You could be forgiven for being confused as to how the name “Sazerac” manages to be name of a cocktail, a straight rye whiskey, and a large spirits company all at the same time. It comes as no great surprise that the three are related, sure, but how, you ask. Well, the romanticized, marketer’s wet-dream version includes a Creole apothecary named Peychaud (yes, he of the Peychaud’s bitters) who became well-known in the French Quarter of New Orleans for his original concoction of proprietary bitters and French brandy served in an egg cup. Now, en Français, an egg cup is called a coquetier, a term, as the legend goes, that was battered about in the American parlance so much that it became “cocktail”.
See, romantic, right? Not romantic in that if-you-thought-that-was-something-baby-wait-til-I-take-my-shoes-off kind of way, but you know, a nice, little, nostalgic story. Too bad it doesn’t hold much water. Cocktails made with brandy and bitters were being poured for years before Peychaud’s became a hot item, and the term cocktail has several possible origins, most of which pre-date his coquetier as well. However, though the Peychaud’s story is a little ambitious in terms of relevance, his little drink really was a popular libation of the day, so much so that other bars around town began serving versions of it. One of these bars was owned by a wine & spirits importer who brought a lot Cognac over from France, in particular, a brand called Sazerac du Forge et Fils that was used most often in this popular brandy cocktail. Somewhere along the line, this importer sold this bar to another, who re-named it The Sazerac Coffee House, perhaps because the word “Sazerac” had a certain je ne sais quoi that kept people coming in the door and “coffee house” kept the teetotalers off his back.
In the 1870’s the bar changed hands again, with Thomas Handy purchasing the place. Along with serving drinks, Handy grew his business by buying up and selling various liquors, including the aforementioned Peychaud’s Bitters in 1873. The cocktail was as popular as ever, but in the late 1800’s a switch needed to be made. A small bug named Phyloxxera had decimated most of Europe’s vineyards, consequently decimating the supply of brandy used in all of these brandy cocktails. Handy and his fellow barkeeps switched to the abundantly, and more locally produced rye whiskey to take brandy’s place. In the 1890’s, Handy began successfully selling a bottled version of his cocktail calling it, you guessed it, Sazerac. Handy’s company was itself eventually named Sazerac and in the ensuing years continued to buy up distilleries and spirit brands. Today, the still-family-owned company owns the fantastic Buffalo Trace Distillery, the small boutique A. Smith Bowman Distillery, the large Glenmore distillery, and Barton, Fleischmann, Medley and Mr. Boston brands of spirits. Their eponymous pair of ryes, the 18 year old, which was introduced in 2000 and is part of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, and this 6 year old, which was introduced in 2005, are both produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. So there you go, The cocktail, company, and whisky all got their name from a brand of French Cognac…more or less…in a roundabout way…
The Nose: In many ways, this is a benchmark straight rye nose. A nice dose of toasty rye sharpness with pickling spices, pine, and a slight vinegar twinge mixed with smooth French vanilla and buttery caramel. Compared to some newer, boutique ryes on the market that seem to go for that mega-rye, pickled-pine blowout, the Sazerac 6 year old has more sweetness and is surrounded by a stronger supporting cast of candied cinnamon, orange zest, and ginger that help to give it a slightly more laid-back refined character. Hints of cornbread give further clues as to the make-up of the mashbill.
The Palate: A full-bodied, citrus zest and cherry cola sweetness opens and swells quickly into a spicy mid-palate with more oak influence than I was expecting. Deep, strong toasted rye bread sharpness with vanilla bean, clove, cardamom, anise, and cinnamon is joined by a drying oak that feels older than the six years.
The Finish: Continued rye toastiness and spicy, drying, charred oak notes hang around just for a bit with the clove and anise lingering the longest.
Thoughts: An American whiskey stalwart. Complex and full-bodied enough to be sipped on its own, but with a deftness and straight-forward punch to live up to its cocktail roots. This has a terrific nose though the palate struggles a bit to follow quite as strongly due to some slightly over-the-top oak notes. Still, for $27 (around SF) this is a terrific value and basically required reading for whisk(e)y fans and cocktail fans alike.