Absinthe became legal again in the United States seven years ago, but only recently has it broken free of the chains of a silly reputation.
The herb-driven liqueur has been wrapped in a rather grand coil of myth that includes green fairies and hallucinations, elaborate services and exotic jade color. Those trappings have become the tool by which some absinthe brands have attracted new drinkers. More often than not, though, they’re the rope that’s hung the genre, keeping it locked in pomp and frivolity while the cocktail movement marches toward a more modest sensibility.
THE BAR MOVEMENT
A few spots have incorporated absinthe’s romance into a more accessible storyline. The newish Brooklyn bar Maison Premiere was a leader in the effort to move absinthe beyond gimmick. It has a broad selection and some of the best absinthe-based cocktails in the country. (Here’s looking at you, absinthe Piña Colada.)
Greater availability of small-batch imports in the absinthe market has prompted a new concentration of bars with an absinthe focus. Miles Macquarrie, co-owner and bar manager of the new Kimball House in Decatur, Georgia, offers 12 different absinthes, a selection impossible even five years ago. The bar features two absinthe fountains for traditional service, but Macquarrie recommends that newbies start with a cocktail. “The Absinthe Frappe is a classic, and it shows off the distinct flavor of the spirit,” he says.
At the new Faith & Flower in Los Angeles, bartender Michael Lay uses a little flare to dazzle first-time absinthe drinkers. The bar’s spectacle: the Leap of Faith. To create the cocktail, absinthe is ignited and poured into a tumbler of root beer and ice. Before the guest tries the drink, she is encouraged to inhale a bit of absinthe vapor. The service is rambunctious, but it piques interest in the rest of Faith & Flower’s global absinthe collection, which comes from all over the globe.
DO IT AT HOME
Ready to open your home bar to the beguiling green beast? Get rolling.
Add ice: Though absinthe cocktails are generally stirred and served neat, Michael Lay gives on-the-rocks the green light. “It slowly dilutes the spirit and mellows the flavor, mimicking what happens with a traditional absinthe fountain.” Macquarrie concurs, suggesting that newcomers try an Absinthe Frappe, which is shaken and served over crushed ice.
- Pair with oysters: At both Kimball House and Maison Premiere, absinthe is spotlighted for its harmonious relationship with oysters; both bars feature more than 30 varieties of the bivalve. “It’s a classic pairing,” says Macquarrie.
Kaitlyn Goalen is a writer, editor and cook based in Brooklyn and Raleigh, N.C. She is the editor and co-founder of Short Stack Editions, a series of single-subject, digest-size cookbooks, and has contributed to a variety of national publications.