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Absinthe - What is it & what to do with it?

Absinthe is often seen as something to be avoided, as it has mistakenly received a bad reputation primarily due to a combination of it's perceived high alcohol content and its colourful history.  So I thought I'd take the time to make a case for why you SHOULD be drinking Absinthe!

Absinthe has a wonderful flavour, full of complexity and richness.  It can be enjoyed as an aperitif-style drink mixed with water and sugar, but it can also be used to add a really interesting dimension to a number of mixed drinks.

So what is Absinthe actually?  Well Wikipedia says its an anise-flavoured spirits derived from botanicals, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia Absinthium (grand wormwood) together withe green anise, sweet fennel and other medicinal and culinary herbs.

So what's the story?  Basically it goes something like this... it originated in the village of Couvet in Switzerland in the late 1700's, who created the recipe and started selling it are debatable, but the first evidence of this spirit certainly leads back there.  However, it took several marriages and at least one name change to arrive in a situation whereby Henri-Louis Pernod was producing a fully commercial version in the small french town of Pontarlier.

As often happens with 'liquid history' a series of world events conspired to make Absinthe big business, including the devastation of french vineyards by the Phyloxera plant louse in the mid 1800's, leading to a lack of both wine and brandy.  Absinthe, and cheap variations of it, were easy to produce and therefore readily available.  So in the second half of the 19th century it literally became the toast of the town, becoming the drink of choice amongst cafe society, particularly among artists, including Degas, Toulousse-Lautrec, Picasso and of course perhaps most famously Vincent Van Gogh.

If its rise to prominence was possibly aided by good timing, its decline was most definitely hastened by global events.  The temperance movement was gathering pace around the world, and political times were changing.  A new 'disease' was identified, 'Absinthism', the symptoms of which were strangely similar to alcoholism, which lead to the drink being demonised in polite society.  By 1905 sufficient momentum had gathered for Belgium to ban Absinthe, quickly followed by the Swiss two years later, the Dutch in 1910 and the US in 1912, but it took until the onset of WWI for France to officially ban it in 1915.

And so it went for Absinthe until the 1990's.  I was working in the booming bar scene of London at this time and I remember this 'new' drink hitting the scene, with Hill's Absinthe being the thing to try in cocktail bars all across town.  It was an Absinthe produced in the Czech Republic (where it had continued to be produced as it was never banned there) and imported to England, where as it turns out it had never been banned either, supply had simply dried up as the European market closed around it.

The popular way to drink it then was by dashing drops of Absinthe onto a sugar cube held on a bar spoon, we would then set light to it and allow the flame to drip into a glass of Absinthe, also igniting that of course, then extinguishing it by dropping it into the glass and pouring chilled water into the burning mixture.  Theatrical it certainly was, did it do anything to advance the appreciation of well made Absinthe, no probably not, but hey it was a lot of fun and you can't put a price on that!

Anyway, that was the beginning of the road to redemption for Absinthe, although it has still been somewhat misunderstood ever since.  For some reason many people still feared that "The Green Fairy" was going to in some mysterious way come and 'get them', when in fact good bartenders were now making delicious drinks, or rediscovering classic cocktails, featuring Absinthe. 

I remember once trying to present a segment on a tv show for the BBC aimed at 'De-mystifying Absinthe' to help demonstrate how Absinthe could be enjoyed responsibly, however they pulled the segment two days before going on air as Absinthe frightened them, which ironically only served to prove the point I was making.  Anyway, we changed the segment and presented some other delicious drinks that did not feature any scary ingredients.

So that neatly allows me to complete my original idea, to tell you how to enjoy Absinthe without losing your mind and trying to cut your own ear off (it was never proven that Absinthe had anything to do with Van Gogh's mental state by the way).

So here are a few ideas of how to enjoy it...

1.  Do it the old fashioned way!

Now not everyone has an Absinthe Fountain in their kitchen, okay so only me then!  But it is great fun if you wish to invest in one, and is a real conversation starter believe me.

Effectively you pour a measure of Absinthe into a glass, then position an Absinthe Spoon on top of it with a white sugar cube on it.  Then you turn on the tap(s) and allow the chilled water you fill the fountain with to drip onto the sugar cube, as it dissolves into the glass it sweetens and dilutes the absinthe, once all the sugar has fallen into the glass you turn off the tap(s) and sip the resulting liquid, extra ice and  / or water can also be added.

2.  Death in the Afternoon!

All those of you who read my post about Halloween Cocktails will know I'm a fan of this one, or indeed virtually everything Hemingway liked to drink.  Not to mention that this is one of the easiest cocktails to make ever invented.

Just pour 15ml of Absinthe into a Champagne flute or saucer and top with chilled Brut Champagne, Hemingway recommended drinking 3-5 of these in the afternoon, but I'm sure if you're busy 1 or 2 would suffice!

3.  Green Fairy

This was a cocktail doing the rounds in London in the 90's, I know Dick Bradsell had a version of this, but this is the version that Andrew Pengelly and I used to mix to get the crowd (and occasionally ourselves) rocking.

25ml Absinthe, 25ml Cointreau, 25ml Fresh Lime Juice, 15ml Sugar Syrup, 15ml Egg White.  Shaken vigorously with ice and served in a cocktail (martini) glass with an orange zest.

PS It also works as a shooter, but it wasn't me that told you that!


4.  Sunflower

20ml Gin, 20ml St Germain Elderflower Liqueur, 20ml Cointreau, 20ml Fresh Lemon Juice shaken over ice and strained into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe rinsed with 20ml Absinthe.  Garnish with a lemon zest and enjoy.

Recipe courtesy of Comme Ca, Las Vegas.

5.  Sazerac

Not for the faint hearted, but then fortune favours the brave!

20ml Absinthe (To rinse the glass with)
65ml Bourbon (or American Rye Whiskey if you prefer)
7.5ml Sugar Syrup (2:1)
3 Dashes Peychaud Bitters

Fill a rocks glass with crushed ice, pour in the absinthe, stir and leave to cool.  
Pour all other ingredients in a mixing glass and stir for 30 seconds.
Discard absinthe and ice from the glass
Fine strain the cocktail into the empty, chilled, absinthe rinsed glass.  
Garnish by squeezing a lemon zest over the top of the drink, but do not add it to the glass, simply throw it away (in cavalier fashion!)

Note:  This also tastes great with Cognac instead of Whiskey

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