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“Nothing’s sacred, except maybe the Sazerac.” Neal Bodenheimer and his bartenders at Cure, a New Orleans cocktail lounge, designed their Sazerac recipe with this value in mind. In this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy chats with Bodenheimer about what makes the Sazerac so special, and how home bartenders and aspiring mixologists alike can craft the most delicious (and historically accurate) versions of the beverage.
As the city’s official cocktail, the Sazerac has a rich history in New Orleans that dates back to the 1800s. It has become a staple drink for bar-goers in the city, which means it’s an important drink to prepare properly. Bodenheimer strives to do just that, and has spent years learning and perfecting the tricks of the Sazerac trade.
Tune in to learn how to make the perfect Sazerac.
MAKE NEAL BODENHEIMER’S SAZERAC
- 2 ounces rye, such as Sazerac 6 Year
- ¼ ounce Demerara syrup (2:1 ratio of sugar and water, lightly cooked)
- 3 dashes (or 21-23 drops) Peychaud’s bitters
- Herbsaint Original 100 proof, in an atomizer
- Lemon peel
- Spray the inside (specifically) of a chilled double Old Fashioned glass with 4 atomizer sprays of Herbsaint.
- In a mixing glass, stir the rye, Demerara syrup, and Peychaud’s bitters over ice until chilled.
- Carefully strain into the seasoned glass.
- From a distance of 3 to 4 inches, express the lemon peel on the outside (specifically) of the glass, then dab lightly on the glass to add further citrus oil.
- Roll up the lemon peel and place it on the side of the glass to garnish.
CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Tim McKirdy: Hey! This is Tim McKirdy, and welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College,” a weekly deep dive into classic cocktails that goes beyond the recipe with America’s best bartenders. Nothing’s sacred, except maybe the Sazerac. That’s the philosophy of Neal Bodenheimer and his team at Cure in New Orleans. It’s a wise approach if you run a bar in NOLA. Not only is the Sazerac New Orleans’ official cocktail, the city basically kept the drink alive when so many others had turned their back on it during the dark days of cocktail culture. For New Orleanians, the Sazerac is a bit like that band you followed and liked before they became famous, or the team you’ve kept on supporting through years of disappointment (shout-out to Mets and Jets fans). At the beginning of our interview, Neal goes deep on the drink’s backstory. All you history buffs are going to love it. The information he lays out helps us understand the rye versus Cognac debate. History in general is also at the heart of how Neal and his team greeted their version of this sacred cocktail. You could walk into Cure, order their Sazerac, and enjoy the hell out of it, but also be completely unaware of the history and attention to detail mixed into their version of the drink. Today, listener, we get to look behind the scenes. Neal Bodenheimer, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for joining us.
Neal Bodenheimer: Tim, thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to talk cocktails with you.
T: The pleasure is all mine. I’m really looking forward to getting into it. I believe that, at Cure, you have a specific philosophy relating to the drink that we’re going to discuss today. Can you tell us about that?
N: Sure. Any time you open a bar in New Orleans — we opened Cure just under 13 years ago — the first thing that you have to figure out is how you’re going to make a Sazerac. When we were getting going, there were a lot of Sazeracs around town. Some of them were good. Some of them were not. We knew we really needed to dig in on this drink, and we started putting together a philosophy. Our philosophy starts with how we’re going to approach the drink. Is the Sazerac a stand-alone, independent cocktail? Is a Sazerac an evolution of the whiskey cocktail? As we started debating that, we really felt — and I think that, over time it’s really been proven out — that the Sazerac is an evolution of the improved whiskey cocktail and of the improved brandy cocktail. We really felt that it was important to treat it in that way. From there, we started looking at the ingredients. We looked at the rye, sugar, how we were going to use the bitters, how we were going to use the aromatics with the absinthe or absinthe substitute, and the citrus element. It was important for us to really dial into it in, drill down, and figure out what we felt like made the best Sazerac. There was debate. The way I feel today isn’t necessarily the way I felt 13 years ago.
T: That’s incredible.
