Absinthe minded: The ruin of bohemians is back in all the best bars

Alice-Azania Jarvis
Thursday 31 March 2011 00:00

The Green Fairy. L'atroce sorcière. The Green Deity. Whatever you call it, few drinks have captivated the collective imagination quite like absinthe. Believed – wrongly, as it transpired – to bestow hallucinogenic qualities upon the drinker, its prohibition across much of 20th-century Europe secured its place as the most risqué of beverages. It was the tipple favoured by those bohemian giants, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Oscar Wilde said it made him feel as though tulips were growing on his legs. It has inspired countless works of art – from Albert Maignan's Green Muse, to Edgar Degas's L'Absinthe. And now it is coming to a bar near you.

First served in the Swiss town of Couvet, Neuchatel, in the late 18th century, early absinthe was hailed for its medicinal qualities. It wasn't until one resident of Couvet, Major Dubied,established a family-based brewing business – Dubied Père et Fils, subsequently Maison Pernod Fils – that its purpose extended to recreational consumption. By the mid-1800s, it was a firmly established feature of life – not just in Switzerland, but also in France, Spain and the Czech Republic.

Just as rapidly as it spread across menus, it won itself a reputation for trouble. The drink of choice among France's taboo-challenging – not to say heavy-drinking – bohemian class, absinthe came to symbolise everything against which continental prohibitionists had been campaigning. Popular literature of the day depicted the absinthe drinker as an unruly, hapless character; in Degas's painting, he (and she) are shown as isolated, dejected, bedraggled.

When, in 1905, a Swiss labourer was found guilty of murdering his family under the influence of copious quantities of the green stuff, the authorities had a rallying point: two years later, sales were banned in Switzerland. Over the next 10 years, much of Europe followed. Curiously, the UK was never hit by quite the same prohibitionist sentiment. Absinthe remained legal, if largely unavailable. Part of this was down to the fact that the Brits did not drink it in nearly the same volumes as their continental cousins. Instead of the famous cup-and-spoon ritual, which sees the absinthe poured into a glass, topped with a spoon and a sugar cube – absinthe would be imbibed in cocktails, accompanied by mixers. In 1930, the famed bartender Harry Craddock covered more than 100 absinthe cocktails in The Savoy Cocktail Book, including the classic Sazerac.

It's this style of consumption – moderate, elegant, reminiscent of another era – that is making a comeback. In the wake of the Savoy's £220m refurbishment, the Sazerac was returned to the American Bar menu. "We were inspired by the golden days of the bar," Daniel Baernreuther, the manager, says. "The Sazerac is one of the drinks that comes closest to the original definition of a cocktail, which is, simply, alcohol, sugar, bitters."

Baernreuther's Sazerac makes light use of the green fairy; intended only to give the drink a touch of its herby, aniseedy taste, absinthe is not mixed into the drink but instead used to wash out the glass before the remaining ingredients – either cognac or rye whiskey, sugar and bitters – are combined. The bar also serves a plain absinthe, served with the traditional absinthe glass and spoon. Part of the appeal, Baernreuther says, is the tipple's high-profile history: "There is the link to the writers like Edgar Allan Poe and so on. There is a certain romance."

The Savoy isn't alone in its revival of absinthe. In keeping with the continuing vogue for classic cocktails – for which we have, amongst other things, Mad Men, burlesque fashions and Boardwalk Empire to thank – emerald-coloured offerings are cropping up on more and more drinks lists. Milk & Honey, a London members' club, has one on the menu. So, too, does the Experimental Cocktail Club in Soho's Chinatown, while Nightjar, a "speakeasy" in east London, has done swift business serving up "BBCs" – made with calvados and Becherovka cordial – in a cloud of "absinthe smoke".

"For some time there has been an interest in speakeasies and classic cocktail bars," Milk & Honey's Alex Orwin says. "Absinthe goes hand-in-hand with that, as a discerning drinker's ingredient."

It's a trend that's not gone unnoticed by Kate Simon, editor-at-large of Imbibe magazine, who has put together Absinthe Cocktails, a collection of recipes. "Absinthe has always been romanticised because it was embraced by the bad boys," she says.

It also makes a refreshing change from the more pedestrian spirits that dominate most menus. "When people come to us, they tend to be more adventurous than usual," Orwin says. "Absinthe offers a change from the sweet, syrupy cocktails you get elsewhere. Why not give it a go?" Why not indeed? If the current crop of bars is anything to go by, a lot more of us will be asking the same question."

'Absinthe Cocktails' by Kate Simon is published by Chronicle Books.

Bottled magic

The mid-1990s saw a raft of poor-quality absinthes and imitations flood the market. "Avoid absinthe made with artificial flavours and colours," says Kate Simon, author of Absinthe Cocktails. "True absinthe is a distilled product that gets its pale green colour from the herbs it's distilled with." There are several types of absinthe on sale.

Absinthe Verte: The classic. Base spirits are infused with herbs, including green anise and wormwood. This is then infused a second time with herbs, which gives it the green colour.

Absinthe Blanche: Used to disguise absinthe during its prohibited days. Distilled the usual way, but bottled before the colour changes.

Compounded Absinthe: So-called "oil mixes" see spirits infused with flavoured oils rather than distilled with herbs. Considered inferior.

The Savoy's Sazerac

This hails from the Sazerac Bar on Royal Street, New Orleans, and is a robust mixture of sugar, bitters and spirit.

65ml cognac or rye whiskey
1 white sugar cube
2 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
10ml Pernod Absinthe

Pour the Absinthe into an ice filled glass and leave. Mix the rest of the ingredients in a mixing glass. Discard the first glass's contents, add an ice ball and strain the mixed cocktail into it.

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