Five years ago, the mysterious and much-maligned spirit called absinthe was not only scarce in the U.S., it was still verboten. It wasn't until real absinthe once again became legally available in the U.S., starting in 2007, that bars across the country started introducing its unique anise flavor and ethereal, enchanting aroma into a range of cocktails.
Two books on absinthe and absinthe cocktails have recently been released: A Taste for Absinthe, by R. Winston Guthrie and James F. Thompson, and Absinthe Cocktails, by Kate Simon. Here's what you need to know before venturing any further with the green fairy.
'A Taste for Absinthe'
Guthrie, who wrote A Taste for Absinthe with co-author Thompson, is the publisher of AbsintheBuyersGuide.com, an online resource for absinthe shoppers. The book features 65 recipes, many of them for classic absinthe-containing cocktails such as the Cocktail a la Louisiane, from 1930s New Orleans, and the Monkey Gland, from 1920s Paris.
Like Absinthe Cocktails, A Taste for Absinthe features recipes for original absinthe cocktails from some of today's most creative craft bartenders, such as the Bitter End from San Francisco bartender Josh Harris, which combines a base of absinthe with fresh lemon and orange juice, bittering the mixture with a lacing of Campari; and the North by Northwest, an absinthe-enhanced take on the classic French 75.
If I have a quibble with the book, it's that attribution for some classic drinks is incomplete or misleading; credit for developing drinks such as the Remember the Maine, the Third Degree and the Appetizer L'Italienne, for example, are given to bartenders currently in their 30s and early 40s, while the recipes for these drinks date to anywhere between the 1890s and the 1930s.
As useful as the drink recipes are, some of the best features in the book are found in the Absinthe Primer, which succinctly but adeptly tackles some of the basic elements of absinthe's production and flavor. For example, discussing the "holy trinity" of green anise, grand wormwood and fennel seed, the botanicals that flavor traditional absinthe, and the ways that the sweet, fresh flavor of green anise differs from the oily heaviness of the cheaper star anise—which is used with depressing frequency in the production of contemporary absinthes—while also debunking the amazingly tenacious urban legend of absinthe's hallucinatory properties, which recent peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated to be not much more than hysterical hokum and wishful-thinking marketing.
Also helpful is the absinthe buying guide appendix, which hashes through the major brands of this notoriously expensive spirit, helping to make the absinthe-buying experience more pleasant for the palate while less painful to the wallet.
Kate Simon's Absinthe Cocktails, with gorgeous photographs by Lara Ferroni, covers similar terrain, but has its own appealing elements that make it worth checking out. Simon's introductory buying guide covers a wider number of decent-to-excellent brands now prominent in the U.S. while avoiding the mediocre messes that have been so heavily marketed; and recommends ways to find out more about a bottle before dropping $80 on a brand that's not to your taste.
Absinthe Cocktails also walks through classic drinks such as the vermouth-based Chrysanthemum and the foam-topped Sea Fizz, along with an extensive list of contemporary cocktails such as the pisco-based Judgement Day, from Charles Vexenat at The Lonsdale in London, and the tequila-and-amaro fueled La Lucha Sigue, from Chris Bostick at The Varnish in Los Angeles.
A Taste for Absinthe is the longer of the two books, and has more extensive background material on absinthe and its manufacture, but while Absinthe Cocktails has fewer recipes overall, the list of contemporary cocktails is more extensive and ambitious. The best course of action for the absinthe cocktail-curious would be to put both into the home bar.