Culture

Fact and Folklore: The New Orleans Sazerac Gets The Silver Screen Treatment

An older man wearing glasses sits in front of a bar, talking on camera.
Long-time New Orleans bartender Chris McMillan lays down his knowledge of the Sazerac in James Martin's upcoming film. All photos courtesy of James Martin.

The Sazerac is a drink shrouded in mystery. But if there’s one thing experts and enthusiasts agree on, it’s that the drink originated in New Orleans, where it now holds the crown as the city’s official beverage. For filmmaker James Martin, that’s where the story begins.

When Martin isn't writing about the history and culture that surround great drinks on his blog, the Sipologist, he’s making films with his girlfriend Jen West. He’s worked on several titles as a producer and designer, but he’s taken up the role of director on his latest documentary, “The New Orleans Sazerac.”

Wooed by the prestige and controversy that surrounds the Sazerac, Martin determined the best way to explore the drink’s curious history and current relevance was to make a film about it.

“It’s got this really funky history, because nobody really agrees on it, and different historians believe different things,” he says.

Some believe the Sazerac to be America’s first cocktail and that it originated in the early 1800’s. Others think the name references a brandy and that the cocktail didn’t come about until decades later. There’s debate about the drink’s traditional ingredients and what qualifies as a modern day Sazerac.

Men are filming a scene in a New Orleans bar, set to look as though it's the year 1901.Director James Martin sets the scene for "The New Orleans Sazerac," a documentary that begins with a 1901 bar scene featuring actor Jeff Hallman and bartender Chris Hannah.

In his research, Martin determined that much of the debate stems from confusion about the name. “You’ve got this name that exists in three different places,” he says, “the cognac, the bar and the cocktail,” and all three could be found in New Orleans during the 1800’s.

Despite hearing seemingly disparate theories, Martin realized that the timelines of each, if merged, might actually form a coherent, logical story involving more than one drink.

“It’s funny because a lot of people say they have their own theories, but in many ways they actually line up,” he says. “Maybe there wasn’t an evolution but really there were multiple drinks called the Sazerac. Really the Sazerac that we know was perhaps always made with rye whiskey.”

Empowered by a Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign, Martin consulted a broad span of experts on the Sazerac contentions at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail. “We wanted to talk with experts that were around that had already done some research into the history of the drink,” he says. And for Martin and West, shooting a film in New Orleans was not a hard sell. “It was really surreal being there and doing a film,” says Martin, “because Jen and I both love New Orleans so much and really, genuinely like to explore when we’re there.”

“The New Orleans Sazerac” conveys that love through an exploration of the city’s official drink. It investigates the early history of the Sazerac, distinguishes folklore from fact and illustrates the meaningful tie between the drink and the city in which it was born.

Men film a man in a hat in an alleyway of New Orleans.The film crew is taken on a walking tour through New Orleans to all of the destinations most relevant to the Sazerac's mysterious history.

In the film, writer David Wondrich and long time New Orleans bartender Chris McMillan lay down the origin of the drink as they know it. Philip Greene, a descendant of Antoine Peychaud (of Peychaud’s Bitters) weighs in on the importance of Peychaud’s contributions to the drink. Imbibe editor Paul Clarke discusses why the Sazerac has experienced a resurgence in recent times, and New York Times writer Robert Simonson draws a line between the original Sazerac and the Whiskey Cocktail. Absinthe distiller and expert Theodore A. Breaux talks about how the ban on absinthe, the introduction of herbsaint and the eventual reintroduction of absinthe impacted the trajectory of the drink, and Tales founders Ann and Paul Tuennerman chime in on the Sazerac as NOLA’s official beverage. Joe Gendusa gives takes the documentary on a walking tour through the major destinations in the Sazerac’s history, and Elizabeth Pierce explains how each ingredient in the drink represents New Orleans itself.

To top it off, three New Orleans bartenders at the forefront of their craft, Abigail Deidre Gullo, Kirk Estopinal and Paul Gustings, demonstrate their own spin on the classic cocktail.

“We’ve developed this really nice community around the film,” Martin says of the many people involved with the project, and that’s a community he hopes to grow. He plans to kick off each film festival premiere for “The New Orleans Sazerac” with a pop up event celebrating the drink, his hope being to spread love for the subject matter—both its lore and the drink’s celebrated taste.

A woman in a colorful dress stands behind a bar while men film her preparing to make a drink.NOLA bartender Abigail Deidre Gullo demonstrates her own take on the Sazerac for the upcoming documentary.

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