A Most Potent Cocktail: Sazerac Company

A Sazerac is a New Orleans version of a whiskey or cognac cocktail. Identified by some as possibly the oldest surviving ‘American’ cocktail, the drink – traditionally consisting of cognac or rye whiskey, Peychaud’s Bitters, sugar and a dash of absinthe – derives its name from the Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac, which served as its original main ingredient.

Our story today, however, is not about what is possibly the finest creation of the Creole immigrant Antoine Amédée Peychaud, but rather, a company whose origins can be traced back to a mid-19th century New Orleans establishment sharing its name with the drink.

The Story that Began in a Coffee Shop

The Sazerac Company’s story dates to the purchase of the Sazerac Coffee House, a bar in New Orleans, by Thomas H. Handy in 1869. Originally a wildly popular watering hole where people would gather for their shot at the Sazerac (the drink), the establishment on Exchange Alley became the focus of Handy’s ever expanding spirit of entrepreneurship, was soon to emerge as the core of a whole new world of spirits.

Handy continued to acquire and market new brands of liquor, in the process building up a formidable reputation for his brand. He acquired the rights to Peychaud’s Bitters in 1873, and by the dawn of the 1890’s, was bottling and selling the Sazerac cocktail, replacing the cognac base with rye whiskey. The operations of the company had expanded to include the Sazerac Bar of the famous Royal Street. It was around this time that, building on the strengths of the firm, C. J. O’Reilly, a former secretary to Thomas Handy himself, chartered the Sazerac Company.

And the Saga Continues

Sazerac (the company) continues to be a family owned enterprise, and decants about 33 different brands of alcoholic beverages from its famed cellars and distilleries. While the company is still proud of its close ties with the mystique of the Sazerac (the drink), it has continued to enjoy a steady expansion over the years. This journey, however, was hindered by the Prohibition, when, to survive the legal closure of its core business, the Sazerac Company had to diversify into the role of a delicatessen and grocer.

While the company has continued to grow since then, its namesake drink has also had a few changes in the post-Prohibition era, which should of interest to the whiskey connoisseurs. In 1940, the official recipe for Sazerac was modified to replace absinthe with Herbsaint. Herbsaint, a pastis prepared according to a French recipe, is named for the New Orleans term for wormwood – ‘Herb Sainte.’ Also, while the use of rye whiskey as base had been in fashion since the days of Thomas Handy himself, it was only in 2000 that the official recipe was modified to include Sazerac Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey as the foundation.

Sazerac today

The Sazerac Company today owns several of America’s most iconic and venerable distilleries, including the Buffalo Trace Distillery, Glenmore Distillery, A. Smith Bowman, Medley, Barton, Fleischmann, and Mr. Boston. Although the company has moved most of its principal operations to Louisville, KY, it continues to maintain an active presence in New Orleans, besides operating in Bardstown and Owensboro, Kentucky; Baltimore, Maryland; Carson, California; Chicago, Illinois; Londonderry, New Hampshire; Lewiston, Maine; and Montreal, Canada.

As of 2016, it has acquired Southern Comfort, a brand best known as the distillers of Jack Daniel’s, a move that further expands the robust boundaries of its offerings.