"A Lesson From Jack"

By Bourbon Scout contributor Mike B.

In the time between 2014 and 2015, I had the pleasure and challenge of employing a bartender named Jack. He was a gentle, but haggard man whose checkered, complex past included a closely guarded stint as a paratrooper in the Army. He could have passed for a pony express rider if you switched his guayabera shirts with worn cowboy garb and thrown a couple of dusty saddlebags over his bony shoulder. His vocation put him at famous places like Pat O’Brien’s and other ground zeroes where his demons lurk. Towns like Key West and New Orleans are more like traps if you’re not looking at them through tourist eyes.

Moving in with his sister brought him to Charlotte where I had my bar. He exemplified the manic depressive life so many bartenders not only experienced at arms length each night but also kept at a functioning level of depravity for themselves at every waking moment.

Jack’s Hemingway past makes me think that many cultures have learned to accept their role in the world as too “spirits centered.” The most romantic and accomplished English actors - Burton, Caine, Harris, Reed, O’Toole and Shaw - all majored first in being drunks. Perhaps they all attended the same school the way young ladies of means were finished first by the best and then identified throughout society with the same stamp. Nary an industry/people is without a sad but memorable story. Bartenders seem incomplete without a need to be redeemed. Jack’s qualities made him lovable. Jack’s drinking made us act out of that love.

Now here is the Jack story that gives me reason to write. Here’s where we close the loop. Do you really have all the details of the first American Cocktail? It is older than the Manhattan; created before the precise recipe of a bourbon based Old Fashioned was dictated. Andrew Jackson was president! Maybe he even would order one whenever he visited its New Orleans birthplace, a pharmacy and tell how he and his troops pounced on the British years before and only a few miles away. This drink first started using American rye when French grape-based brandy became unavailable. This new drink option helped change a century old heritage of rum soaked post colonial days. It stemmed from homemade shrubs and apothic recipes each family developed with their own twists and legit reasons. The drink is called “The Sazerac.”

The Sazerac was Jack’s opus. He taught you about it and then crafted one the way Antoine Peychaud first intended in 1838. Use of the noun “concoction” shot up around that same time. Did folk pull it from the dusty old book of English Lexicon and use it to describe Antoine’s digestive every chance they got? Perhaps you can get back to me on that. The Sazerac also called for the first time bitters be incorporated into a complex drink other than a punch. Perhaps the Sazerac first tweaked the old golden ratio rhyme of: “One of sour/Two of sweet/Three of strong/Four of weak” (It always sounds like “One for the money, two for the show….”)

Jack insisted that we only use Peychaud’s bitters. It cost me dearly. The ruby red good stuff costs more than twice that of the more pungent, foreign yet still Creolean Angostura bitters most of us regard as the go to little bottle in our bars. Legend has it that Antoine used a double ended egg cup to measure out his liquid creation. That egg cup to this day is called a “coquetier” in French speaking countries and quarters. Sounds French for something to do with a Rooster? A cock. Maybe that egg cup really was the first “Jigger” and forgive me if I’m taking too much license but perhaps that is where we get the word “cocktail??"

Back to Jack…he insisted that the original recipe still touted by the distillery with the same name be followed. A Sazerac takes a lot longer than a Manhattan and about the same as an Old Fashioned. It merits the price charged, especially when Jack made one for you with all the loving care his shaky hands would craft.

The Official Sazerac Cocktail

1 cube sugar
1½ ounces (35ml) Sazerac Rye Whiskey
¼ ounce Herbsaint
3 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
Lemon peel

  • Pack an Old-Fashioned glass with ice
  • In a second Old-Fashioned glass place the sugar cube and add the Peychaud's Bitters to it, then crush the sugar cube
  • Add the Sazerac Rye Whiskey to the second glass containing the Peychaud's Bitters and sugar
  • Empty the ice from the first glass and coat the glass with the Herbsaint, then discard the remaining Herbsaint
  • Empty the whiskey/bitters/sugar mixture from the second glass into the first glass and garnish with lemon peel

- Use any favorite Rye. Sazerac is pretty good rye. Chilled glassware is most crucial because of the Herbsaint = Absinthe. Get the smallest bottle of Absinthe your ABC store offers. That weird liquorish bottle will be around as long as a healthy Grey Parrot…

Cheers Jack…I hope you’re well.

 Photo: Joshua Brasted

Photo: Joshua Brasted

Bourbon Scout