A few weeks back I was sitting at the Anvil Bar in Houston, picking at a few well-seasoned, tender lamb meatballs and sipping on a Sazerac—my drink of choice whenever I check out a new craft cocktail bar. It's my yardstick. One I'm intimately familiar with. A classic drink simple enough that any bartender should have its recipe down to muscle memory, but complex enough that the difference between a perfect one and a just ok one comes down to the fine points of finesse.
But as I watched the bartender construct my cocktail, I realized that as much attention is paid to the tradition and lore of mixing classic cocktails, in the end, any good cocktail is judged by what ends up on the table in front of you.
There are many paths one can take to a perfect Sazerac, but the end goal is always the same. The floral aroma of lemon oil that hits your nose first, immediately followed by a whiff—just a hint, really—of anise. A faint touch of sweetness as your lips initially touch the ice cold inside edge of the rocks-free old fashioned glass. As you tilt the glass up, the first sensation is extreme, almost numbing coldness as the rosy orange, -7°C liquid passes your lips. As it warms on your tongue, faint notes of sweet corn and spicy rye work across your palate before the more floral aromas of Peychaud's bitters return, always accompanied by that anise. It finishes with a touch of bitter gentian, priming your palate for that next sip or perhaps one of those delightful looking pigs in blankets.
There are only five ingredients involved in its construction—rye whiskey, sugar, Peychaud's bitters, Absinthe (or Herbsaint), and a strip of lime zest—seven if you count the ice and water, but as any cook or bartender will tell you, the fewer ingredients you have, the less room there is to hide behind poor technique.
The classic method for constructing a Sazerac is to dissolve a sugar cube in a few dashes of Peychaud's and a couple drops of water in the bottom of a mixing glass, topping it with rye, then stirring it with ice until it's as cold as it can possibly get. When you start with near 80-proof liquor (as you do with a Sazerac), that final temperature is a colder-than-ice -7°C (that's about 19°F). I didn't believe it the first time I heard that you can mix ice and alcohol together and end up with a solution that's colder than either of them started, but physics can be a strange beast, particularly when there's enthalpy involved.
Once chilled, the drink gets strained into a new old fashioned glass—also ice cold, that's had a few drops of absinthe or Herbsaint washed around its interior. Not enough to really affect the flavor of the drink, but just enough to lends its aroma. Finally, fresh lemon rind is squeezed to release its oils and rubbed around the rim of the glass. When properly made and chilled, a Sazerac should stay cold until the last sip.
Of course, all of these rules are just pedantry. What really matters is what's in the glass at the end. Is it cold enough? Has it been diluted with just enough water? Are the flavors balanced? These are the questions one should be asking as they sip, not whether or not the bartender used Kold-Draft ice or how small they were cracked. Better yet, the drink should be so perfect that those questions don't even cross your mind.
These things can all affect the final process, but they are just means to an end, and there are plenty of choices to make along the way.
For instance, at the Anvil Bar & Refuge, they skip the whole dissolving sugar cube routine, opting instead for a double-strength simple syrup stirred together with the bitters. Would some folks look down at this technique (or lack thereof)? Probably. Would I have known if I hadn't seen the bartender do it? Nope. Did my drink arrive in front of me a few seconds faster than it would have otherwise? Indeed. And did I care one whit once the perfectly sweetened drink was placed in front of me? No damn way.
At Booker & Dax, Dave Arnold's bar in the back of Momofuku Ssäm Bar, they don't serve a Sazerac, but they do offer its close cousin, the Manhattan. Rather than constructing drinks to order and stirring them on ice, Dave opts to pre-mix and pre-dilute them with a fixed amount of water, storing them in noble gas-filled bottles to prevent oxidation, chilling them, and serving them in liquid nitrogen-washed coupes, all in the name of consistency. By separating the dilution and chilling steps that are usually inextricably bound to each other with the melting of ice in a stirring cup, he's able to control his cocktails with far more precision.
Once again, the end result is pretty much the exact same drink (albeit a bit colder and a bit more consistent), but the path to get there is wildly different.
Some bartenders will even flame their lemon oil as it escapes the peel, a move that alters the aroma of the lemon, but does not fundamentally destroy the basic balance of the cocktail—the dilution and chilling levels, the sweetness. Isn't it great that you can set part of a drink on fire and it'll still taste like a good drink—a subtle variation on a good theme—but do something as seemingly innocent as adding too much or too little sugar, or serving it in a glass that still hasn't chilled properly after its trip to the dishwasher, and it becomes worthless, undrinkable swill?
All this is to say that I often catch myself paying too much attention to what a bartender is doing, rather than to what is placed in front of me; I sometimes even pre-judge a drink before it's placed in front of me. This is no way to go about happy hour.
So thanks, Anvil, for reminding me of what I should have remembered all along: There are many ways to mix a classic cocktail, but there's only one way to enjoy them.
Anvil Bar & Refuge
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.