PO Box 245, 144 Delaware Street, Walton, NY 13856
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Absinthe Alcohol Drinks Favorites France Las Vegas
While part of Buffalo Chow's mission is to share Western New York's best dining traditions with the world, another part is to bring the world's best innovations back here. That's why today's article is internationally themed, inspired by an experience at Thomas Keller's Las Vegas restaurant Bouchon a year and a half ago, which we repeated earlier this year and explored further thereafter. The subject is absinthe, a legendary alcoholic beverage that was banned here and in France for decades, only recently returning to store shelves in both countries. America dropped the ban four years ago. France officially lifted its ban two days ago. Below, we'll explain why - and why it's worth caring about this comparatively obscure but historically significant spirit.
Reconsider Alcohol: In Western New York, "adult" discussions of alcohol often focus on the relative merits of domestic, imported, and craft beers - or the virtues of certain wines, cocktails, and straight spirits. Kids focus on cheap drinks and getting drunk, while parents rightfully hope to protect them. But there can be more to drinking than mere consumption and intoxication; there's an opportunity for a different pace and an arguably more engaging experience. This point became clearer to us after we sat down at Bouchon's long bar and ordered absinthe, a drink that's not always available around here, and certainly not often properly served. Bouchon's bartender brought out an antique absinthe fountain to slowly louche the legendary alcoholic beverage, just as was done in the 1800's and early 1900's in France. Once an absinthe fountain is set up, you're not just grabbing the glass and drinking. Instead, you wait. Ruminate. And then, minutes later, you sip. At some point, you understand why Parisians used to sit outdoors for hours with their fountains, relaxing their troubles away - popularity in France that at one point apparently eclipsed wine.
Absinthe - Hey, Isn't That Illegal? Despite its reputation as a hallucinogenic form of alcohol, absinthe today is only different from vodka, gin, and other spirits in look and flavor. The original formula was vilified, banned for nearly a century, and then legalized again only with changes. Strict limits were placed on the permissible levels of a chemical called thujone, which has been fingered as the potential troublemaker in the drink, and marketers were strictly banned from portraying absinthe as a narcotic or hallucinogenic drug.
Still, absinthe has a mysterious, charmingly wicked reputation. Fans speak of "chasing the green fairy," a euphemism for consuming the typically green, anise-flavored liquid, which was said to be a favorite of legendary authors and painters - Picasso, Van Gogh, and Hemingway amongst them, with stories sometimes attributing bizarre behaviors to its consumption. Yet after two months of testing different modern absinthes, we can say that the drink's most notorious effects are, if not entirely hype, quite safely in the past. You won't get a different buzz from absinthe than from any equally potent spirit, and it's completely unlike cheap, bona fide dangerous spirits such as Everclear. But the absinthe ritual is a surprisingly compelling and interesting experience nonetheless.
The Basics: Absinthe is made with grand wormwood and a collection of herbs, typically resulting in a transparent green ("verte") but sometimes entirely clear ("blanche") liquid. Both taste like powerful black licorice, but with a more interesting herbal bouquet. Due in part to the high alcohol content - 55% is on the low side, 65% or thereabouts is more typical - absinthe is generally diluted with ice water and sugar before it's consumed in a special glass. It's sipped over a stretch of time, certainly not chugged and generally not swallowed in shots. And still, it's strong enough to have been romanticized. Oscar Wilde famously wrote:
"After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."
We've tried. This has never happened. But we wouldn't operate a motor vehicle after the first glass of absinthe, let alone the third. Even when it's diluted, 65% alcohol is strong stuff.
One glass consists of either 1 or 2 ounces of absinthe with between 2.5 to 5 times the ice water. A watery dilution would thus yield 6 or 12 total ounces of liquid, with a stronger dilution at 3.5 or 7 ounces, respectively, plus the dissolved sugar. The process of dilution is called "louching," and is preferentially accomplished by a fountain over a 5-minute period. You can pull it off with a pitcher of water and a still hand, but it's not as fun or precise.
The Fountain: An absinthe fountain does not contain absinthe - it's solely there to hold and dispense the ice water. You open the top lid, place ice inside, and fill the fountain with water. Most fountains are made partially from glass and partially from metal; the one shown here is etched crystal glass with stainless steel. Some sell for $50 or $60; this one was $180, and there are far more beautiful versions available. Antique fountains are currently sold for premium prices, but were not held to the same food and drink safety standards of products manufactured today, and may contain lead or other metals that could taint the water passing through their spigots. Replicas are more common, and probably safer.
Absinthe fountains typically dispense water from either two or four spouts - one per simultaneous glass - which have individual spigots to adjust the speed at which water drips from the spout into the glass. Ideally, the process is a slow drip, perhaps turned up a little for a second at the start and finish. Louching isn't designed to be a fast process like serving beer from a tap; part of the joy of the experience is sitting and watching the water trickle onto a dissolving sugar cube, then into the absinthe below. It can be mesmerizing, particularly with the right glass.
The Glass: Absinthe is typically, but not always served in special glasses with lines that enable you to see the suggested "dose" of absinthe and finished level of the diluted drink. One of the most famous and common glasses is the Pontarlier (above), which has been replicated from a well-known absinthe painting with varying degrees of accuracy and craftsmanship, including a 30ml (1 ounce) dose reservoir. The Pontarlier glasses are easier to give a quick stir than fancier ones we've tried, but tend to look cheaper. They go for $6 to $30 each. These were $20, and though they're heavy, a molding seam in the glass suggests that they were not particularly well-crafted.
