Or, how to spot an institution that skimped on its bartender.

Philadelphia is known for its cocktails–especially its throwback speakeasies. So I felt I was safe when, at one of the city’s top hotels, I ordered a Sazerac from the hotel bar. I watched the hapless bartender pour something that came out of a container of a mix of some kind. I watched him pour bourbon. I watched him put all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake it vigorously. And after two sips, I returned the satanic concoction and went to look for a better bar.

The Sazerac is ancient by cocktail standards–dating back to the 1850s and a New Orleans coffee house that bore the name and that was known for its brandy. The recipe has evolved a tad since then, but it’s still one of those rare drinks that’s on the sweeter side (slightly) but won’t lose you any credibility with your grouchy friend who thinks it’s unmanly to drink anything more complicated than straight bourbon.

It’s rye whiskey-based, with little touches of some subtle flavors (licorice, citrus) that add up to a delightful, socially mobile mixed drink that’s equally at home in front of Monday Night Football or your date at the charity banquet.


  • 1.5 oz rye whiskey (my favorites for this: Bulleit, Rittenhouse, or go for the original, Sazerac)
  • Water
  • Sugar cube
  • 2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters (see tips below)
  • 1 tbsp absinthe (give or take)
  • Lemon

How to make it: get out an old-fashioned glass, rinse it with the absinthe, then dump it out. Set aside the glass. In another glass or cocktail shaker, wet the sugar cube with the bitters and a dash of water until you can crush it and muddle it all together with a spoon or muddler. Add the rye and some ice and stir for a good 30 seconds. Then strain the mixture into the absinthe-coated glass. Get a peel off the lemon, twist it over the drink to release the goodness, then rub it around the rim of the glass and drop it in.


  • Absinthe is made from (among other things) anise. DO NOT use too much or leave it in by accident unless you feel like drinking alcoholic licorice.
  • Use real bitters. Modern “Angostura Bitters” are made from mostly artificial ingredients. If you can find them or don’t mind ordering them online, try Scrappy’s or Hella Bitters‘ Aromatic Bitters if you prefer real ingredients. More on bitters some other time.
  • On that note, don’t skimp on the ingredients. This is one of those drinks where the core alcohol really matters; don’t swap in bourbon (it’s too sweet) or anything you’d expect to find on a cowboy’s shelf. Stick to a good rye. Some recipes will tell you you can substitute Pernod for the absinthe; do not listen to these lies (if you can find it, Leopold Brothers’ Denver absinthe is wonderful).

Photo from Chowhound, which has a version of the recipe with lovely step-by-step pictures!

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