The Sazerac Cocktail: A Rye-Drinker’s Perspective


By S.D. Peters

Sazerac cocktail ingredients

All the ingredients for a Sazerac, plus the author’s half-finished product.
(Credit: S.D. Peters)

I’m a whiskey drinker with a preference for sipping neat American Rye at home, have been since back when Old Overholt and Jim Beam Rye were the only Ryes available off the shelf, and almost never in a bar. When the Rye craze got going, all I noticed were more varieties of Rye on the shelf, and a few bottles of Rye behind the bar.  That made me and, I supposed, the handful of other Rye drinkers happy. A boom? There couldn’t be that many of us, right? Not with such a slim variety of the product available for so many years? Was the industry was finally reaching out?

(An inability to spot trends is just one reason why I’m no entrepreneur.)

In retrospect, Rye was ripe for a revival. There was Single Malt Scotch in the 80s, Bourbon in the 90s. Why not Rye in the Noughties?  For now, the Rye craze, boom, or whatever you want to call it, is a trend. Like all trends, it will eventually level off somewhere in the status quo.

(I tend to discover trends as they approach their tipping point, which is another reason why I’m no entrepreneur.)

History tends to be a circulation of phoenix-like trends. Insofar as history likes to repeat itself in inventive ways, many trends may never go away; but they also won’t stick around in the same form incessantly. What I hope is that the varieties of Rye whiskey that made their appearance during the boom, from progressive distillers like Finger Lakes , FEW Spirits , 35 Maple Street, Catoctin Creek, and Copper Fox, will stick around after it dies down. A short-term disadvantage of the boom may be a shortage of Rye, but one of the potential long-term benefits may be a crossover of Rye-based cocktail drinkers to neat Rye sippers. Some opinions reported by The Whiskey Reviewer favor that outcome.

That’s not to say the trend won’t be around for a while, and in the meantime, neat Rye drinkers might be crossing over themselves, trying the cocktails that have made Rye a hot item. I can’t properly count myself among them, but, having a bottle of Buffalo Trace’s 6-year old Sazerac Rye, I decided to try my hand at the the Rye’s namesake, the Sazerac Cocktail.

For a brief history of that winsome cocktail – touted by some as the first American Cocktail – see The Whiskey Reviewer’s review of 6-year Old Sazerac Rye. There are a few preparation variations, like pouring it over crushed ice instead of into a chilled glass, or substituting Bourbon for Rye, but I stuck with the mostly traditional recipe, substituting only the absinthe/Herbsaint with Pernod.

2 Old Fashioned glasses
Ice cubes & cold water
2 oz. Rye whiskey
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
1 sugar cube or 1 tsp superfine sugar
Splash of absinthe or Herbsaint
Lemon twist

For a refreshing experience that doesn’t dilute the flavor, a chilled glass, rather than on the rocks or over crushed ice, is the way to go. Fill one of the glasses to the brim with ice and cold water and set it aside.

In the second glass, muddle the sugar and bitters. If you have superfine sugar, use it instead of the sugar cube: it dissolves faster, and thoroughly. Pour in the Rye and stir.

It’s almost ready! Dump the ice and water from the chilled glass, splash in the absinthe or Herbsaint (or another anisette, like Pernod) and swirl it to coat the glass, draining any excess. Now pour in the sugar/bitters/rye muddle, squeeze the lemon twist over the glass, and rub it over the rim. You can discard the twist if you wish, or drop it in if you prefer the citrus notes to linger.

Colonel E.H. Taylor Rye Whiskey

Colonel E.H. Taylor Rye Whiskey
(Credit: Buffalo Trace)

I can’t say the result won me over to the Rye cocktail – a well-mixed Rye Sidecar, with its heavy citrus overtones, makes a more favorable argument – but I can’t say it was terrible. In the hands of a professional, it might just be excellent; in mine, it was moderately refreshing.

To me, the most important ingredients (after the Rye, of course) are the anisette and lemon twist. These temper the sweetness of the sugar and bitters and bring out the Rye’s spiciness, turning the 6-year Old Sazerac Rye (which, when sipped neat, has a mildly overpowering sweetness about it into a downright pleasant and spicy Rye adventure.

Different Ryes will naturally vary the flavor of the cocktail, but given that a mildly sweet Rye like the 6-year Old Sazerac turns into an A- Rye when added to the cocktail for which it’s named, I’d stick with Ryes that verge on the sweeter side (like FEW, McKenzie, or Catoctin) for mixing, and stay neat for the purer Ryes, like Masterson’s, Knob Creek, E.H. Taylor, or Thomas H. Handy.

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