N: It’s great. I think that it just goes to show that you really never stop learning. You may be “anti” something one day, but the more you live with it, the more you come around on some stuff. I had a lot of hubris as a young bartender. I remember making Sazerac and saying, “I really love them with orange peels.” I actually do think an orange peel works really well on a Sazerac, but it ceases to be a Sazerac in my mind. At Cure, we’ve always said that nothing is sacred, except maybe a Sazerac. When you start to look at what is classic, while that orange peel may taste really good in a Sazerac format, it’s just not a Sazerac. Thus, it cannot be served as a Sazerac without a qualification.
THE HISTORY OF THE SAZERAC
T: I think that’s a really great point for us to jump off here. It really relates to what we’re doing on the show. On the one hand, you are refusing to say, “We’ve come up with a formula, we’ve perfected it, and that’s it.” You’re evolving, but on the other hand, you’re saying, “We need to have some respect for the classics.” Again, that’s what we’re trying to get into on this show. Drinks have got to taste great. To really reach those upper echelons, though, they have to have a great story as well. So, I was wondering if you could tell us the story of the Sazerac. Is it one of those cocktails that does have a great story? Are there great talking points?
N: I would argue that the Sazerac has one of the best stories in all of cocktails. Just like any great bar story, it has a lot of suspect facts in it. You cannot really talk about the history of the Sazerac cocktail without talking first about Stanley Clisby Arthur and his 1937 work, “New Orleans Drinks.” The interesting thing about Arthur is that he is not a particularly reliable narrator. He certainly got some stuff right, and he is our guide. Without Arthur, you really don’t have a true canon of New Orleans cocktails. At the same time, he was prone to take some liberties and connect some dots that maybe shouldn’t have been connected. In 1937, he’s looking back and trying to piece things together. He gets enough right that the legend of the Sazerac is built. He gets enough wrong that we know that maybe we need to dig in historically and check his work. Number one: He certainly puts the timeline a little early for Antoine Amédée Peychaud, who is the inventor of Peychaud’s bitters. We’re lucky to have Philip Greene, who’s done a lot of the research around that. Philip is actually a descendant of Antoine Amédée Peychuad. Not only is he a great historian, but he really has a dog in the fight, too. Yeah. Philip was smart enough and a good enough researcher to look and say, “Hey, this doesn’t match up.” So, when Clisby Arthur is talking about Antoine Amédée Peychaud inventing the cocktail — not only did he say that he made the Sazerac, but that the Sazerac was the first cocktail and he invented it — that is patently false. That was disproven pretty easily. If you ask people around New Orleans, I think that a lot of people haven’t kept up with that and certainly would like to believe that New Orleans still holds that claim, but it’s just not true. I’ve broken a lot of hearts in my hometown when I’ve told them that.
T: I’m sure that goes down well.
N: You have to serve that with a drink, really. It’s interesting. Immediately, you start to see that there are some pretty significant holes in the timeline. It’s hard to detach from our modern perspective when we’re looking back on history. I think Arthur suffered from the same challenge. He knew the Sazerac as the Sazerac and was looking at the history of how the cocktail developed. He thought, obviously people knew that as a Sazerac. That’s just not true. You don’t see a Sazerac mentioned in print until, I think, 1899. We’re talking just under 70 years after Antoine Amédée Peychaud started his apothecary in 1833. The story goes that Antoine Amédée Peychaud creates the first cocktail. He has his bitters, which are a patent medicine. It’s a curative, so he puts it with sugar, brandy, and the bitters. He serves it to guests that aren’t feeling well. He serves it to people that are coming to his pharmacy looking for a cure. It just takes off, becomes all the rage, and the Sazerac is born. Well, it’s a little more convoluted than that because it’s pretty obvious that the Sazerac as we know it today really developed over time and, as I said earlier, developed out of the improved brandy cocktail. Improved, which means adding absinthe and/or adding Maraschino liqueur. It’s very close to the Sazerac format. In fact, it’s almost identical.
