November 23, 2015

Contraband Cocktail Hour:
America’s First Cocktail


A woman in Washington, D.C., reveals a flask in her boot.

A woman in Washington, D.C., reveals a flask in her boot. Courtesy of Contraband Cocktails.

Some years ago, at a flea market in Florida, Paul Dickson happened upon the Prohibition Era’s little black book—a six-ring binder filled with cocktail recipes dating to a period when even books on mixing drinks were seen as violations of the spirit (and, of course, the Eighteenth Amendment).

From this binder, and considerable research, Dickson concocted Contraband Cocktails—a guide to the history, famous characters, language, and drink recipes that emerged in the fourteen years America was dry.

In our final edition of Contraband Cocktail Hour, and in celebration of Thanksgiving, we give you America’s first cocktail:


1 jigger (1½ ounces) rye whiskey

2 dashes anisette

Dash of Pernod

Dash of Angostura bitters

PREPARATION: Shake with cracked ice and strain into cocktail glass. “For this New Orleans powerhouse, the glass must be thoroughly chilled,” advise the editors of Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts.

Purportedly “America’s first cocktail,” the Sazerac is the emblematic drink of New Orleans. Born on a steamy New Orleans street called Rue Royal in 1838, it was the creation of a descendant of an escaped slave named Antoine Peychaud, who assembled a mix of ingredients to make a cocktail that would, as one writer put it, “outlast fads, floods, and whatever else his town could dish out.”

The original elixir was a combination of cognac, from Sazerac de Forge et Fils in France, and bitters made by Peychaud himself. In 1873, the drink was changed when American rye whiskey was substituted for cognac. A dash of absinthe was added by bartender Leon Lamothe, who is now regarded as the Father of the Sazerac. In 1912, absinthe was banned in the United States because of the presence of wormwood (a supposed hallucinogenic), so Peychaud substituted his special bitters in its place.

Now, a bit of trivia to go with your drink:

Which Prohibition Era president-elect asked for a Sazarec during a visit to the Grunewald Hotel in New Orleans?

According to Dickson, at a luncheon at the Grunewald Hotel, _______ expressed his desire for a drink. Scotch and soda highballs were supplied from owner Theodore Grunewald’s private stock, but according to Meigs O. Frost, the reporter who was at the luncheon, the president turned to his host and asked:

“Mr. Grunewald, I was in New Orleans a couple of years ago, very quietly, by myself. Just a United States Senator from Ohio on vacation. On one of your streets, Royal Street, I think, I drank a cocktail with an odd name I have forgotten, but a flavor I never forgot. It was the finest cocktail I ever had in my life.”

The first reader to email [email protected] with the correct answer will win a free copy of Contraband Cocktails.