Thursday, 18 June 2009

Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Dangerous or Not?

When I first read about William Gurstelle's new book, Absinthe & Flamethrowers, my heart sank. The sub-title - Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously - seemed to express everything that responsible absinthe companies want to avoid. Absinthe is NOT dangerous, it doesn't make you mad or give you hallucinations. Absinthe should be consumed just for the pleasure you would get from any great, complex spirit..

And then I thought back to my feelings the first time that I became aware of absinthe being available again. I'd be living in Asia for nearly six years and had completely missed the furore over its UK launch. I saw a bottle on a supermarket shelf in England and I was very surprised, quite shocked, and, yes, a little scared. At the back of my mind there must have been a thought that, yes, absinthe was dangerous ...

So I tried to put myself into the position of someone not in the absinthe business, of someone who had never even tried absinthe while reading the absinthe section of this book. And from that viewpoint, Gurstelle's ruminations on absinthe are well researched, well presented and quickly dispel any notions that one might have of encountering real danger.

Gurstelle's mentor on absinthe is Dr. Dirk Lachenmeier (it could have been a very different chapter had his mentor been Professor Wilfred Arnold), and, with Lachenmeier's help, Gurstelle very quickly establishes that absinthe, drunk responsibly, is not dangerous, but is, in fact, a drink to be enjoyed for what it is, and not for what it does (or doesn't do).

And then comes my favourite part of the absinthe section: Dr. Lachenmeier's top tips for selecting absinthe. In just over one page, Gurstelle lists specific points that separate the "excellent" from the "miserable" (the author's words, not mine). These points provide a good check-list for both absinthe virgins and for those with just a bit of experience. Surprisingly, the list does not include the need to look out for "absinthes" made with added sugar which would not meet 19th century standards for real absinthe.

The section finishes with an excellent absinthe chosen, and poured. I wanted to read Gurstelle's impressions of his absinthe: how did it smell, how did it taste? Could he close his eyes and imagine himself in 19th century Paris or in an Alpine meadow? He opts to leave that to the reader's imagination and maybe that is right .. to leave your readers wanting more.

It is clearly established, therefore, that a well-made 19th century absinthe presented no dangers (other than high alcohol content) and that today's absinthes are no different. It is fitting therefore that absinthe is included in the Minor Vices chapter. I like the link Gurstelle points out between absinthe and making gunpowder, but otherwise it is clear that there is no link between absinthe and danger. Many of the other pursuits explored in this fascinating book are more genuinely dangerous and life-threatening, and Gurstelle takes care to warn his readers about the risks of flame-throwing, eating fuju, etc! I like the philosophy behind the book: a little danger can be good for you, people who take risks in life succeed in life. As the author puts it: "Learning the art of living dangerously ... is an important life skill."

Ignore, then, the isolated review or two that have said that this book talks about making absinthe (that could be dangerous). See some other comments and fuller reviews on Amazon.

Gurstelle concludes his thoughts on absinthe: "A votre santé." To your health too, William!

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

LeNell does London .....

Last month, I got an email from New York: samples needed, please, for an event in London. LeNell Smothers is talking about absinthe, so I should help ...

Of course I had heard about LeNell; her New York shop, currently closed down, is well-known, and I first saw her talk at a Wine and Spirit exhibition in London, billed as "the legendary LeNell Smothers," so it seemed appropriate to do some more research.

Check out her Forbes interview:

"What is your favorite alcoholic drink?

Are you kidding me? Favorite? That's like asking me what my favorite sex position is."

Mmmm .. maybe not the girl to introduce to my grand-mother (may she rest in peace). But I read on ...

"What is your favorite watering hole?

There's too many to name just one. Montgomery Place in Notting Hill, London, but maybe that's because I'm sleeping with the bartender."

And reading the email again, I discovered the event samples were needed for was at .. Montgomery Place. Interesting ... although I understand that LeNell and the "bartender" have now broken up, yet still work together very well.

Still, orders from New York are not to be ignored so samples were arranged and LeNell rubber stamped my attendance too, provided I was not too "commercial." Which, in hindsight, seems a bit like asking LeNell not to talk about sex.

By chance, I had met another absinthe blogger online a few days beforehand (how coincidental is it that the two UK-based absinthe bloggers live within 5 miles of each other?), so I persuaded Jen to come to London too and also re-met Liqueur de France's Ian Hutton on arriving at Montgomery Place.

LeNell and Ales Olasz (the former "bartender" who actually runs Montgomery Place) were hard at work preparing for the session, and even their preparation was impressive: they had been collating materials for the attendees (including a great resource CD) for several days beforehand. I doubt that many absinthe brand owners would prepare so many materials so methodically.

And then LeNell started her talk to the dozen or so attendees: she had elected to keep numbers down to allow a more personal inter-active session. A session that was highly informative (even for this absinthe "know-it-all"), entertaining and full of passion. It was clear that LeNell loves absinthe, and loves some of the stories and personalities in the business. Some of this passion went a bit far for the stiff upper-lipped British: I had to tell LeNell afterwards that "f****** with someone" means something different in British English, but that was about all I could teach her!

And the absinthes?

Well, we had Cheryl Lins' Meadow of Love (shown above), La Clandestine, Nouvelle-Orléans and Lucid as part of the official tasting PLUS Vieux Pontarlier and Roquette 1797 unofficially. Four of the absinthes currently in the top 7 US-available favourites as reviewed by members of the Wormwood Society (including the 3 highest rated imports). For some reason, the spitoons were not used very much!

And the fact that I was on duty meant that I had to stay for several hours after the presentation finished to sample the absinthes with some meticulously thought-out, complementary dishes, and then had to move onto the newly-created cocktails!

Absinthe Pimm's (or was it Pimps?!)

35 ml La Clandestine absinthe
35 ml Pimm's
Juice of half an orange
1 slice cucumber
2 spoons of cinnamon sugar
Splash of lemonade

Shake all with ice, strain into mug filled with ice, top with lemonade, and garnish with cucumber.

A great sazerac (bottle signed by Cheryl).

Van Gogh Cocktail

67 ml gin
22 ml Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe
Barspoon Blackcurrant Syrup

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled coupe glass.

I also sipped the Celery Fairy Martini, the Absinthe Cargo, and maybe the Mephisto (without Marteau unfortunately).

I managed to make the train home, although as a result of all this work I missed the weekly drunken conversation initiated recently on the Absinthe Review Network's MySpace page!


LeNell is a great presenter and motivator, who knows her absinthes well. I shall put that down to her determination to present with the utmost professionalism, rather than liking her drinks. OK, maybe that too.

After all, who else in the world of absinthe has gone so far as to get a wormwood tattoo?

After a few absinthe cocktails, I summoned up the nerve to ask LeNell about the so-called absinthe Holy Trinity of herbs, and where she had the other plant tattoos. My blog may lay claim to being "an inside view of the absinthe world in the 21st century," but I didn't get an answer to that.

Here's a full list of the cocktails and matching food served on the day:

If any of my readers wants to meet LeNell in person to get answers to that question, or to any other absinthe-related question, then there's an opportunity to do so at the Astor Center in New York on July 10th. Great value for $ 75 and it includes five absinthes and an absinthe cocktail too. To quote AbsintheHour: I definitely recommend you beg, borrow, or steal your way to this!