Did New Orleans Invent the Cocktail?

Sazerac cocktail at the Sazerac bar
Sazerac cocktail at the Sazerac bar Wikimedia Commons

Ask most people where the cocktail was invented, and they'll probably guess New Orleans, something the city itself wants you to believe. The story goes that a fellow named Antoine Peychaud opened an apothecary shop in New Orleans' French quarter in the 1830s, and sold his own homemade bitters. Before long, he realized that these bitters tasted especially good mixed with cognac, sugar and water. He measured out this concoction with an egg cup (called a "coquetier" in French—some believe this is the basis for the term "cocktail"), and so the modern cocktail was born.

Well, that's a nice story, and I believed it myself until I went to a recent Smithsonian Resident Associates program on the history of cocktails. The speakers were Phil Greene and Chris McMillian, spirits experts who helped found the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans in 2005. Greene is actually a descendant of Peychaud, so he was a bit rueful about playing the role of debunker, but he noted that the word "cocktail" appeared in an upstate New York newspaper as early as 1806, when Peychaud would have been just a baby.

Still, New Orleans can claim to have invented one particular type of cocktail, the Sazerac, which uses Peychaud's bitters. It was the house specialty at a bar called the Sazerac Coffeehouse (later the Roosevelt Hotel, and then the Fairmont) which used only Sazerac-brand cognac. The original recipe, according to Greene and McMillian, is as follows:

Chill a small rocks glass filled with ice, then empty the ice into a second glass. In the first glass, add 1 cube of sugar, 1 teaspoon of water, and 2 dashes of Peychaud's bitters.

Muddle together until sugar dissolves (alternatively, use simple syrup instead of a sugar cube and water). Add 3 ounces rye whiskey and stir. Pour mixture into the ice-filled glass. Pour a teaspoon of absinthe into the empty glass, and twirl it around well to coat the inside of the glass, then pour out any absinthe that remains in the bottom.

Strain the main mixture out of the ice-filled glass into the absinthe-coated glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

Watch Greene and McMillian in action in this video from Smithsonian Media. And have a happy Mardi Gras, or even better, FaT Tuesday!

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