In a city where cocktail is art, Chris McMillian is legend -- the bartender of bartenders. The co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail gave us a private lesson in New Orleans' most demanding cocktail: the sazerac. [Ed. note: You can also watch McMillian make a sazerac in the video below.]
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You've been called a 19th-century bartender.
Chris McMillian: That's an interesting comment about me. It's like any endeavor: When you want to be good at something, you copy the people who are good at it. I've spent the better part of 20 years of my career studying what happened in the past so that I could be good at what I do today. American bartending having its roots in the 19th century, I'll take that as a compliment.
LRK: What was happening in the 19th century? You always think of cocktails as beginning during the 1920s.
CMM: When it really began was the 18th century. Americans were spirits drinkers as opposed to beer and wine drinkers. Beer and wine didn't travel well from Europe and we didn't have the raw materials from which to make them.
The first time we have the term cocktail defined is in 1806 in a Hudson, N.Y., newspaper; it defined cocktails as any spirit, sugar, water and bitters, with bitters being the defining ingredient. Without bitters it would be a category of drink known as a sling. When you add bitters to it, it becomes a bittered sling or a cocktail.
Bitters themselves date from the 18th century, a time when we didn't have medicine as we know it today. The water supply was unsafe to drink. It was not until the 20th century that we had potable, filtered water, so we drank alcohol as a substitute for water. Upon arising and having their first drink of the day, people would take their bitters as a prophylactic against illness much the same as we consume vitamins today, to protect ourselves from getting sick.
LRK: The drinks that you are making today have their origins during that time?
CMM: This is the cocktail. It's sugar, bitters and spirit. It conforms to that very basic definition. The prototype would be the whiskey cocktail -- today we call that the old-fashioned. If you take the fruit out of it, that's what an old-fashioned is: sugar, bitters and spirit. It's believed that sometime in the 1880s, as cocktails became more and more sophisticated and complicated, somebody said, "Would you just fix me a cocktail the old-fashioned way?" Meaning without all of the extra fruit and things added. That's where the idea comes from.
LRK: You have a muddler -- it almost looks like a pestle -- and three glasses. There's a liquid in them that is this beautiful orange color.
Sugar and Peychaud's Bitters (Jennifer Russell)
CMM: It's just sugar and Peychaud's Bitters. Antoine Peychaud was a pharmacist.
One of the seminal moments in New Orleans history was the Haitian slave revolt. It was the only successful slave revolt in the history of humanity. Over 80,000 European troops perished in trying to recapture Haiti -- this was Napoleon's army, the finest army in all of the world. The slaves there fought with total abandon. They had nothing to lose. The French, who were the governing body there, first fled to Havana, then from there to New Orleans.
Peychaud came here to New Orleans, set up a pharmacy on Royal Street (the building still exists today), and created these bitters. His father was a physician, and this was reputed to have been a secret, proprietary, family recipe. We don't know if that's in fact true, but we do know that certainly by the 1850s, Peychaud's Bitters were being advertised as being used in the Sazerac Coffee House where this drink derives its name.
The word sazerac itself was the name of a very famous brand of cognac produced in the 18th and 19th centuries. The coffee house was named after the cognac itself. As the city made a transition in the 1860s and 1870s to a dominantly American culture, the drink made a transition from being cognac-based to being rye-whiskey-based because Americans were whiskey drinkers.
LRK: You have six glasses here to make three cocktails. Three of those glasses are filled with ice water. Why?
CMM: The traditional method for making this drink is to take two old-fashioned glasses, fill one with ice water and allow it to chill.
LRK: So these are chilling. Now you're spooning ice into the glass with the Wild Turkey and the Peychaud's Bitters.
Some of the ingredients for a sazerac (Jennifer Russell)
CMM: We've added our sugar, we've saturated it with Peychaud's Bitters. We added a small amount of water to aid in dissolving the sugar cube and to make a solution. We're now adding the rye whiskey, we're stirring the drink to chill the drink and to add dilution and water to it. All mixed drinks have a water component to them. You have to get the right amount of dilution to properly kill the alcohol bite. You don't want it to be watery, but you don't want it to burn either. That's not pleasant.
LRK: This is a very sensitive process.
CMM: It's a process that's very prescribed by time. I think I read that one of the bartenders at the Sazerac said there were 16 steps to making this drink.
LRK: The ice water was just to chill the glasses. You've poured out the ice water from those three glasses. You just put in a few drops of absinthe?
CMM: We use absinthe almost as a seasoning or flavor. All I'm doing is coating the interior of the glass and discarding the excess. Smell that lovely perfume.
LRK: Oh, yes, anise.
CMM: Then we're going to strain it -- the whiskey and the bitters with sugar into the absinthe-rinsed glass. The final step is to take a nice piece of citrus peel.
LRK: You've just taken this off of the peel of the lemon and you're twisting it over the glass.
CMM: You can actually look at the top of it -- can you see the oil floating on the top? The purpose of the twist is just to give you that lovely citrus perfume. You have the layers of the whiskey, the sugar, all the flavorings and the bitters, the absinthe, and the citrus oil itself. This is a very complex drink with a lot going into it. Santé as we say here in New Orleans -- cheers.
LRK: Yes, santé. This is the subtlest, most complex sazerac I can remember tasting.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.