N: That would have had widespread adoption across the U.S. That doesn’t change the fact that New Orleanians had a taste for brandy. That’s just because of our colonial heritage, along with our French and Spanish heritage. We’re tied to the Old World, and we wanted things that were popular in the Old World like brandy. The Sazerac brand of Cognac was imported into New Orleans and was popular. That’s where The Sazerac Coffee House got its name from. From there, I’m sure that they were making improved brandy cocktails with Sazerac for a fee. It certainly would have been popular. I still don’t think people understood that as being a Sazerac. Of course, you get into phylloxera, which is part of Clisby Arthur’s story, and he gets it right. As phylloxera starts to kill the vineyards in France, you would have had either a massive price increase on the brandy that existed and a severely limited — if not nonexistent — supply of young or new make. That would have created an issue where people had to look elsewhere for their spirit. It doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to know that rye had exploded all over the United States and became an easy substitution in the improved cocktail. It certainly went from an improved brandy cocktail into an improved rye cocktail, an improved whiskey cocktail. I’m sure it was consumed a lot. Over time, you get to the Sazerac bar, and you have Wilkinson and Miret who are making it. There’s a reference to them making the best whiskey cocktail in town in 1895, but it’s certainly not identified as a Sazerac. 1899 is when you first see that Sazerac in print.
T: Within the bar, we do like to disagree about things. It’s good. It provides fodder for barstool debate in our niche circles. At that point, that’s where this great debate arises. It historically, perhaps, pioneered with brandy and Cognac. But, if we’re talking about over 100 years of its modern history, we’re looking at this as a whiskey- or rye-based drink. During that time, at which it actually has that name attached, there’s a good argument to say, “Hey, this is actually a rye cocktail.”
N: Rye certainly built the drink. I think you have to keep that in mind, and I think that’s right. That doesn’t mean that a brandy Sazerac isn’t a delicious cocktail, because it is. That’s the great thing about simple drinks. Simple drinks really become a format where you can swap out ingredients in them, and they still work and taste great.
T: Right. That’s why that transition could take place from Cognac to rye. You have this solid foundation. You have the formula there. That’s the basis of cocktail culture. That’s the blueprint right there.
N: Absolutely. Much like in cooking, where you have mother sauces, there are mother cocktails. In this case, the whiskey cocktail is the mother cocktail of the Sazerac.
HOW TO MAKE THE PERFECT SAZERAC
T: Let’s bring it forward, therefore, to modern times. You touched upon the ingredients earlier. I was wondering, is this a cocktail where we’re talking about that formula and there’s a widely agreed upon formula? Or, is this one of those ones where people take some degree of liberties? Is there a lot of personalization? What are your particular specs in terms of ingredients and ratio? We’ll dig into the finer details after this, but just generally speaking.
N: I think that, with any cocktail that’s been around this long, you have people that make it in their own way. That has to exist. There are also people who make it in a way that was passed down through their families. To me, that’s one of the coolest things that can happen in cocktails and food. We try and look at it through a historical lens, but we also don’t live in 1899. We might pretend, sometimes, in the world of cocktails. But, we have to take into account that we live in a modern world with modern techniques and ingredients. If we don’t, then it’s not always going to translate well. We really think about it as a whiskey cocktail. Thus, we really build it in the way that we would build an Old Fashioned. What we’re looking for is a rye that has some spice notes, but we also want a rye that’s got some body. The reason why is because the Sazerac is a textural experience. You’re taking your time to not understir or overstir it. You really want to get it in the right place where it has this velvet texture and mouthfeel. You don’t want something that is so spicy and thin that it becomes hard to get that pleasure point in a Sazerac. Number two — and this was one of the things that we hotly debated in the early days of Cure — is the style of sugar. We asked, “What type of sugar do we think was probably being used? Do we think it was a refined sugar? Do we think it was less refined sugar?” We settled on less refined sugar. My business partner, Kirk Estopinal, was really passionate about that. I always liked Sazeracs with white sugar because I felt like it got out of the way. But, as we started talking about it and doing side-by-sides, I realized that it was nice to use a darker sugar because you get more texture. You get those dark molasses notes. It just felt like it made for a more complex cocktail. We also felt like it was historically more accurate. From there is where some of the controversy comes, because there certainly is a historical record that you would have seen Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters used in a Sazerac.
T: Oh, really?
