How to make the perfect Sazerac cocktail, according to a golf-club chef

Making the perfect Sazerac at home requires a bit of finesse.

Shaun Lewis

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New York City, January of 2020, and I’m standing at an intimate cocktail symposium alongside two giants in the spirit world, historian David Wondrich, and the King of Cocktails himself, Dale DeGroff.  Under their watch, I have just finished stirring what I will declare the finest Sazerac I’ve ever made. I’m a few cocktails in myself, and I confess to feeling quite euphoric.

Then again, a good Sazerac will do that to you.

Though documentation of the drink dates as far back as the mid-19th century, it was not until 1902 that barman William “Billy” Wilkinson, at the Sazerac Coffee House, in New Orleans, was credited with its creation. Word of the Sazerac soon spread widely, along with its influence on cocktail culture. But its origins have never been diluted. In 2008, the Sazerac was anointed by Louisiana lawmakers as the official cocktail of New Orleans.

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At its essence, a traditional Sazerac is relatively simple, with a four-ingredient foundation of Rye whiskey or cognac, absinthe, bitters and sugar. But variations abound. Debates about their relative merits — brandy or no brandy, the absence of absinthe, whether to use Peychaud’s bitters and no other — are best suited to lively exchanges with friends around the bar.

At Liberty National Golf Club, in New Jersey, where I serve as assistant general manager and executive chef, the Sazerac is a popular choice, and I’ve included our recipe below. But with Mardi Gras approaching, I’ve also offered tips for making your own version of this great drink at home.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

How to make the perfect Sazerac

-2oz Sazerac Rye Whiskey
-1 teaspoon heavy simple syrup or 1/2 oz gum simple syrup
-3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
-1 dash Angostura Bitters
-1/2 oz Absinthe (for rinsing the glass) 

Glass: Rocks 


Chill the rocks glass with crushed ice. You really want the glass to be cold. In a mixing glass three-quarters filled with cubed ice, combine the rye, simple syrup, and bitters. Stir with a bar spoon for 10 to 15 seconds (I always stir for a lucky 13). 

At this point, dump the crushed ice out of the rocks glass and give a quick shake to remove any residual water. Add the absinthe to the rocks glass and slowly tilt and swirl. You want to coat the glass with this aromatic, assertive liqueur. Dump out the remaining absinthe, add one large ice cube and then strain the cocktail into the glass. 

Garnish with a smartly cut lemon peel.

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Bar tips for home

Try your own variations

Though Sazerac rye is the purist’s choice, don’t hesitate to use other quality rye whiskeys. The recipe above works well with bourbon, too; this particular iteration is believed to have originated as a variation of another classic, the Whiskey Cocktail. There is also record of the original Sazerac having a secret ingredient, a half barspoon of Maraschino liqueur. 

Use the right ice

Good-quality tap water or bottled water works perfectly. 

But make sure you have the right cube for the right job. Use crushed ice (from a home machine or a Lewis bag) to chill your rocks glass; this will ensure that the absinthe coats the glass beautifully. But never use crushed ice in the cocktail itself. Large ice cubes, 2-inches square, are ideal, and large ice cube trays are available online. If you don’t use your ice regularly, be sure to change it out periodically. Ice that just sits in the freezer absorbs odors and will wreak havoc on your cocktails.

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Keep your simple syrup simple

You can buy it. But it’s easy to make at home by mixing granulated sugar in water (1:1), bringing to a simmer, then stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Heavy simple syrup calls for a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water.

Give gum syrup a go

I absolutely prefer using gum syrup for a Sazerac, and really all spirit-dominant cocktails that call for simple syrup. Gum syrup is flavorless, yet it adds a lush texture and a slight viscosity to a cocktail that just ties it all together. The gum also inhibits sugar crystallization, so you can store it the fridge for a month or so. If you have the time, please try it. Here’s how to make it:

-12 oz. granulated sugar
-6 oz. water divided into 2-oz. and 4-oz. portions
-2 oz. gum arabic

In a small plastic container, combine gum arabic and 2 ounces of water. Stir with a fork to combine, then cover. Let sit overnight or until the gum is completely dissolved by the water. There will be a light foamy layer on top. 

In a small saucepan, combine sugar and the remaining four ounces of water. Heat gently until the sugar begins to dissolve, then fold in the gum arabic mixture. Remove from heat, let cool and store in a plastic squeeze bottle. Keep refrigerated for up to 1 month.

Stirred, Not Shaken

This is a cocktail for the stirring and not shaking. We are taking great care to dilute and chill properly without adding air. It really makes a difference in the texture and viscosity of the drink, so you want to get this step perfected.

You can find Shaun Lewis on Instagram: @chefshaunchristopherlewis.

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