Peanut butter and jelly. Peaches and cream. Jack and Jill. Simon and Garfunkel.
Some things go together so well that it is hard to imagine one without the other. I confess, I enjoy my peaches with lots of cream, I prefer my Jacks and Jills climbing and tumbling together, and I never listen to Art Garfunkel unless Paul Simon gets to sing, too. The same is true with cocktails and music — that is my burden of proof. No matter how delicious a cocktail is in dead silence, the experience is exponentially better when accompanied by the right music. And together, music and drink can teach us much about the culture and day-to-day experience of a particular people. Over the next few issues, we are going to explore some classic cocktails and the music of the day that would have played right alongside these potent potables.
The Sazerac is a relatively old cocktail that appeared in the mid- to late-1800s in New Orleans and is now the city’s official cocktail. The drink was originally made with Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils Cognac, but by 1873 this brandy had been replaced by rye because France’s phylloxera aphid epidemic had largely decimated the country’s grape vineyards (and subsequently their supply of cognac). The rye was combined with sugar and a bitter aromatic concoction that Haitian apothecary Antoine Peychaud sold based an old family recipe.
In the mid to late 1800s, jazz was on its way to America and New Orleans, but it would be another 50 years before it became mainstream. During the second half of the 1800s, opera was still king and New Orleans reigned as United States’ opera capital. In 1879, French composer Georges Bizet’s "Carmen" came to the New Orleans’ French Opera house. Without a doubt, opera goers to the New Orleans’ premiere would have celebrated with a post-show sazerac at the drink’s birthplace, the Sazerac Coffee House, just six and half blocks away. Though Bizet himself died months after "Carmen" premiered in 1875, this final work became one of the world’s most famous operas. .Best of all you can still listen to it today. I recommend you pair your next sazerac with the “Habanera” aria — together they are music to my mouth.
- 2 ounce rye whiskey or cognac (or 1 ounce of each)
- 1 sugar cube
- 1 scant teaspoon water
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- 1 teaspoon absinthe
- Lemon twist (aroma)
Today, most folks make their sazeracs with rye, instead of cognac. Either is delicious, but I prefer a not entirely historical version that uses both based on Dale Degroff’s 2002 "The Craft of the Cocktail." Soak the sugar cube with the water and bitters; muddle for 30 seconds or until the sugar is fully dissolved — no one wants a gritty cocktail. Add the rye or cognac and stir with ice for 20 seconds. Rinse the inside of pre-chilled rocks glass with absinthe until it is thoroughly coated. Discard any excess and strain the contents of the mixing glass into the absinthe-rinsed glass. Express the oils from one or two lemons peels over the drink, then rub the rim and opening of the glass with the same peel before discarding.
Over the years, the Sazerac has become a personal favorite. In some ways, the drink is relatively unassuming -- a cocktail at its most basic level: spirit, bitters, sugar, and water. And I have certainly enjoyed drinking them since I had my first. But this drink is even better when you actually make your own. The muddling, rinsing, stirring, and garnishing make for a more hands-on drink; it is just plain fun to make. And the fun continues before you even taste it. As you bring the sazerac to your mouth, the first thing you will notice is the scent of fresh lemon oil and fennel and anise from the absinthe. The lemon fragrance lingers as you take the first sip, which carries forward subtle flavors of absinthe and adds dark fruits, spice and oak from the rye or cognac and minerality and subtle baking spices from the bitters. In a word: Bravo!
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Another classic from the early 1900s is the aviation cocktail, first published in New York barkeep Hugo Ensslin’s 1917 book "Recipes for Mixed Drinks." This sky-blue drink was an obvious tribute to the rise of American aviation, published the same year the US joined the Allies in WWI, just a year before Orville Wright’s last flight, and only 10 years before Lindbergh soloed the Atlantic. Unfortunately, 13 years later, Harry Craddock omitted the crème de violette in "The Savoy Cocktail Book." Craddock’s diminished version was the standard until 2007; it is not terrible but pales in comparison both visually (that version is nearly clear) and taste-wise. Thankfully, in 2007, crème de violette, again became available in the US after a decades-long hiatus.
For an appropriate music companion, check out the early jazz standard "Li’l Liza Jane," recorded in 1917 by Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band. Fuller’s frenetic version and the aviation cocktail have much in common — there is a lot going on with both. They are comprised of many diverse but complimentary layers and are fun and celebratory representations of an upbeat, bustling New York City. And perhaps most interesting is the fact that during the same time Hugo Ensslin was mixing aviation cocktails at New York’s Wallick Hotel, Fuller and his boys served as the house band at Rector’s Restaurant a mere five blocks north on Broadway. In 1917, socializing with an aviation in hand to this boisterous soundtrack would have been inevitable. Ready to take to the skies? I dare you.
- 2 ounces gin
- 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 ounce crème de violette
- 1/3 ounce Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
- Brandied cherry (garnish)
Combine the above in an ice-filled Boston shaker. Shake vigorously for 20 seconds and double strain over a brandied cherry into a chilled cocktail glass or couple.
This is a great drink to try with different gins, or a combination of gins. Some floral gins play well with the floral notes in the crème de violette; others may compete too much. Citrus forward gins go well with the violet liqueur as well, while juniper heavy gins nicely balance and tame the spicy maraschino notes. However you fly it, this is a spectacular quaff and one of my favorites. The grayish, violet-blue hue of this drink is captivating and the multi-layered balance of flavors is as unique and delicious as any classic cocktail I have had — I return to it again and again. Jason Wilson, author of the book "Boozehound" (arguably the best spirits book around) and spirits writer for the Washington Post, says that Ensslin’s 1917 gem is his favorite cocktail book and offers the best glimpse of American cocktails before the fallout from prohibition. The aviation is just one of over 400 reasons I think Wilson is right. Once you've drank one, I think you will agree.
The burden of proof is now yours. Infuse your next cocktail experience with a new understanding of the people, times and places connected to your favorite drinks. Cue up some oldies — some real oldies — while you go make a good turn of the century cocktail for a good friend.