photo from Wikimedia Commons user Infrogmation

"It was a home for newsmen, drunkards, halfdrunkards and complete sots. Seriously, it was the people who went there that made that place what it was." — Congressman F. Edward Hebert on The Sazerac Bar

Bitters, extracted from bitter tasting herbs and bark, were concocted at local pharmacies and given to clients to alleviate all manner of ailments. When serving them, pharmacists would temper their taste with brandy or whiskey. It was believed that the combination of whiskey and bitters would ward off tropical diseases.

Bitters were also a prominent ingredient in a new drink called the cocktail, first mentioned in The Balance and Columbian Repository, May 13, 1806. “Cocktail is stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters — it is vulgarly called a bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also, to be of great use to a Democratic candidate: because a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything”

In the 1830s, New Orleans pharmacist, Antoine Amadie Peychaud, in his apothecary at 437 Royal St., served a special type of bitters. He served these to his clients mixed with brandy and sugar in a double-ended egg cup, called a coquetier. Its pronunciation, according to many sources, was bastardized by local American residents who pronounced it like the familiar word “cocktail.” The motto of the firm was “Peychaud Bitters have no equal for flavoring cocktails, used in every bar of any prominence.” This new drink, both potent and tasty, gained popularity around the city’s saloons, which at the time were called, interestingly, coffeehouses. One coffeehouse in particular became prominent in the development of a favorite New Orleans cocktail: The Sazerac.

The Sazerac Coffee House, located at 13 Exchange Alley, was owned by John Schiller. He served coffee spiked with cognac, specifically, Sazerac du Forge et fils, of which he was the sole importer in New Orleans and for which his bar was named. Soon customers began asking for the new drink “the cocktail,” popularized by Peychaud. Schiller declared that at his bar, this “cocktail” would only be made with Sazerac cognac. So many clients purchased this new beverage at his establishment that the drink became associated with his bar, and was dubbed “The Sazerac.”

The Sazerac Coffeehouse grew as demand for the drink grew. At one time 15 bartenders could be seen shaking up Sazeracs at once. Upon Schiller’s death in 1870, his bookkeeper (and one time civil sheriff of New Orleans), Thomas Handy, took over. It was under Handy’s management that cognac was replaced with rye whiskey, whose popularity reflected the tastes of the growing American population who, according to historian Stanley C. Arthur, “preferred ‘red likker’ to any palefaced brandy.” Handy also introduced the practice of rimming the glass with absinthe before adding the other liquors to add another note of flavor. Later, when absinthe was banned, it was replaced with pastis, usually the locally made Herbsaint. After Prohibition, the bar moved to 300 Carondelet St. and then to the Roosevelt Hotel.

Prior to 1949 women were only allowed in the bar on Mardi Gras Day, prompting one local to observe “the Sazerac bar was the only men’s club in town where there were no dues to pay.” Until the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina, the bar served as a retreat for both men and women, local and tourist, to sip and savor a Sazerac.