In search of the perfect cocktail: Absinthe Green Fairy
Absinthe is available in a small sampling of booze shops and cocktail bars. And bartenders are beginning to create drinks with it too
There is a little hotel in the Marais district of Paris that I’ve stayed at three times.
In the reception there’s a dinky bar. The second year I visited, the receptionist recognised me. "Ah," she said, "you like to drink." Indeed.
The place turned out to be interesting for other reasons too. The last time I went, there was a rather hunky male receptionist who said he came from Transylvania and was studying and working part-time in Paris. He didn’t show his teeth.
Another no-show was the owner of the absinthe shop around the corner. My travelling companion and I would amble by — peering through the dusty window displaying intriguing absinthe paraphernalia — and try to look past or through the peeling posters covering the glass door.
We knocked, rang the bell (a faint tinkle somewhere inside the shop), but everything — even the dust on the accoutrements in the window — remained unresponsive.
Can you imagine the person who owns such a shop and never opens it? It’s probably the Green Fairy that’s keeping him busy.
Ah, the Green Fairy, aka wormwood: a root, used since ancient times, extracted, mixed with herbs and used to give the baseline kick to absinthe.
On the downside, la fée verte, as it is known in France, has a horribly bitter taste; on the upside, it purportedly enhances creativity. Proponents included Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse.
My current crush is on art historian Waldemar Januszczak, who chats on YouTube about subjects as diverse as ancient art history and strange heads of state. I discovered his short piece about absinthe. He says there used to be all sorts of ridiculous rituals around the drinking of absinthe: specific glasses, that sugar cube (to counteract the bitter taste), a special spoon. Pour some absinthe in a glass, and put the sugar cube onto a slotted spoon over the absinthe. Pour water over the cube and then watch as it turns the liquor a milky green. Then drink it.
As Januszczak discusses the drink, the rituals and the addictions, he stares into the glass of absinthe before him, much like Van Gogh did when he was painted by Toulouse-Lautrec. While Van Gogh doesn’t communicate in that image, Januszczak does, once he had downed the drink: "Fucking hell, I’m not doing that again."
A typical tot of whisky, gin or vodka contains 40% alcohol. Pernod absinthe pushes 60% and Hill’s absinthe an immobilising 70%.
International drinks powerhouse Pernod Ricard got into the absinthe mix as early as 1797 when Henri-Louis Pernod started to manufacture the spirit in Switzerland.
The business proved a success and in 1805, Pernod Fils (as it was called before it merged with Ricard) moved production to a larger facility across the border in France.
Though Pernod Fils initially distilled only small quantities, production blew up to over 400l per day in a few years. The drink was wildly popular in Europe and then, just as widely banned in the 1900s. Detractors labelled it incredibly dangerous. Amazingly, it was only unbanned across the continent and in the US in the 2000s.
Locally, absinthe is available in a small sampling of booze shops and cocktail bars. And bartenders are beginning to create drinks with it too.
Cocktail consultant Martin Strobos says he uses absinthe in cocktails.
"There is stigma around absinthe because of its hallucinogenic properties, but today it doesn’t cause them at all — though enough will surely make you think you are hallucinating," he adds.
Strobos uses absinthe in very low quantities. "It has a very distinctive anise taste, so I recommend dashes only, unless you’re making my bohemian-style absinthe cocktail." This entails pouring absinthe over a sugar cube into a glass and lighting the cube to caramelise the sugar before dissolving it into the glass. Sounds like a much sweeter option to me.
What Strobos calls his Enigma cocktail is a mix of Bacardi Carta Oro, vanilla liqueur, Campari and two dashes of absinthe. Strobos also uses a glass-wash of lemon essential oils in it. He truly is a master.
I was disappointed when I returned to SA having had no luck with the absinthe shop, to realise too that the man from Transylvania was a fraud. How delicious it would have been to have made up a threesome with him and Januszczak, sitting around a table, throwing back the Green Fairy in some foreboding castle. Dangerous stuff to be sure.