N: Yeah, absolutely. We only use Peychaud’s. I think that when you’re looking at the break in cocktails and what makes a Sazerac independent from a whiskey cocktail or an Old Fashioned, it’s the proprietary bitters. For me, that’s a flavor that I want more of. A Sazerac with Angostura bitters is perfectly delicious, but in my mind, it takes it a little bit away from what makes it uniquely a Sazerac. There is controversy. Everybody can argue that, but that’s what we’ve decided within our bars. It has started to become more standard in New Orleans. That doesn’t mean that there’s a right or wrong way to do it. I want to be really clear about that. Just because we do it doesn’t mean that it’s the right way. It just means it’s the way that we do it. There is philosophy behind it, but you can argue that.
T: That’s fantastic. One thing that you were mentioning earlier is the texture being a great part of this drink. This also ties into the kind of historical question that arises of, “Do you use what was made historically, or do you use something more modern?” I think that takes us on to the next component, which is, are you using Herbsaint or absinthe? Absinthe might have been historically correct, but it wasn’t available in the U.S. until 2007. You get to a point where a large part of this cocktail’s history has been made with Herbsaint. Where does that come in for you and how do each one of those ingredients affect texture, which sounds like what you’re looking for?
N: I want to say that I like both absinthe and Herbsaint. They do different things. Sometimes, I want absinthe in my Sazerac and sometimes I want Herbsaint. I don’t want the Herbsaint that was used for years and years and years in New Orleans. I really want the throwback Herbsaint that Sazerac launched a decade ago. It doesn’t have grand wormwood like absinthe, but does function in a lot of ways like an absinthe. The proof is right. It’s not as sweet as the Herbsaint that was used for generations here in New Orleans. In a lot of ways, it’s hedging our bet a little bit. Whereas, you may have had a sweeter, less anise-forward product with Herbsaint. Absinthe has exceptionally strong flavors, and the Herbsaint that was used for a few generations in New Orleans is a little sweeter and a little less robust. We love to meet in the middle and find something that’s got a little sweetness to it, but also has some really strong anise flavors. For that, you miss a little bit of the bitterness that you get from the grand wormwood, but it still functions really closely to an absinthe. It still has that culturally important ingredient with Herbsaint, but it also has some of the things you’re looking for in absinthe.
T: Fantastic. When I talked about texture, you mentioned that you don’t quite get the bitterness of absinthe. Is that something that you’re losing out on? Or, do you really not feel that it is so much?
N: I think that it’s like any cocktail. You have to understand what you’re working with. Granted, we use something that wouldn’t have been used historically. Historically, they would have taken a dash of absinthe and put it in the chilled glass. They would have thrown it up in the air to coat it and then dumped it back into something. We use atomizers now, just because they’re really effective. You’re not using so much product, but they coat efficiently. It’s like any cocktail if you’re not paying attention to what ingredients you’re using. If you make Daiquiris a few months apart, the lime you bought at the store is going to be different. Different seasons, different acidity, different sweetness. That’s something that you have to always keep in mind when you’re making cocktails. If you’re using an absinthe, you are bringing a little extra bitterness to the party. Granted, not all absinthes are created equally. You have to understand if the absinthe has a lot of sugar, not a lot of sugar, the proof on it, how strong it is, what level of wormwood there is. If it has some bitter notes to it, maybe you want to dial down your bitters a little bit.
T: That’s a great point. It’s also a really lovely transition into something else that you alluded to earlier that I would love to hear more about. You were talking about the rye that you use. You don’t want it to be too spicy or too thin. Of course, that will come down to a number of factors, but maybe the first one that we’re looking at is mash bills. Purists these days might want to be drinking a high-rye mash bill. As I understand it, from the sounds of it, maybe that’s not what you’re looking for in this specific cocktail.
N: No. That’s not what we’re looking for. There is an excellent place in cocktails for high-rye mash bills. This is not taking away from that in any way, shape, or form. Thirteen years ago, we knew people were drinking Sazeracs. We didn’t know if people were always liking Sazeracs when they drank them, but it was our goal to make a Sazerac that we felt tasted really great. We didn’t feel like the high-rye mash bill — which was really hard to find at the time, by the way — made for the best version. We’re very lucky in New Orleans that the Goldring family, who owns Sazerac, lives in New Orleans. New Orleans is a priority for them. Sazerac 6 Year, even when it has been difficult to get in other markets, has been readily available in New Orleans. We had a great product to work with, so it was easy for us to default to that. We also felt like the six years of aging really helped and that a mash bill that wasn’t super high rye made for a spicy, but sweet and rich base for the cocktail. From there, we could then decide how many drops or dashes of bitters we wanted to use and what level of sugar we wanted to use. You have to start somewhere when you’re creating a format. That’s where we started. We started with Sazerac 6 Year. We started there because of what we felt like it would bring to the party. From there, we made our decisions. You’ve got to put your foot in the ground on one thing.
