By S.D. Peters
Whether or not you agree that the Sazerac is America’s oldest cocktail may depend on whether or not you’re from New Orleans… or work for the Sazerac Company, which has registered the Sazerac Cocktail name and trademarked the phrase “America’s Oldest Cocktail”, which you’ll find on the back of every bottle of Sazerac 6 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey.
But more about that later. What about the cocktail itself, for which the name is most commonly recognized?
The Sazerac calls New Orleans home, and New Orleans in turn has called the Sazerac it’s official cocktail since June 23, 2008. The cocktail is much older than that, but is it America’s Oldest Cocktail?
Legend favors the claim, crediting the drink’s creation in 1838 to Antoine Amadie Peychaud (of Peychaud Bitters fame), who served it in the large end of an egg cup – a coquetier in French, Anglicized as “cocktail”. Fact, however, may disagree: the first U.S.-printed definition of “cock-tail” as an alcohol-based beverage appeared in an 1806 edition of a Hudson, New York publication called “The Balance and Columbian Repository”.
The drink was originally concocted with Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils, a cognac imported by one Sewell T. Taylor. The former owner of The Merchants Exchange Coffee House bar in New Orleans, Taylor found a home for his new import with his successor, Aaron Bird, who had rechristened The Exchange as The Sazerac House. Here Bird served a mixture of Taylor’s imported cognac and Peychaud’s Bitters: the Sazerac Cocktail. A new proprietor, Thomas Handy, swapped rye whiskey for the cognac around 1870, after an outbreak of phylloxeria devastated French vineyards. The substitution stuck: the Sazerac is possibly the best known rye-based cocktail.
Little surprise, then, that the Buffalo Trace Distillery has produced a straight rye whiskey called “Sazerac”. While the distillery is best-known for it’s Bourbon (particularly it’s Pappy Van Winkle expression) and is located in Frankfort, KY, Buffalo Trace’s parent company is the Sazerac Company, which is headquartered a mere 8 miles away in Metairie, and was founded in 1870 by… Thomas Handy.
Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey comes in aged expressions of 6 and 18 years, of which the younger expression is reviewed here. It’s bottled at 90 Proof (45% alcohol) in a rounded, old-timey cork-stopped bottle with a long-neck. Tear-drop beveling just below the neck and simple arched beveling around the base add a nice touch to the bottle’s appearance. As is frequently the case, there is no official information on the exact mashbill – but to be designated a rye, it has to consist of at least 51% rye grain.
In the bottle, Sazerac 6 YO has the traditional coloring of an American Rye, a coppery amber. In the glass and held to the sunlight, it blushes slightly, as if a wee self-conscious. This seems curious at first, because a distinct whiff of woody spice over a mild vanilla says it shouldn’t be shy about its rye content, nor embarrassed to be served neat. Yet there’s something else traipsing around in the shadows, and a second sniff reveals it to be lilac.
Similarly, the first burst of flavor is one of heady spiciness with hints of white chocolate swirling around its medium body – all defining qualities of a Straight Rye’s spicy sweetness, emphasis on the spice. But a few more swirls bring out a moderate seasoning of wildflower honey – not bad to the taste, but surprising in the amount of sweetness it imparts to the rye. Is there, perhaps, too much corn amongst the rye? The sweetness lingers long into the finish – too long – but eventually gives way to mild Latakia tobacco.
On the back of the bottle, you’ll read: “This rye whiskey is the perfect choice to make the Sazerac® Cocktail, America’s First Cocktail™.” As I write this, I cannot vouch for that claim, as I haven’t yet tried Sazerac Rye in a Sazerac Cocktail. Then again, I rarely drink cocktails, being so stubborn neat whiskey that I’ll drink it in midst of a sweltering Washington, D.C., summer – or, say, on a Mississippi paddleboat en route to the site of the Battle of New Orleans. I can imagine, however, that if a common Rye like Old Overholt makes a fine, albeit properly mixed, Sazerac (it does), then a half-notch-above-plain-average Rye that happens to be named for the cocktail stands a good chance of making one that’s better.
The sweetness that dominates the taste and finish might lend itself well to mixing, and given what Sazerac Straight Rye says about itself on the bottle, I think that’s the main point of this Rye whiskey. However, if you’re a Bourbon drinker who is curious about American Rye but bothered by descriptions of its characteristic spiciness, you might want to pour yourself a neat (or even on the rocks) Sazerac Straight Rye for starters. It could change – or at least expand – your taste in American Whiskey.
In the U.S., the Sazerac 6 Year Old Rye averages between $25-27 a bottle. And while it’s a step up from the average starter Ryes that dominate the shelves, it’s not a boutique Rye. There’s more of it, and it’s easier to come by than most other Ryes you may read about. Buffalo Trace earns kudos for helping to boost the presence of Rye, and keep it affordable.
Sazerac 6-year Old Straight Rye Whiskey has been winning awards every year since 2006, scooping four in 2012 so far.