Friday, 5 March 2010

Absinthe Cocktail Books: Which is the best?

As the USA celebrates its National Absinthe Day today (the third anniversary of Lucid gaining its final government approval), I'm going to look at two absinthe cocktail books. Are you wondering whether this is really what the world needs right now? Two more books with two hundred plus absinthe cocktails?

Well, actually, yes. Anything that helps to validate the less extreme (i.e. non-burning) methods of consumption is good. Anything that serves to tell people (especially those in the USA and France) that absinthe is legal now is very good. And anything that shows off the versatility of absinthe and encourages drinkers to try different ways of enjoying absinthe is great.

These two books have very different roots and viewpoints. The Christian Jaberg 2006 Absinthe Cocktail Guide comes from Switzerland, is written in English, French and German, and has a section with photos of many of the Val-de-Travers distillers and short reviews of their absinthes. The 100 cocktails are mainly classic cocktails, albeit often with a twist on the original. Some are new to me, but may be found on European absinthe sites. If the Swiss celebrated Thanksgiving, this is what they might drink:

ABSINTHE PUNCH (Makes 20 drinks!)

4 bottles of white wine
2 glasses of sour cherries
2 cans of fruit
3 bottles of chilled prosecco
Half a bottle of absinthe

Pour the fruit, cherries and white wine into a bowl. Add the absinthe
and put the bowl into the fridge for 2 hours. Before serving, add the
chilled prosecco.

Sorry, Christian, I removed the sentence about the burning sugar cube!

Throughout the cocktail section, there are useful symbols to help identify the type of cocktail described and the bar-tending tools needed.

My only minor criticisms of the book are the colour printing of the cocktails, the fact that Jaberg seems to ignore the very existence of vertes, and the fact that it now needs updating, especially for the US market (remember that it was published several months before absinthe was available in the USA). But to fit everything (including 100 cocktails) into a pocket size reference book in three languages is a remarkable achievement: you could easily take it into bars around the world and show bartenders exactly what you want them to make for you. Ordering details here.


While there were celebrations in offices in New York three years ago today, there were coincidentally different celebrations in San Francisco which I chronicled here also exactly three years ago. Paul Nathan, magician and party host, was celebrating the fact that no charges were to be bought against him as a result of his absinthe parties. Paul is now back, with what is currently the best-selling book about absinthe at, The Little Green Book of Absinthe. As already stated, the roots and viewpoint of this book are indeed very different. For a start it is written by 3 American authors: Paul Owens owns the San Francisco restaurants Tortilla Heights and Fish Bowl Bar & Grill; Paul Nathan is the founder and owner of Dave Herlong is a mixologist who has been working at The Palms in Las Vegas.

I have met Paul Nathan in the past and corresponded with him frequently. It would be fair to say that many long-term absinthe lovers view Paul with suspicion! While I disagree with a lot of what Paul says about absinthe, I tend to regard it as being half-full, and not half-empty (in other words I am grateful for the part I agree with!). Paul has worked as a consultant for Le Tourment Vert, while The Palms (where the book's mixologist hails from) has evidently also worked very closely with Le Tourment Vert. There's nothing wrong with that, but, in my opinion, some sort of disclosure to this effect should have been made. Especially when the book makes the somewhat controversial statement on page 14 that in addition to French, Swiss and Czech styles, "a fourth category of absinthe has emerged in recent years. A category of one. Le Tourment Vert ... the first cocktail absinthe." To put it mildly, I disagree!

Unsurprisingly, given the authors' perspective, Le Tourment Vert is used more often than any other absinthe in this book. Of the 112 cocktails, 35 are made using Le Tourment Vert, 76 are made with other absinthes, and 1 (the French Stormy on page 38) inexplicably has no absinthe! The authors seem to have been imbibing too freely ...

At the time of writing, the Amazon reviews seem rather suspicious: one from San Francisco and both from California. Here's one review ...

"I have only had Absinthe once straight. This book has cleared the way for my new drink of choice. Le Tourment Vert is my favorite!"

The book combines traditional and modern cocktails with a decent amount of accurate information about absinthe. Very little of the information will be new to long-term absinthe lovers, but I don't believe that the book is targeted at them. The cocktails are well presented and easy to follow.

There is one key aspect that the book delivers on in a way that no absinthe book (to my knowledge) has done before. That is the way that it clearly states that different absinthes work in different cocktails and then elaborates on this in some detail. In my recent post about Mixology Monday (MxMo), the mixologists I interviewed referred to the suitability of different styles of absinthe in different cocktails, but many of the other mixologists who suggested recipes for MxMo did not comment on this issue (some even produced recipes stating merely "absinthe"). The Little Green Book addresses this quite well, although I don't wholly agree with the analysis provided. This chart is interesting (click on it to see in more detail):

Knowing Paul Nathan, I can recognise his sense of humour in the book; others may not always spot when he is joking, and may think that he is seriously recommending lots of Hill's ... to induce unconsciousness.

Which of these two books is the best? Well, they both have their strengths ... and their weaknesses. The American book is cheaper and collates a fair number of interesting recipes using absinthes that are available in the USA. For $12.89, it's less than the price of one cocktail in many bars. The Swiss book (€23 including worldwide delivery) paints a good picture of Switzerland in the year or so after their ban was lifted, but it now needs to be updated and to recognise the existence of vertes. Maybe it's worth getting both books.

I've probably read around ten absinthe books in the last year, although some, like the Absinthe Encyclopedia, are more for dipping into from time to time. In fact, if you have no absinthe books yet, maybe the very best option is to buy all three books!

Why? Well, to my mind, no single book has yet managed to successfully incorporate both absinthe's past and its present. The Encyclopedia captures its past perfectly; the Little Green Book captures some of what is happening right now.

Maybe I should consider writing a book that does capture absinthe's past and present, and then looks to its future.

Until I do, here's the antidote to all those weary of long articles about absinthe on Wikipedia and elsewhere (maybe even here?!). Absinthe for the ADD generation from Ten Word Wiki:

"Green fairy: will not help you fly, not always green."

Joyeux anniversaire à vous, Fée Verte!


frederic said...

Le Tourment's PR firm has been known to utilize some sleazy tactics (see link below and it's link to others' complaints), so I wouldn't doubt that it bled over into the book and the subsequent reviews:

Alan said...

Thanks, Frederic. LTV asked the PR agency to stop work for them .. here's the quote:

"We have instructed the outside party to stop any and all further communications representing our company and our brand."

So maybe this is just a bit too much enthusiasm by the book reviewers?

Brian Robinson said...

Alan, don't underestimate LTV's intitiative when it comes to planting supporters. We sill find them every once in a while.

The most annoying part of the Paul Nathan book is how blatantly obvious it is to me that he's being compensated by LTV. Why not just come out and say it?

The book is an attempt to build some credibility for LTV in the absinthe community.

As someone who has experience with the management of The McEnzie River Corporation (owners of the LTV brand), it's easy to see their puppeteering of Paul.