminate on the philosophical ramifications of life in a Denny Crane and Alan Shore fashion.
Our drinking tradition was a wholesome affair. Many fall short. Around this time I was working at a local pub whose chief clientele was the crowd of live-ins who dwelled in the pubs’ lurid upstairs quarters. Bored of the norm, the pub sharehousers took to creating their own ‘house drink’, a two-act aperitif called the ‘Hairy Beast’, which boiled down to a shot of Canadian Club and a chaser of gravy.
On our first few dreamy nights in Berlin, Hon and I went out wandering wide-eyed though the chilly, cobbled backstreets of our new neighbourhood. A corner bar without name lured us in with romantic candlelit windows. It was our kind of place, an old-time jazz speakeasy full of smoke, with tiered wooden seating and Pianola, like we’d teleported back to 1920s Paris.
Blindly, I ordered from the cocktail list a ‘Sazerac’. The moustachioed waiter in vest brought it over, amber-red in old-fashioned glass, with a big ice ball. It was the perfect drink: ballsy, yet flamboyant, with mystical Absinthe overtones. This was a drink I wanted to be associated with.
It’s rich tradition only made me want to drink it more. Considered the first American cocktail, Sazerac was poured in 1838 by Antoine Peychaud, a New Orleans apothecary, who created a remedy for his customers’ ailments using his favourite French cognac and his family’s unique bitters blend.
Sazerac’s amber-red tinge relies on the rare Peychaud’s Bitters; so too, it’s spicy, caramel flavour. It’s nothing without it. We searched everywhere in Berlin for it, eventually locating a bottle at the Absinth Depot on Weinmeisterstraße. That, and a primo bottle of Kubler Absinth.
By the 1850s, bartenders were pouring Sazerac with fury, and a generous Absinth rinse in each glass for that ‘New Orleans touch’.
When a rife bug started munching up the vineyards of Europe in the 1870s and 1880s, cognac supplies became scarce and, to keep up with demand, rye whiskey was thrown in the mix as a substitute.
Today, every Sazerac obsessive has their take on what makes the perfect mix. Purists side with cognac, rye whiskey is the common go-to, and some even get behind the peppery hit of a fine bourbon (to say nothing of the myriad Absinths, and substitutes like Pastis and Herbsaint, on offer for the glass rinse).
Whatever the blend, Sazerac is a living story, a toothsome libation with charisma, tradition and charm.
It’s our new favourite drink, about as far as you can get from a Hairy Beast. We wanted to spruik its good name and keep the tradition going.
Our take on how to make:
We decided to start with a cue from the purists, selecting a smooth French ‘Chateau Montifaud’ cognac instead of whiskey. We also chose a ‘Kubler’ Absinth, a Swiss mid-range blend, recommended by the knowledgeable owner of the Berlin Absinth Depot. Depot man had consumed many a Sazerac (and a lot of Absinth) and, surprisingly, thought bourbon was superior to the cognac and rye. But again, each to their own—the beauty of Sazerac is that you can try all the combos. (Erik Ellestad did. Check out his ‘28 Sazeracs in 28 days’ for a full documentation, a kind of pointed ‘anti-Febfast’)
- 2 Standard shots cognac/rye whiskey (or bourbon)
- Absinth to rinse a glass
- 2-3 Splashes of Peychaud’s Bitters
- 1 Cube sugar
- Lemon peel.
- Chill an old fashioned glass in the fridge or freezer. Once chilled, rinse the inside with absinth
- In a separate mixing glass, add a sugar cube and muddle it with a few drops of water. Add a few splashes of Peychaud’s bitters, throw in a few ice cubes, add cognac/whiskey and stir
- Strain the suger-cognac-bitters mixture into the Absinth-rinsed old fashioned glass
- Garnish with lemon peel
- Feel good about yourself. And enjoy another.