SAZERAC HOUSE IS NEW ORLEANS DISTILLED TO ITS ESSENCE
Tourists use words like “charm” and “atmosphere” when describing New Orleans, and sometimes “history,” but what they are really talking about is time. It’s a city that somehow never left the past behind, not really. It feels right to walk down Magazine Street hand in hand with your loved one. It is a bit of a promenade, but it is not affectation. You don’t need to be from around here to know how it should be done because, three steps in, and the city entreats and intoxicates and transports you, and you find yourself suddenly living life as it should be lived — as you always knew in your marrow you were supposed to be living before something somewhere went wrong. That’s what New Orleans does to you. It’s why those horse-drawn carriage rides along Jackson Square don’t feel quaint or ridiculous. They roll along the street, the wide wheels crunching gravel slowly, the clop-clop-clop of the mules in no rush to be anywhere, these old, dignified pros — not beasts of burden but, rather, lords of the city — who even know which post is theirs at stops along the way. Meanwhile, you’re in the carriage cozied up to your partner even in the sweltering Crescent City summers, and it’s the cars that seem to be the interlopers, not these timeless old carriages. And you know you’re precisely where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there.
That matters in the context of Sazerac House, an interactive sensory experience that opened this month on the corner of Canal and Magazine, in which visitors are invited to live the story and culture of New Orleans spirits and cocktails, including the namesake Sazerac — the official cocktail of the city. It is inaccurate to call Sazerac House a museum. Rather, it is a preservation not of what once was, but what remains, ongoing, today. I have been there twice now: once for a private tour, and once for its grand opening gala, and so I know what visitors can expect and how guests will respond.
I can say with certainty that Sazerac House, a $50 million investment by Sazerac Company, is perhaps the city’s most ambitious project since its National World War II Museum, and will likely surpass even that in traffic and attention. Sazerac House is New Orleans, distilled.
As you enter the Sazerac House lobby, the first thing to catch your eye is a great white wall, two stories high and with scores of shelves lined with liquors distilled by the Sazerac Company. There are hundreds of bottles on display, and it doesn’t feel so much like the mirrored back of a barroom (minus the neon) as it does the stark glass cases of the Musée d’Orsay. You feel as though you see the “truth” of the spirits; that what has been bottled is not a product, but an art form: the result of crops tended, yields harvested, the chemistry of fermentation, the balance of flavor profiles and the slow movement of time during distillation. Quality spirits aren’t something you simply buy at the grocery store and shove in a cabinet. They’re living things made by living people, and given the same care a painter uses when easing a brushstroke across the canvas.
Admission is free, but Sazerac House still uses an electronic ticketing system for entry. It’s an environmentally friendly move, but also a practical one: It keeps minors from drinking (illegally) before their time, and helps control the flow of traffic through what can be an almost meditative experience. Over 150,000 people are expected to visit in the first year alone. Tours are self-guided — an intentional touch by the curators of Sazerac House. Exquisite liquors aren’t something you pound back, or drink at the forced clip of others. They’re something to be savored patiently, reflected upon and enjoyed at your own pace. That doesn’t mean Sazerac House leaves you entirely to your own devices. “Experience ambassadors” are stationed throughout the three exhibition floors to give context to displays, and to help neophytes and experienced drinkers alike understand the profiles, complexities and tasting notes of the complimentary samples offered.
Each floor takes guests through some moment in time, some part of New Orleans. There is the “Rum Room” on the second floor, which is just what it sounds like: an interactive exhibit featuring Myers’s, Cane Run and Jung & Wulff — Sazerac Company rums, all. Countless genuine rum barrels are mounted on racks, with the tops of some barrels lighting into video screens that explain the hard-won journey of rum from cheap swill to celebrated, sophisticated spirit. The rum exhibit also explains the process involved in making rum, and how that process has evolved over the centuries to reflect the tastes of drinkers.
The third floor takes guests to the French Quarter — then, now and always. You arrive in the city from the interior of a riverboat, complete with rivets in white walls, the windows animated as though with magic, showing the harbor ahead. NO SMOKING THIS CABIN, reads a sign. From there, guests visit the original Merchants Exchange Coffee House on Exchange Alley, where a cocktail invented by Antoine Peychaud, a Creole immigrant, would become popularized and eventually named “the Sazerac.”
Sazerac House offers a stylized re-creation of Peychaud’s apothecary — the perfect setting to explain what bitters are, exactly (a liquor infused with herbs, fruits and other botanicals, and used, of course, when making the famed Sazerac cocktail), how they are made, what they are used for — and because the Sazerac Company cut no corners when building its monument to the cocktails and spirits that make New Orleans great, Peychaud’s Bitters will be produced and bottled right there for guests to watch and learn about.
All of this eventually gives way to a walk through the city’s cocktail culture (and then, the doleful years of Prohibition), but this then leads to a particularly stunning arrangement of tables arranged as you might find in a bar. Standing around any one of the tables, guests can set out a coaster, and the table will come to life, presenting an interactive menu and classic bon mots from bartending guides: “Be Discreet,” reads one. “The sensible clerk will not appear to listen to what the patrons are saying, and if he hears anything should find an eternal grave in his heart.”
