Food & Drink

This Drink Changed My Life

The Sazerac

8a916d80d181ea12a68cc7ebcf649ce2f16c18f1
In 2008, I was living in Boston. And like most 25-year-olds living in Boston with a modest salary that barely covered my rent, my diet consisted primarily of 10-cent wings and pints of Harpoon. It was a magical time.

If I was feeling bold or a client was buying, I drank the occasional martini. But otherwise, cocktails were not on my radar. And then—I believe it was October—I stumbled upon Drink, a just-opened cocktail den that did transformative things to good spirits, fresh juices and housemade everythings. I read about it in some local publication and, interest piqued, decided to give it a whirl.

First thing: there wasn’t a sign. I realized that as my cab drove away. But after a little wandering, I found the address, walked through a door, down some stairs and found myself in a concrete-and-wood basement. So far, so good.

There was no menu either, which at the time seemed quite revolutionary and even now is rare. Instead, you simply talked to the barkeep. About your likes, your dislikes, your general mood... whatever they needed to glean exactly which cocktail you needed to drink at that exact moment.

Or you just made a request. And having recently discovered the word “Sazerac” but not quite sure about its origin or makeup, I asked for one. The approving nod from the bartender put me at ease, and her exposed, sleeve-tattooed arms got to work hand-chipping ice, meticulously measuring liquids and stirring it all together. It was a lot different than the usual show of a bartender placing a beer on a bar napkin or splashing some soda-gun tonic on top of some gin.

Set before me was this red-hued beauty of a cocktail. A rocks-glass, no-ice, chilled-to-perfection Sazerac comprised of rye whiskey, sugar, Peychaud’s bitters and just a hint of absinthe, with a freshly expressed lemon peel on top.

It smelled like I hope the bar in heaven smells. It tasted like, well, now I know that it tasted exactly like a Sazerac. And Sazeracs are goddamn delicious. Sazeracs are also the cocktail most associated with New Orleans, which led to a deep dive into the city’s drinking culture, regular attendance at the city’s annual booze fest called Tales of the Cocktail and a greater appreciation for all things New Orleans. So that was a nice bonus. It also led to a fascination with the oft-demonized absinthe (this being my second brush with the stuff after an ill-fated first time that involved shots of Czech absinthe in an NYU dorm room).

Over the years, more orders for Sazeracs didn’t always pan out—one bastard in Louisville even shook the poor thing—but it became a benchmark cocktail. Each subsequent drink was compared to the first in a dragon-chasing enterprise that seemed perfectly normal at the time but, upon further reflection, might’ve veered a little too close to whiskey-fueled obsession.

And years later, when I went back to that very same bar with the very same request, the Sazerac held up. It still brought out that kid-in-a-candy-store sensation alongside some affirmation that, yes, this drink is, in fact, quite good and I was not simply influenced by circumstance and inexperience. So that was validating, in the sense that whiskey, sugar, absinthe and bitters can be validating.

The point is: that one drink sent me down a liquor-laced rabbit hole of more drinks, better drinks, weirder drinks, rare spirits, artisan bitters and ingredients that sound like a joke from Portlandia. And it led me down a new career path, too, one that involves getting paid to, among other things, drink good drinks.

I owe a lot to that fateful Sazerac. And while I’d still never turn down 10-cent wings and a pitcher of beer, it led to a greater appreciation and some discernment for what I put in my body. And really, isn’t that what makes one an enthusiast, and not, like, just some drunk?

—Kevin Gray

Elsewhere on the Daddy

More Food & Drink