Friday, 24 September 2010

A Taste for Absinthe

I wrote about absinthe cocktail books just over six months ago, and at that time there were only a few such books around.

As we approach the holiday season, things are hotting up with at least two new absinthe cocktail books being launched. The first one, A Taste for Absinthe, written by R. Winston Guthrie with James F. Thompson, has just been launched in North America, and it's a clear step up from the books I reviewed six months ago.

R. Winston Guthrie is an absinthe expert and the founder of The Absinthe Buyers Guide. The Guide itself is a litte out-of-date for Americans (with very little on the current absinthe scene in the USA, whether it be absinthe made in the USA or absinthe sold in bars and stores in the USA): however Winston tells me that the Guide will be updated to reflect both the current US market and European absinthes. His book is already up-to-date and thus very relevant for US readers. It is very much "born in the USA," with absinthe and absinthe cocktails as found across the USA today.

Initial impressions of the book are that it is very well produced and excellent value for money. Great photography (by Liza Gershman) with photos of cocktails made by many of America's finest cocktail makers:

Jeff Hollinger from Absinthe Brasserie and Bar, San Francisco

Ryan Fitzgerald of San Francisco, making the Hermitage, blending mezcal, maraschino, Dubonnet rouge, grapefruit bitters and absinthe.

Mae Lane from Griffou

Others have commented on Amazon on the recipes themselves as being quite complex, calling for many different ingredients. I calculated that I could probably make around 20 of the 65 cocktails at home now, and I think my cocktail cabinet is about "average" (for an absinthe drinker, that is). In fact, I think it's much more interesting to have "aspirational" cocktails to work to; ones where I have to get an additional ingredient or two. I like the fact that many different mixologists have provided cocktails; I also like it that Winston often indicates where a blanche or a verte is called for (as opposed to always saying "1 ounce of absinthe").

In addition to the cocktails themselves, there is a fair amount of additional information. Nothing very new for those who know their absinthe, but useful - and accurate - for beginners.

And for beginners, the 10 page Buyers Guide at the end is very different from the website with only current US available brands listed (except for one that is in the process of being approved). Winston is tougher in his brand list than Paul Nathan was in his absinthe cocktail book (The Little Green Book of Absinthe): he leaves out Le Tourment Vert and some Bohemian "absinths" not yet available in the USA. Of the 18 brands reviewed, 14 are stocked in Drink Up New York, demonstrating a good quality bias in Winston's selection. Here's one of the reviews:

A Taste for Absinthe is now available from Amazon USA, Amazon Canada, and Amazon UK (as an import?). It would make a very good gift for both current absinthe drinkers and for beginners. If you do buy it as a gift, beware: you may find yourself using the book before you've wrapped it.

Thanks to Winston and to all those who contributed to the book. It must have been tough work, but it was definitely worthwhile. Santé!

Friday, 17 September 2010

Absinthe in the UK

There's a well-known saying in London about buses: you wait hours for a bus and then three (or more) come along at the same time.

It now appears that this could be true of real, higher quality absinthe with several good - or very good - absinthes all hitting the UK market at the same time.

Industry experts have previously quoted the UK (and Canadian) absinthe market as being effectively still-born with a plethora of "absinthes" on the market with artificial colouring and/or pre-sweetened and/or made using a cold mix system. Co-incidentally the BBC has just aired a programme about so-called nasty ingredients in drinks. So the time appears right in the UK for absinthes that are made to much higher standards, with no artificial colourings etc and with support that focuses on quality, bar staff training, consumer re-education etc.

Of course there are some good absinthes in the UK already, but most are in fairly limited distribution. That's why the news of at least four good absinthes coming to the UK or ramping up their current operations is of great interest.

First out of the blocks and from Switzerland is La Clandestine: first in as much as it has been in limited distribution in the UK up to now.

La Clandestine is probably already known to many of my readers, given my involvement with the brand. So little to more to say, except that I personally see a great opportunity for La Clandestine and the other three newer absinthes to come to the UK.

Next comes Lucid, the first absinthe launched in the USA since prohibition.

Ted Breaux and Jared Gurfein of Viridian Spirits (who are also responsible for La Clandestine in the USA) were recently on a whistlestop tour of London to launch Lucid and it will be fascinating to watch its progress in a new market.

Next up is Maison Fontaine, a new ultra-premium blanche absinthe, made by French distiller Emile Pernot, and the first product from a new company, Metropolitan Spirits.

I enjoyed meeting Sven Olsen, their CEO, in Hong Kong and in Switzerland, and am looking forward to seeing him and Maison Fontaine in London!

Last, but by no means least, is Butterfly. An absinthe that, somewhat paradoxically, is both old and new. Born in Boston in 1902, and now made by the distiller of La Clandestine in Switzerland.

I will relate more of the Butterfly story at a later date: readers interested to know more now may like to read my interview with Brian Fernald, the American from Boston who is behind its renaissance.

As the writer behind the Real Absinthe blog, I am delighted that four very real absinthes will be making waves in the UK over the next few months and beyond. It's good news for absinthe, it's great news for bars who want to experiment with absinthe, and it's wonderful news for UK consumers who have not had so much choice in the past.

Santé to all four absinthes and to those responsible for bringing them to the UK!

And, just a few months later, bars in London are started to have absinthes lists like this (from 22 Below, near Carnaby St.):

Update: To keep up with news and information about absinthe specifically in the UK, there's a new Facebook page intended just for that. Cheers!