James Martin first started asking questions about the Sazerac cocktail a few years ago when he launched www.thesipologist.com, a blog on which he explores cocktail culture and its history. His short film The New Orleans Sazerac screened at the New Orleans Film Festival. Martin spoke with Gambit about the iconic New Orleans cocktail and his research.
You're working on a series of short films about cocktails. Why did you start with the Sazerac?
Martin: When I started the website a few years ago, it was basically a way for me to learn about cocktails and write about them. I really like cocktails, but I didn't really know what the ingredients were or where they came from. One of the first things I ever wrote about was the Sazerac. ... I wanted to spotlight the city and talk about the drink, and in doing so I started diving into the history and went from there.
One thing unique about the Sazerac is that it can be created with ingredients that come from within a 2-mile radius of New Orleans, including the sugar. Other cities with similar (iconic) drinks don't really have that, and the Sazerac is one of the few drinks in the world where that can happen.
What did you discover about the Sazerac?
M: One thing that's really great about the Sazerac and New Orleans, generally, is that there is a ton of people who write about it ... so there were many different sources for the history of the Sazerac ... (and) some things that disagree with each other.
One of the pieces of folklore is the idea that the Sazerac cocktail was always made with rye whiskey. Other people say that it was made with cognac or brandy that was imported to the U.S. some 50 years before the Sazerac became branded. There are people who declare that using Herbsaint (instead of absinthe) is the only way that a Sazerac should be made. You have a lot of fun variations taking place where bartenders are playing around with both recipes and trying to work the middle ground.
(In the film) we interview three different bartenders in New Orleans, and they all had different recipes. I interviewed Abigail Gullo (Compere Lapin), Paul Gustings (Broussard's) and Kirk Estopinal (Cure). Abigail's, for example, is one that uses cognac and rye whiskey, and she also uses Peychaud's Bitters and cane syrup.
For any ingredient within the Sazerac, there's an argument for using it. ... It's not that there should only be one answer for it. I think what makes it so incredible is that you can go to five different bars in New Orleans and have five different really great Sazeracs.
There is one that I lean towards based on the research I've done and the research that a lot of these experts have done: rye whiskey as the base with absinthe, Peychaud's Bitters and a sugar cube muddled with the bitters.
How is writing about cocktail culture different from producing films about it?
M: When you're writing about cocktails or spirits, there's an element of control over what your research patterns are or what your sources might be or even your writing process. You may be able to take six months to really dive into something. When you're working on a film, you're going to have that development period ... but then you're dependant on the crew and the talent in the story, and that's when it becomes a completely different monster. Now, you're hiring a crew and you're traveling to these cities and you're interviewing these subjects and you're hoping that they look good on camera. ... It's nice because you can share that vision with people who wouldn't necessarily buy a magazine and read a story on the Sazerac, but they would potentially watch the film ... so you're able to introduce people to a story they wouldn't have heard of otherwise.