July 18, 2008
Cocktail of Choice, at Least for Some
By Eric Asimov
I've been leafing through a bunch of cocktail manuals recently. Aside from the vicarious pleasure, I've been trying to figure out the logic of the Louisiana legislature, which, apparently having finished its work with the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, has moved on to the pressing business of selecting an official cocktail for the city of New Orleans. It has chosen the sazerac.
Now, if any American city deserves its own cocktail, it is New Orleans. It certainly has earned the right to unwind with its beverage of choice after the hurricane, not to mention years of failures by the Saints, as well as the presence of hordes on Bourbon Street toting drinks that are decidedly not sazeracs in vessels the size of jerrycans. What's more, the grand opening of the new Museum of the American Cocktail takes place next week in New Orleans, in recognition of the city's long association with joyous imbibing.
But why the sazerac? Oh, cocktail authorities can make an eloquent defense of its historic place in New Orleans. It was not the original cocktail, as some have claimed, but it is one of the oldest, and its history extends back 150 years in New Orleans. It is manly in its simplicity, essentially rye whiskey mixed with a little sugar, a few dashes of Peychaud's bitters and a rinse of absinthe. Peychaud's is a New Orleans product and absinthe - well, even when it was illegal, one could still count on tracking it down in New Orleans.
"It's a simple drink that is one of the original whiskey cocktails, and it kind of got fossilized in New Orleans, where it's still made today even as everybody else forgot about it," said David Wondrich, author of "Imbibe!" , a history of classic cocktails.
I grant all these points, yet I have one problem with sazeracs: I really don't like them.
Not that I would presume to be the arbiter of New Orleans cocktails, but the anise flavor of the absinthe, along with the herbal-anise flavor of the bitters, renders the sazerac overpoweringly medicinal, and I say that as a licorice lover. May I suggest that instead of being the official cocktail of New Orleans, the sazerac ought to be its official digestif?
In place of the sazerac, I would nominate the Ramos gin fizz. The fizz is a wonderful cocktail. It's refreshing and it's complex, but it's hardly simple. In fact, the authentic Ramos gin fizz is one of the most labor-intensive cocktails around.
Legend has it that Henry Charles Ramos, the New Orleans bartender who invented the drink in the late 19th century, employed young men whose job was to shake the cocktail for longer than could possibly be good for human arms. The problem was to combine two essential ingredients, cream and an egg white, that resist each other with polar opposition. You blend those with gin, naturally, lemon and lime juice, sugar, seltzer and - the piece de resistance - orange flower water.
Then, as Ramos once told The New Orleans Item-Tribune, you "shake and shake and shake until there is not a bubble left but the drink is smooth and snowy white and of the consistency of good rich milk."
Now that's a delicious cocktail. Lolis Eric Elie, a columnist with The Times-Picayune, agrees with me. "I don't want to sound unpatriotic, but I don't especially like sazeracs," Elie said. "The New Orleans drink that I think is far and away more tasty is the Ramos gin fizz."
For years the sazerac was made with absinthe substitutes, like Pernod or Herbsaint. And even though absinthe was cleared for sale in the United States last year for the first time since 1912, the cocktail still carries the shiver of forbidden fruit. "They have resurrected a drink that has long been illegal," Elie said. "I think that's part of the thrill - not only to celebrate it but to officialize it."
One could argue that the gin fizz also has a sense of the illicit about it: those raw egg whites will not win the nod of approval from the food police.
Wondrich, for one, seemed Solomon-like when I asked him which cocktail he preferred. "I love a sazerac," he said. "It's poetry in a glass, though so's a gin fizz. I can't have too many of those because of all the cream and the eggs. Of course, I can't have too many sazeracs either, because I'll fall down."
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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