• Richard Murff

Sazeracs & Old Emperors


I first heard the story when I stumbled into the beautifully shabby Napoleon House in New Orleans vieux carré. I have no idea what the drinking age in Louisiana was at the time, but I could see over the bar and that seemed to settle matters. Returning over the years, I couldn’t actually rave about the food, but somehow the place just got stuck in my craw. Or liver. I’ve used it as settings in a novel that you should have read and a screenplay that never got produced.


It was there that I first heard the story of the place: called Napoleon House long before it was a bar but since the building when up in 1821. It was the last piece of a complicated plot by the citizens of New Orleans to liberate the deposed dictator from his guarded exile on St. Helena in the south Atlantic bring the man home. Well, not his home, but their home.


The plot was hatched by a former mayor, one Nicolas Girod, and one of the pirate Jean Lafitte’s lieutenants, a semi-retired buccaneer named Dominique You. That those two were in business together tells you just about everything that you need to know about politics and society in New Orleans. True, they’d been “Americans” since 1803, when Napoleon sold the whole of Louisiana colony to the United States, but there was no telling the formerly French citizenry that. So, the former mayor, a brigand and the rest of descent society banded together to build a ship, Saraphine and hired a gang of many more pirates to break the old dictator free and make a stand for the city’s French culture.


People in New Orleans felt put-upon by anglophones, Napoleon felt put-upon by anglophones – and romances have flourished with less. Still, a careful reader of history might point out that it had been Napoleon himself who’d sold their beloved city and a third of the continent to the Yankees in the first place. Popular mobs aren’t known for their attention to detail.


As it was, the ship never sailed, and Napoleon never hung his enormous chapeau in the house the city had built him. It does leave us with an interesting thought exercise: What would New Orleans be like today had the he actually showed up 200 years ago? What epic test of wills would have played out between one of history’s great overbearing administrators and the colony that care forgot. To lubricate this intriguing alternate history, consider one of the city’s great cocktails that was being quaffed long before Napoleon captured the city’s imagination – the Sazerac.


From an apothecary on Royal Street, run by the creole Antione Amadie Peychaud, he treated stomach ailments with a unique mixture of brandy and his own bitters, served it in a French egg cup called a coquetier. The Yankees with belly aches mispronounced as "cocktail."


Whatever they called it, the concoction was a hit. Soon the cocktail was being served all over town, and in 1853 the Sazerac Coffee House was making its brandy toddy with Sazerac de Forge et fils cognac. Sometime around 1870 the recipe was tweeked, dropping the expensive brandy it was named after, and replacing it with American rye whiskey. Then, because it was all the rage, adding a dash of the absinthe. Because, why not?


By 1872, the Sazarac had 18 bartenders manning a 125 foot bar churning them out. To wit:

  • One jigger Rye Whiskey (or use the original brandy it's lovely)

  • Sugar cube, crushed

  • 3 dashes Peychaud's bitters

  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Chill in a shaker with crushed ice, strain into glass laced with absinthe. Garnish with a lemon twist.