T: You’ve got to settle on one variable before you can start.
N: That’s really where we started. Then, we started going through the other questions that we had and the other decisions. Certainly, I still think that we could have a very tasty Sazerac if we used a high-rye whiskey. The recipe would look different, though.
T: Tell us about that recipe, then. Tell us about your specific preparation. Knowing, somewhat, about your Sazerac, this really is something that you dial in on the details for. Tell us how you prepare that specifically.
N: At Cure, as I said, we start off with two ounces of Sazerac rye whiskey. It’s a six-year rye whiskey. From there, we use a skinny quarter-ounce of Demerara syrup. It’s two to one. It’s lightly cooked. We’re looking to melt the sugar into the syrup, but it is not something where we’re boiling the syrup or doing anything like that.
T: Right. Not reducing down to a caramel.
N: Yeah, exactly. We are looking to integrate the sugar in the water. We are not looking to cook the syrup. We use dropper bottles. The reason why is because it’s incredible what a drop or two more or less of bitters will do to a cocktail. Skilled bartenders certainly can account for that, but we’re looking for consistency and precision, so we use dropper bottles. Our formula is that seven drops out of a dropper bottle equals one dash. We do 21 to 23 drops of Peychaud’s bitters. It used to be 21, then one of our longtime bartenders added two because he loved Michael Jordan and he felt like it made a better drink. Certainly, if you sat at the bar at Cure, you’d probably get 23 drops in your Sazerac. It’s funny how these things catch on and stay. From there, we’re building that in a mixing glass. You want to try and integrate all of your liquid ingredients at that moment. You’re going to pull out your chilled double dashing glass. You’re going to take your atomizer and do about four sprays on the inside, specifically, of the glass. You want to be very intentional about where you’re putting your aromatics on this cocktail. This is a double aromatic cocktail, so I really want distinct aromatic qualities. They will blend. That’s not to say that they won’t. You can’t help that. But, you would like to know that if you put your nose near a certain part of the glass, you might get more of one aromatic versus all of it, all mixed, all the time. It’s an important way that we approach it. We do atomized Herbsaint original on the inside, and then we’ll stir our cocktail. Ice is everything in this moment. You want your cocktail glass chilled because you don’t want to spend your time chilling down a cocktail, putting it into a warm glass, and then, as the glass is trying to match the chill of the cocktail, it transfers the cold out of the cocktail into the glass to reach equilibrium. So, it’s really important that you use a cold glass because you’ve spent your time trying to get your dilution and chill appropriate. Depending on the ice you’re using, the more dense it is, the longer you’re going to stir it, and the less dense, the shorter you’re going to stir it. Some people like to pre-dilute. I think it depends on what you’re going for. Then, we’re going to strain it. We’re going to strain it very carefully, because what we don’t want to do is add bubbles that really affect the texture of the drink. Take your time to try and make it into a silky smooth cocktail. Then, you’re going to cut your lemon peel and express from about three to four inches away on the outside of the cocktail glass. That’s not to say that a little bit of that can’t go in the cocktail, but your goal is to put as much of the oil on the outside of the glass as possible because you want it to get on someone’s hand. When you put oil on top of a drink, you really are going to drink that within the first two sips because it’s just going to sit on top of the drink. We want that lemon oil to really stick around and stay on your hand. We’ll kind of dab it on different parts of the glass. It’s not a rub. It’s just taking this oil-laden peel and trying to get as much of that oil on the glass as possible. Then, we’ll roll the peel. There’s a tradition of that in New Orleans. You roll the peel and mount it on the edge. Fate intervenes. Sometimes they fall in. Sometimes they fall out. Not a big deal. But, once again, you have this peel that’s full of oil and acid. If that peel goes in the drink, that drink will be lighter and brighter, with a little more acid. If it goes out, it’s richer and rounder. We really think that that should be a guest decision unless, of course, fate intervenes and it falls in or out.
