Monday, 22 February 2010

Mixology Monday XLVI: Absinthe!

For the casual reader of this article, I should start by declaring a commercial interest: I work on La Clandestine Absinthe, as well as on a few other drinks. So you might want to take what I write with a pinch of salt, but not necessarily with sugar. And definitely NOT with burnt sugar!

Mixology Monday was started in April 2006 by Paul Clarke of The Cocktail Chronicles. I first ran into Paul at the Wormwood Society, so I knew of his love for absinthe. In nearly four years, Mixology Monday has seized the imagination of mixologists around the world, much as absinthe has done. So it seems a little surprising that this is the first Mixology Monday to focus on absinthe. Good timing, however, with next week seeing the 5th anniversary of the Swiss re-legalisation of absinthe, and the 3rd anniversary of US legalisation. Thanks, too, to Sonja Kassebaum of Thinking of Drinking and the North Shore Distillery, for hosting MM XLVI.

Those of you who have read my blog before may recognise that I've been writing extensively about absinthe around the world. I've been lucky enough to have sold and promoted absinthe in about 30 countries so far, and I've seen some amazing ways of enjoying absinthe. I'm not going to write about

the Hulk (an Absinthe submerged in a pint of Guinness, as created in Malaysia), although I did enjoy the video. I won't look at some of the ways of drinking absinthe in Russia, as listed on the Russian Wikipedia site. I will, however, look at absinthe cocktails from both the USA and from Asia to show some similarities and maybe also some differences in mixology around the world.

Firstly Asia, or, more specifically, Malaysia where I have been fortunate to work with Ben Ng. It was interesting to note that in Malaysia, and perhaps in other countries too, some of the top hotels have been slower to take on the concept of selling absinthe. Maybe that's because of the reputation of absinthe as a hell-raiser drink?

In any case, Ben put in a lot of work to produce a range of absinthe cocktails for the Sky Bar, atop the Traders' Hotel in Kuala Lumpur (part of the excellent Shangri-La group). I asked Ben to tell me about one of them:

The Bramble Ramble

2 nos Blackberry Fruit
30ml Belvedere Vodka
20ml La Clandestine Absinthe
20ml Homemade Vanilla Syrup (50 brix)
10ml Fresh Grapefruit Juice
Grapefruit Quarters

Muddle blackberry fruit, add rest of ingredients with crushed ice and stir. Top with more crushed ice and garnish with skewered blueberries and grapefruit quarter.

This cocktail was made with the intention of introducing the widely mis-understood absinthe to consumers in KL (and showing) that absinthe is an artisanal drink ... way beyond the common perception of it being a drink to be plastered with on a wild night out.

La Clandestine was used as it possesses a slightly sweeter, more viscous structure in comparison to the Angélique (absinthe verte suisse, sold in Malaysia). Belvedere vodka was introduced into the recipe as

1. It reduces the use of La Clandestine absinthe (while maintaining a decent ABV) as the KL clientele is usually not used to the intesity of the aniseed and liquorice characters in Absinthe.

2. KL's cocktail scene is pretty much into vodka cocktails, so if you were to just tell them that it's an absinthe cocktail most likely people will shy away, but you introduce as a vodka based cocktail with a touch of absinthe, then it sells! Strange ... but it worked out for us during the run in Skybar. So it's a matter of working towards the customer's preference while getting the message out at the same time.

The berries in cocktails are a favourite among KL cocktail drinkers, and the blackberries were also a selling point. Apart from that they are used because they give the cocktail a rounder character, refreshing structure and also an attractive natural colour tone.

As for the vanilla syrup, I realized that chocolates, vanilla, butterscotch flavours seem to bring out a different character of the Clandestine absinthe when combined ... hence the use of it. The vanilla also gives it an interesting hint of creaminess which is a complement to the blackberries.

Grapefruit is to add acidity and balance to the sweetness of the drink.

Thanks, Ben. I look forward to sharing some absinthe cocktails with you in May. Interesting to see the comments about KL locals not being used to the aniseed/liquorice flavours of absinthe (a near-global theme). Also to see a vodka-based cocktail being used to get people into absinthe (as a side note, remember that the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book has 104 absinthe cocktails and only 1 vodka cocktail!). I agree the point about vanilla and chocolate marrying well with absinthe.

And now just a short hop to Colorado ...

I have now come across two great absinthe bars in Colorado via Twitter. The Green Fairy Bar in Copper Mountain probably stocks more absinthe brands than any other bar in the USA (23 at the last count).