Nicer glasses in the $30 to $40 range may contain beautiful globe-shaped absinthe chambers that accentuate the alcohol's presence, and enable you to see the louche in process. This is where the absinthe ritual becomes most hypnotic and relaxing. Each drip swirls the oil and herbs in the absinthe, turning the green or clear liquid a little more cloudy until the finished drink is almost opaque. Some of the glasses and dosing chambers are narrow enough that you won't be able to place a spoon fully inside as a final stir, but the perspective they offer on the mixing of absinthe, water, and sugar is great.
The Spoon: Sugar is added to absinthe through the louching process, not by just dropping cubes, granulated, or powdered sugar into diluted alcohol - the taste won't be the same, or very good. A special perforated spoon is placed atop the glass between the fountain spout and the dose of absinthe, and sugar cubes are placed atop the spoon. Holes in the spoon enable grains of dissolving sugar to gently flow down into the absinthe with every drip. Aesthetics aside, there's little difference between absinthe spoons, but they're fetishized to the point where deluxe, golden versions can sell for $100 or more each - compared with $6 or so for a basic spoon. Variations featuring French landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, or elaborate renditions of absinthe's signature wormwood leaf, and "antique replicas" tend to cost more than simply designed versions. The nicer ones here were $12 a piece.
Trying Absinthe Without Buying Absinthe Bottles: Bottles of absinthe are expensive. So-so bottles start at $45 or so for 750ml. A fountain, glasses, and spoons only add to the cost. If you want to get an idea of how the spirit tastes, you can visit a bar that will likely stock one of the unimpressive versions - if you're lucky, they'll have Lucid and know how to dilute it rather than trying to serve it to you as a shot, but local shops in WNY just don't carry the best-regarded brands. Discussions of top brands take place on The Wormwood Society web site, though they typically skew towards pricey options - and they'll be correct that the extra investment is worthwhile. A less expensive option would be to order a Villars Dark Chocolate Bar with Absinthe Filling. They're outstanding. We bought one at Cheese Boutique in Toronto and have been anxious to return for another.
Picking a Great Absinthe: Of the brands we've tried, we're extremely partial to Delaware Phoenix's Meadow of Love, which in addition to being widely well-regarded by absinthe connoisseurs is actually made in Walton, upstate New York. Somewhat difficult to find nationally and impossible to locate locally, Meadow of Love costs a whopping $75 per bottle plus shipping and tax - a lot for a bottle until you consider that the "cheap" stuff goes for $40 or more. We had a good experience ordering from Chambers Street Wines in New York; hopefully Premier Group will stock it in the near future. We preferred it to Ridge Distillery's Absinthe Verte, another highly regarded brand that sells for $70 per bottle and was (to our taste) less distinctive relative to commonly available brands. Both have 68% alcohol content and are green in color; Meadow of Love has a fuller body with more complex herbal flavors.
By contrast, there's nothing particularly positive to say about the $55 bottle of Kübler Absinthe Superieure we purchased from Premier locally. It's made in Val-de-Travers, Switzerland, the birthplace of absinthe - and a region that's currently attempting to trademark the word "absinthe" so that, like champagne, everything made outside the region needs to carry a different name. (This is apparently the reason France just legalized absinthe again; it has permitted the sale of absinthe under different names for a number of years, and doesn't want the Swiss to have exclusive naming rights to a drink that's most popularly associated with the French.)
Kübler is a white/clear absinthe with little body, simple anise flavor, and 56% alcohol content. You can see it fresh from the bottle and louched above. Notably, the bottle top split into two when we opened it for the first time, and the quality paled by comparison with the others. One of us had a strong allergic reaction to something in the bottle that required Benedryl after only one sip. Once you're paying that much for a bottle of alcohol, it's worth spending a little more to get something better. Again, locally available Lucid is a fine option. And with the lifting of the ban in France, there's every reason to believe that many more alternatives will soon become available.
Why Does Any Of This Matter? For way too long, discussions about drinking in Western New York have focused on predictable topics - kids and young adults here talk about getting trashed on cheap booze and beer, adults graduate up to discussing imported craft beers and cocktails, and "sophisticated" people cultivate wine or scotch collections. But as the absinthe fountain illustrates, there's a broader world of beverages out there, sometimes with very interesting histories and traditions that take the focus off of mass consumption and pure intoxication in favor of slower pacing and genuine relaxation. Part of the fun of drinking absinthe is in watching it louche, the sort of experience that can't be duplicated with beer, wines, and most other spirits. It's not for everyone, but it's different, and enlightening.
The counterpoint, of course, is absinthe's historic reputation - the fear that people will gravitate towards it for the wrong reasons. At least for now, pricing appears likely to keep it out of the hands of people who would abuse it; even inexpensive bottles tend to cost twice as much as Spirytus Rektyfikowany, a 192-proof vodka that's legal to sell in New York State, or Everclear 190, a grain alcohol that can't be sold here. So if you're of legal drinking age, can afford to try absinthe, and can find a place with the proper tools to louche it, consider checking it out. It's not magical, won't make you crazy, and isn't any more addictive than other forms of alcohol, but it may just make you reconsider the pace and type of drinking you enjoy.