T: What I really love about hearing that is talking about your specific approach to the aromatics there. This is something I actually encountered last night, because, as I was thinking about this episode and Sazeracs, I made one for myself and sat down with the drink. It occurred to me that I don’t have an atomizer at home. I was rinsing out my glass and then got a little bit, on the outside of the glass, of my absinthe. I thought, “Well, this is an unpleasant experience,” because I don’t think that’s necessarily an aromatic that you want on your hand. My next step, where I went wrong, was doing too much lemon. At the end of the day, I was missing out on the aromatics within the drink. When I sip from the glass, I’m missing the absinthe from my nose. I was really startled at how the lemon could overtake the absinthe because you imagine it to be so strong and powerful. That real measured approach that you have definitely tracks with my bad experiences as a bad home bartender.
N: This is a lot of time and a lot of trial. As I said, we have one way of doing this, and we put theory into it. There’s a reason why we do it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the right reason for everybody. Getting back to that idea of Angostura bitters, the level of rye in your base distillate, using Herbsaint or something a little sweeter, using absinthe. There are so many little decisions that go into it. For us, it’s really a process-oriented drink. Right. The way that we think about it lines up. We’re stacking aromatics. We’re stacking flavors. We’re being very intentional for a reason. That’s what makes our version shine, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for every version with every ingredient.
T: 100 percent. That would also seem to be a philosophy that anyone can take and apply to any other drink, which is being intentional with your ingredients and the reasons you’re using them. You can be informed by history. You can also realize that things have changed over time. Once you understand your ingredients and the thing that you’re aiming for at the end, that should inform these decisions.
N: Yeah. Look, we are not saving lives here. We’re making cocktails. It’s important to note that the most important thing is that you make a drink that you like. If you’re a home bartender and you’re making it for yourself, make the drink that you like. Don’t make it because I like it. What do I know? Why should you listen to me? If you live in upstate New York and you have different things that are available to you than I do in New Orleans, what does it matter what I think about how you make your cocktail? What matters is if you enjoy your cocktail. That’s the same for wine and beer. Drink the things that you like. Don’t let anybody tell you what you should be drinking. Drink what you want.
T: Yeah. I couldn’t agree with that more. Do you have any other final remarks about this drink? One thing that I find fascinating about the Sazerac is that it’s the official cocktail of New Orleans. It’s not the official one of Louisiana, which I think is sometimes erroneously reported, but New Orleans. That’s a pretty big title to hold. There’s some stiff competition there.
N: Certainly. We’re the only city with an official cocktail. It was passed in 2008, and it was supposed to be statewide. New Orleans does not always share the same values as the rest of Louisiana. The rest of our representatives all over Louisiana thought that maybe Louisiana shouldn’t have an official cocktail. I could understand why, but I don’t agree with it. So, New Orleans got its own. Their loss. Our gain.
T: Yeah. Sorry, Ramos Gin Fizz and, to a lesser extent, the French 75, which is not from the city, but definitely very famous in the city.
N: Certainly co-opted by us. I do think that Ramos is a uniquely New Orleans drink. It would have been a great selection as well. I’m also really happy it’s not, on a personal level.
T: We’re definitely going to have that cocktail in this first season for folks to listen to. So, you’ll understand why that is as well. It’s probably not something you want to be making too many of, if you can avoid it.
N: We’ll have all these recipes. We’ve got our Cure book coming out. It’s a New Orleans cocktail book that’ll come out in the next year or so. There’ll be plenty of New Orleans cocktails to dive into.
GETTING TO KNOW NEAL BODENHEIMER
T: Amazing. Well, Neal, it’s been so great exploring this cocktail with you and hearing about your specific approach to it. Now, I’d love to end the show by getting to know you a little bit more and finishing with some quick questions that would also probably provide some incredible advice to a younger bartender starting out or folks at different stages in their career. How does that sound?
N: That sounds great. Buyer beware on some of this stuff.
T: First quick hit question for us here. What’s the first bottle, whether it’s a brand or a general category of spirit, that makes it onto your bar programs?