A few miles away, in Boulder, Happy may be an American restaurant, but interestingly (given the Malaysian connection above) it draws its inspiration from Asian ingredients and kitchen craft. James Lee is Big Red F's Beverage Director and the man behind the Bitter Bar, and was recently named one of the top 10 mixologists in the country by Playboy Magazine.

James and I corresponded on Twitter, and a few weeks later he sent me details of these cocktails and some additional comments. Over to you, James (and fellow mixologist, Ben Foote, from Happy):

The Green Devil (created by Ben Foote, The Bitter Bar mixologist)

1.5 oz. Chamucos Reposado Tequila
0.75 oz. Luxardo Limoncello Liqueur
0.25 oz. La Clandestine Absinthe
3-4 leaves of Fresh Thai Basil

*Muddle basil in a mixing glass first, then add all other ingredients with ice... shake for 5-10 seconds, double strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
**Garnish with a lemon wheel and a sprig of thai basil.

The Green Devil was our number one selling cocktail when the Bitter Bar opened last year around this time... We tried many different Limoncellos, but decided the Luxardo came through with better balance and not over the top with citrus flavor profile in the cocktail. Also, and more importantly, we ended up switching to La Clandestine from a verte absinthe due to its softer and smoother profile in the cocktail (especially on the nose and start of the drink..). We just did a "rinse" of verte absinthe in the original version of this cocktail due to strong/heavy profile of absinthe/anise flavor, but now we have La Clandestine/blanche in the cocktail, we use 0.25 oz. in the recipe to enhance and made everyone happy with our cocktail!

The Sun Also R1ses (created by James Lee, The Bitter Bar mixologist)

1.5 oz. R1 rye from Jim Beam
0.5 oz. Plymouth Sloe Gin
0.5 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
0.25 oz. La Clandestine Absinthe
0.25 oz. Agave Nectar
3-4 dashes of Peychaud's Bitters

*Add all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice, shake for 10 seconds.... then strain into a small old-fashioned glass with a large ice cube.
** Garnish with a lemon peel.

I asked James his views on different styles of absinthe in cocktails.

Every cocktail is different and has its own unique quality about it.... but with most, I prefer using a blanche absinthe over verte in a cocktail. What we noticed at the Bitter Bar was that while a verte has an amazing flavors with more herbaceous notes (especially U.S. absinthes), we found that it over-powers in the mix of things when we make them into cocktails... While a blanche (La Clandestine & Libertine on our shelf..) is much softer and subtle, yet smoother in a cocktail and really brings out the essence of absinthe while mixing it with other spirits. A classic cocktail like a Sazerac will always get a rinse of a verte absinthe, and many more recipes call for a verte over a blanche absinthe due to stronger/heavy spirits needing stronger absinthe in a cocktail. Otherwise we prefer La Clandestine over any absinthe in an absinthe cocktail.

So while "Malaysia" Ben talks about reducing the amount of La Clandestine in the Bramble Ramble (as a way to start getting customers used to the taste of absinthe), "Colorado" Ben found he could use more absinthe in his Green Devil when he switched from verte to blanche. "Malaysia" Ben makes good use of fruit in his cocktail (as well as in several of his other absinthe cocktails such as his Absinthe-Minded with local passionfruit). James and "Colorado" Ben, on the other hand, probably have access to a much broader range of spirits and bitters (e.g. 100% blue agave tequila, R1 Rye, and Peychaud's) that may be difficult to find in Malaysia.

In both locations, then:

a) Great use of locally available ingredients to make wonderful cocktails.

b) Tailoring the drinks to fit local tastes (less or more absinthe in the cocktail).

c) Real sensitivity to the complexity of absinthe, especially of the very different natures of blanches and vertes (will other mixologists comment on this?).

d) No sensation-seeking (a common trend in some countries with absinthe).


I loved the fact that last week saw Valentine's Day and Chinese New Year fall on the same day. For me the fact that Western and Oriental countries were celebrating different festivals simultaneously symbolised two very different cultures getting together. In the same way, bars in the USA and in Asia take different routes to get to a common goal. With mixologists like these in more and more countries around the world, the future of absinthe seems to be in safe hands. Whether re-creating the classics, or creating tomorrow's classics, good mixologists will play a key role in introducing absinthe to today's emerging drinkers around the world.

Santé! Gōng xǐ fā cái! And thank you, Ben, James, Ben, Paul and Sonja!


Sonja's round-up of all the absinthe articles from Mixology Monday XLVI can be found

Here (Part 1)


Here (Part 2).

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