Spirits & Liqueurs Liqueur

What the #$@! Do I Do with This? Absinthe: What It Is and How to Use It.

No, it won’t make you hallucinate. But too many of these cocktails might.

Absinthe bottle illustration
Image:

Liquor.com / Laura Sant

You bought a spirit or liqueur because a cocktail recipe called for a very minute amount. Now you’re stuck with the remaining 9/10ths of the bottle and what to do with it. No worries. Thrifty bartenders weigh in with tips and recipes for getting every last drop out of an underutilized ingredient so it doesn’t gather dust on your bar shelf.

Chances are your introduction to absinthe probably falls into one of three categories. Maybe you were so intrigued by watching it turn white, or “louche,” after bartenders dispensed it from a Belle Epoque-era-looking fountain on a bartop that you had to buy your own bottle to partake in the ritual at home, only to find that your palate grew tired of the pronounced anise note after just a few sips. Perhaps you discovered it when you ordered a Sazerac, a classic cocktail that calls for an absinthe rinse, adding aroma and a hint of flavor. Or possibly you remember something about the green stuff taking the blame for inducing hallucinations in bohemian artists and poets in 19th-century Parisian bars. 

But absinthe is more than a color-changing novelty liqueur, liquid garnish or mind-altering substance. That third claim is unfounded, by the way; any odd thoughts or behavior resulting from overconsuming absinthe almost certainly were caused by the spirit’s high proof (which ranges from 90 to 148) rather than the miniscule amount of wormwood in the booze. Still, the liqueur continues to be misunderstood and underused. It’s time to get a little cozier with la fée verte.

“Folks often don’t know what to do with absinthe because it’s such an in-your-face spirit,” says Dzu Nguyen, the beverage director for Horsefeather in San Francisco. “While that is true, it’s just a matter of thinking of it as the rule of either ‘go easy or go all in.’” By that, he means adding a few dashes for a whiff of aromatics and a whisper of flavor or starting with absinthe as the base spirit and building a drink’s other components around it. 

Nguyen believes absinthe’s intense anisette flavor goes best with bright herbal tones like mint, shiso and basil, as well as rich and dense flavors such as coconut, coffee and chocolate. When guests request a “bartender’s choice” cocktail containing absinthe, his go-to is a version of an Espresso Martini. Nguyen’s Death by Morning, its name a play on the classic absinthe-and-Champagne cocktail, the Death in the Afternoon, shakes absinthe with coffee liqueur, Branca Menta, espresso, demerara sugar, Angostura bitters and sea salt, served up with a mint sprig and expressed oils from an orange peel. 

Keith Meicher, the head bartender at Sepia in Chicago, finds that blanc vermouth and kina, a French aperitif made with cinchona bark and spices, both have a great affinity for absinthe. His Absinthe Piña Colada swizzles absinthe with blanc vermouth, fresh pineapple juice, coconut puree, lemon juice and simple syrup, garnished with a pineapple wedge and frond, mint leaf and burnt cinnamon stick. He also makes a variation on a Quill, essentially an absinthe-tinged Negroni, with gin, Dolin blanc and Luxardo Bitter Bianco, stirred and strained over a large rock in an absinthe-rinsed glass and garnished with a grapefruit swath.

Meicher prefers the subtlety of St. George Spirits absinthe from California or locally produced Letherbee absinthe. “I’ve tasted different brands that feature lemongrass, apple, cinnamon, sorrel and everything in-between,” he says. “There’s a world of opportunity out there.”

“A forever hack of mine with absinthe is that it plays incredibly well off cardamom,” says Wilmer Nolasco, the head bartender at Ivy Lane in New York City. On his cocktail menu, drinks are listed by numbers rather than names. The Fourteen is described as an overproof gin swizzle, with gin, pear brandy, apricot, Manzanilla sherry, falernum, coconut, lime, absinthe and cardamom bitters, while the Twelve is an “herbaceous aquavit and absinthe sour,” with O.P. Anderson aquavit, génépy, dry and blanc vermouths, lime, lime cordial, absinthe, tarragon and cardamom bitters. “Absinthe’s best attributes are that it’s nuanced but very upfront about what it is,” says Nolasco. “Too often, I see people overuse the ingredient in terms of proportion.” No matter whether absinthe is the star or supporting player, it needs to be balanced by a cocktail’s other ingredients. 

So while absinthe’s supposed psychotropic attributes are a misconception, Nguyen believes the rumor does serve to bolster the spirit’s reputation and introduce a new generation to its heady, alluring pleasures. “It’s a spirit for the adventurous, artistic and bold,” he says.

  • Absinthe Suisse

    Absinthe Suisse cocktail

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    “To me, absinthe is meant to fill one of two roles,” says Nolasco. “It’s either a base spirit or a supporting ingredient meant to highlight other flavors in drinks.” A full ounce goes into his take on the Absinthe Suissesse, a New Orleans brunch cocktail that’s a relative of the Ramos Gin Fizz.

    Get the recipe.

  • Death By Morning

    Death by Morning cocktail

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    For absinthe-fueled cocktails like this take on the Espresso Martini, Nguyen prefers to use Vieux Pontarlier absinthe from France for its deep complexity and the fact that “it’s not just pungent star anise to the face,” he says. Including mint, amaro and Angostura bitters brings out the drink’s dark chocolate, spearmint and chicory notes.

    Get the recipe.

  • Quill Riff

    Quill Riff cocktail

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    “Some people might be turned off absinthe because they fear it’s too dominant a flavor,” says Meicher. “But with a deft hand, you can balance any cocktail.” The traditional Quill cocktail is essentially a Negroni with the addition of a little absinthe. For this white variant, he replaces red vermouth with white, and Campari with Luxardo Bitter Bianco. It’s a great beginner cocktail for the absinthe-curious, since it contains just a small amount to coat the glass, adding subtle scent and flavor.

    Get the recipe.