N: It’s interesting, and it is related to what we just talked about. In general, Sazerac 6 Year rye is one of the first bottles that’s on our bar. At every bar that I’ve owned or operated, it’s one of our first selections. We make so many Sazeracs in New Orleans that it really is the first bottle that we always get.
T: As a quick aside here — and I’m just riffing off the top of my head here — I don’t think there’s any other classic cocktail where, for the spirit component, you can grab a bottle with the same name. That’s just Sazerac. Is that correct?
N: Correct. Well, the Sazerac company just released Henry Ramos gin. I guess you could make a Ramos Gin Fizz with that gin. I’m sure that there are other ones. I just can’t think of them right now.
T: Martini drinkers, please note that I said spirits and not any other component, just for the record there.
N: Well said.
T: Just wanted to put that out there. Second question. Which ingredient or tool do you believe is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
N: I’m going to do an ingredient and a tool. The first ingredient is bitters. Bitters are the salt of cocktails. There are very few cocktails that I don’t think are improved by bitters. It really is like a pinch of salt in cooking. It highlights flavors. It ties things together. I want them all the time in all of my drinks. So, that’s number one. The undervalued tool — to say that it’s undervalued might be a stretch — I think is the bar spoon. It’s the most important thing. You can crack ice with it. You can measure with it. You can stir with it. You can strain with it. I find that I can do so much with the bar spoon. If I need one tool, it’s that.
T: It’s an extension of your hand. It’s like a knife for a chef.
N: Absolutely. The next one I would pick would be a jigger or some sort of measurement tool. Those are more easily replaced than a great bar spoon, though.
T: What has been the most important piece of advice you’ve received working in the industry?
N: This is something that is another foundational principle at Cure. You’ve got to ask yourself, “Why?” We cannot just accept knowledge as gospel. At some point, someone said, “This is the way I think it should be done.” Then, it became accepted. We always have to ask ourselves the question, “Why?” This comes back to what we think about the Sazerac. Why do we pick this kind of rye? Why are we using these kind of bitters? If you’re not asking yourself why, then you’re never improving. You’re just regurgitating someone else’s opinions. That would be the most important piece of advice. You’ve got to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I shaking this long? Why am I stirring this long? Why am I double straining?” There are a thousand little details that go into bartending and production that you’ve got to question.
T: Again, history is relative. There are different points in history.
N: Different perspectives.
T: 100 percent. So, if you could only visit one last bar in your life, whether that’s the same bar for the rest of your life, or one last visit to a bar, which one would that be?
N: It’s hard. I’ll give you two answers. Cure was a life dream of mine. There is no place in the world where I feel more comfortable, besides my house. It feels very much like an extension of me, and so I feel exceptionally comfortable in Cure. If I had to pick one bar to go to for the rest of my life, that’s where it would be. That’s very personal, though. If I were at someone else’s bar, there are a thousand amazing bars in the world that I would feel honored to have a last drink in. The first one that comes to mind for me is Dante. I just think it’s a really special place. I think the drinks are exceptional. It would be that kind of place where I would have a last drink.
T: I think it does that great job of delivering incredible quality, but you could almost walk past it in the street and not realize. I think the decor is amazing and whatnot, but you might not expect it. I love that idea as well, that you could think, “Oh, that looks like a cute cafe,” but it’s much more.
N: It’s also got an incredible history. In the way that I really appreciate, they are carrying the mantle of a historically relevant business. That really appeals to me.
T: Final question here. If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
N: Well, that’s a hard one. I don’t know, and I do know. If you look at the back bar of Cure, we have so many products, because I love so many things. I genuinely find myself coming back to the Negroni over and over. I think I would have to make myself a Negroni for my last cocktail. Once again, I would take my time. I would find the vermouth that I wanted. I would find the gin that I wanted. I would make sure that it was perfect and that I could savor it.
T: Fantastic. Well, Neal, thank you so much again for joining us today. Nothing sacred, except perhaps the Sazerac. Wonderful thought, and it’s been really great speaking with you.
N: Yeah. Thank you, Tim. Thanks for thinking about me for this.
T: Thank you very much.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast group. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.