This past Sunday at an event in Seattle sponsored by the Washington State Bartender's Guild, distiller Gwydion Stone and I presented a one-hour session on absinthe. Too bad nobody told us that, less than two years after its return to the United States, the once-forbidden spirit is passé.
That's the sense you'd get, anyway, from reading the drubbing absinthe has taken in the past month in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. But as Jason Wilson noted last week at Table Matters, much of this criticism is coming from those who built up their own expectations (along with those of their readers) of absinthe's return in 2007 with breathless repetitions of the spirit's alleged properties as a sort of proto-psychedelic, only to discover that in reality, absinthe is just another kind of booze.
Okay, maybe not just another booze—one that's flavored with anise, which to many people is uncomfortably close to the taste of black licorice (and it doesn't help that some distillers, looking to cut corners or lacking a good understanding of the delicate balance of herbal flavors the spirit traditionally has, have exaggerated this flavor to a point that even a regular absinthe-drinker, such as myself, has a hard time choking it down). Adding to absinthe's woes is the fetishistic frippery that has developed around drinking it; while it's possible to enjoy a good absinthe with simply a glass, a little sugar and a carafe or small fountain of ice water, many bars consider serving absinthe an invitation for a floor show, and deploy arcs of flame and elaborate rituals when preparing a glass for a customer. And many absinthe drinkers, desperate to distinguish themselves from the martini-drinking masses with glasses of Mansinthe, a brand commissioned by Marilyn Manson, wind up overplaying their hand and make the whole situation embarrassing.
It was probably inevitable that all the excitement of having a long-illegal liquor suddenly return to store shelves would result in it being overhyped. But don't blame the absinthe, especially now—while 2008 saw the release of several decent brands, along with a number of high-profile, incredibly crappy ones (likely the brands you'll see spamming up the comments section, as is their habit), we're at a point when some of the world's best brands are entering the U.S. market. In addition to Gwydion Stone's Absinthe Marteau, which is made in Oregon and is now available in several states as well as online, recent additions include the lovely Swiss brand La Clandestine, along with Duplais Absinthe Verte. This year will see the arrival of the first of the celebrated Jade absinthes from France, Nouvelle-Orleans, along with another excellent traditionally styled domestic brand, Absinthe Pacifique, made near Seattle.
Unlike the licorice and bitter-herb bombs that came on the market in 2008, these absinthes have a more delicate (though still pronounced) anise flavor, complemented by botanicals such as fennel and lemon balm that give the spirit a remarkable balance. Hopefully by the time these are stocked at your local bar, it will be possible to actually try the drink (and yes, it helps if you like anise, or at least can grow accustomed to it the way you did with radicchio or dark chocolate), without the inflated hype and resultant counter-hype currently surrounding absinthe distracting you every step of the way.
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.