As guests flip through the bartending guides, they can order food (or a digital approximation of it, anyway) that is projected with unnerving clarity and realism on the table — things like shrimp gumbo or charcuterie — and, as they tap the plates, the food slowly disappears. But this is a warm-up for the digital centerpiece of the museum: a full bar, the counter of which is a deceptive interactive display, and behind the bar, virtual bartenders driven by artificial intelligence. Take a seat and any one of the group of bartenders will take your order, walking you through the entire mixology process while riffing lightly on the history of the cocktail in question and firing off droll one-liners. (Each bartender has their own unique personality.) The “drink” appears in front of you, and you can send the recipe right to your smartphone.
Throughout Sazerac House are artifacts going back centuries — everything from ledgers like the original, early-19th-century ones from the original Merchants Exchange Coffee House, through paintings of Bernard Sazerac de Forge, who brought his cognac across the ocean during the French Revolution, turning a local specialty into a globally enjoyed drink. Four generations of Sazeracs would keep the cognac flowing. If nothing else, such exhibits explain how deeply rooted Sazerac is in French — and thus New Orleans — culture, and why the cocktail bearing its name would eventually be emblazoned on the façade of one of the most prestigious old buildings on Canal Street. Notably, this year Sazerac Company is releasing its first cognac in decades — Sazerac de Forge & Fils “Finest Original” Cognac — and it will be available exclusively at Sazerac House through next year.
Visitors who spring for a VIP package can also visit an exclusive bar on the third floor, where veteran bartenders will teach the art of mixing certain cocktails and, perhaps more pressingly, they can enjoy those cocktails. Regardless of whether or not you go for the premium experience, sampling stations throughout Sazerac House ensure that guests do not leave thirsty.
The undisputed climax of a visit to Sazerac House is the working, two-story still producing Sazerac Rye whiskey on-site. Some will be bottled right here for the taking, and a barrel per day will be shipped to Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky for aging. I had never seen an actual whiskey still before, and do not know if they all look like the one at Sazerac House, but it is nothing short of a masterpiece. It looks a lot like an enormous, vertical, clarinet in brass, or maybe the upper stack of a saxophone. It is 60 inches in diameter and houses 500 gallons of whiskey. Because it is built adjacent to the building’s main façade on Canal Street, the sheer grandeur of it as seen through a massive plate-glass window will surely draw in countless curious guests, irresistibly drawn to see what all the fuss is about. This being balmy South Louisiana, the still requires an enormous “thermal energy tank” that’s 2,200 gallons large and able to make 14,000 pounds of ice every night — necessary to keep conditions just right for distillation even on the hottest summer day.
Sazerac House has a fourth floor — a 3,500-square-foot ballroom for formal functions — and its fifth and sixth floors are reserved as the Sazerac Company’s corporate headquarters. Such a prestigious location is fitting for perhaps the oldest and most successful family-owned business in New Orleans. Down on the first floor, no interactive experience would be complete without a retail shop where guests can find cocktail kits, spirits (get the cognac while you can) and Sazerac-branded souvenirs to take home.
My first tour of Sazerac House found me walking through empty corridors and large, open-air rooms, the footsteps of my companions and myself echoing on hardwood floors. There was a Zen-like calm to the place, as though the building had always been here in exactly this condition, but nobody knew to look for it. The whole tour was as much a master class in spirits and cocktails as it was in the city’s culture and heritage. So drawn was I by the serenity and majesty of the empty building that I wasn’t sure what to expect at the opening night gala — tuxedoes and gowns, yes, but with drinks flowing freely and jazz bands singing French songs, would the calm magic wash away?
It did not. As stunning as the ribbon-cutting pageantry was — among those holding scissors were Bill Goldring, chairman of the Sazerac Company; Mark Brown, the company’s president & CEO; John Bel Edwards, governor of Louisiana; and LaToya Cantrell, mayor of New Orleans — and as thrilling as the marching brass band was that paraded through the lobby once the ribbon fell and the staircase opened — what moved me most came after. It was how hard the glamour of the event had to fight to mesmerize the guests as much as the magnificent setting did. To enter Sazerac House is to want to know everything about it, and everything about the city that calls it home. The ballroom dance floor remained empty for most of the night because guests were so enthralled with “magic mirrors” that came alive unexpectedly with vintage advertisements and century-old photographs.
Even from the outside, Sazerac House is quintessentially New Orleans. It bears the sort of edifice you find on Rue de Rivoli in Paris, where practically ancient buildings seem somehow as youthful as the day they were built. The Sazerac House building, abandoned for decades and now vibrant and dignified, is over 150 years old, with every inch of its 4,800 square feet restored and manicured to feel as timeless as the city itself, and its namesake drink. And after hours spent sipping spirits and cocktails distilled and mixed before your very eyes , you exit through the airy, capacious lobby, its ceiling so high it seems it might punch right through the clouds. You walk past its central, wooden staircase adorned in wrought iron and brought into relief by white, lighted and well-bottled shelves, and you step back into the city where horse-drawn carriages belong, taking your lover’s hand as you walk out into the New Orleans night.