Thursday, 9 December 2010

Absinthe: strudel, eggs, and molecular mixology

In 2010, I have travelled to Russia, USA, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Switzerland, France, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. And I have been up and down to London many times too. 11 countries visited, not all on absinthe business, although by early 2011, 9 of them will be selling La Clandestine, Butterfly and other absinthes that I represent.

It's been a very interesting year, during which I have seen other companies joining me in trying to establish an international market for premium quality absinthe, and also seen some of the worst examples of blatant opportunism (not to say, lies and outright deceit) by others who have no love for absinthe and are driven by just the bottom line. In the past, that has led to fake absinthes dominating the sector in countries like the Czech Republic, Russia, Canada, and the UK; so it was especially interesting to see how absinthe is changing in these countries.

In the Czech Republic, absinthe remains largely a drink targeted at tourists and judging by comments read in blogs, on Facebook, on Twitter etc, many people still seem to think that Czech "absinthe" is real, is the "best in the world" and so on. In many cases, it seems that it is not the Czech companies themselves that have managed to con the public so successfully for so long; rather it is their international marketing teams working out of their internet vendors. Forgive me if I don't provide links to their shops again: they don't need any help from me!

In recent years, however, another Czech Absinthe Mafia has started, thanks to the work of Martin Žufánek:

Štefan Habulinec:

and others. Martin is responsible for the launch and development of St. Antoine Absinthe, arguably the best real absinthe to come out of the Czech Republic, and he also imports La Clandestine and Butterfly absinthes into the Czech Republic. I was delighted, therefore, when he invited me to an evening at the main "absinthe shop" in Prague

to meet fellow Absinthe Mafia members and to meet the owner of the shop and of the infamous King of Spirits brand, Pavel Varga, seen here with the famous black cat of Pontarlier:

And what an unforgettable evening it was!

Firstly it would be fair to say that Pavel has not been regarded as a friend of real absinthe. Some of the marketing used to promote King of Spirits has been questionable, and, looking at it positively, such marketing will ensure that the brand will probably never be available widely (if at all) in the USA. However King of Spirits sales online as well as in Russia and the Czech Republic probably compensate Pavel for that. And to give him credit, he is a supporter of real absinthes in his shop as can be seen from the displays there

and at the bar:

although the shop staff do appear to need better training (judging by their spelling) ...

Pavel allowed us to taste some new distilled absinthes he is developing (good to see and to taste), and he had some nice cocktails to taste. I liked this

which tasted very much like the Apple Strudel my grandmother used to make (maybe just a little too bitter).

Pavel charmed the members of the Absinthe Mafia

and many stayed on into the early hours of the next day. I am pleased to report that almost no absinthe was burned on the night (maybe only the Staroplzenecky), and no blood was spilled. Maybe no conversions to the cause of real absinthe were finalised, but it was certainly a good step in the right direction, judging by Pavel's new absinthes.

On the next day, I had a few minutes of tourism and shopping ...

and then went to some great bars devoted to serving higher quality absinthes. At Hemingway I met Aleš Půta

and Kateřina Kluchová

who made us some excellent Clandestinos and Butterfly Kisses. I loved the jars used for the Clandestinos

and the way that the sprig of mint on the Butterfly Kiss

looked just like a butterfly!

As for the rest of the evening, what happens in Prague stays in Prague. Although now of course, with the work done by Martin and Stefan, some of the absinthe that is drunk in Prague or that leaves Prague is a lot better than in the past!

Fast forward two days and back to the UK where I was lucky to be probably the first person there to taste Claude-Alain's new product ... "Absinthe aux oeufs," which is a kind of absinthe egg-nog.

Currently this is only sold in Switzerland (and mainly at the distillery) because its natural ingredients don't give it a very long shelf-life.

We tasted the Absinthe aux Oeufs two days again later at Purl, one of London's top bars, whose current drinks specials are shown at the top of this article. We agreed that the Absinthe aux Oeufs is an excellent, very complex product, but maybe just a little sweet for some palates (fortunately my wife and I both love it, so more for us!). Purl is a leader in "Molecular Mixology", so it was a real pleasure to watch Tristan Stephenson and his colleagues at work. Tristan shared two cocktails with us, including the Green Fairy Sazerac which is topped with a "Butterfly Absinthe Air." Absinthe lovers tend to be very traditional in their thinking and thus have to respect how a Sazerac is normally made (using an absinthe rinse which is then discarded). How they must hate to do that!

Tristan's take on the Sazerac introduces absinthe at the very end of the process, making it the first thing you taste. The Butterfly Absinthe Air is made using a fish tank aerator

and lecithin to "froth up" the absinthe which is then added as a topping to the final drink.

Of course there is not much absinthe in the finished drink itself, but this process does give the cocktail a good absinthe taste at the beginning of the drink and is an excellent twist on the original Sazerac.

Tristan then shared another absinthe cocktail with us, this time using a very liberal serving of La Clandestine. Since it's not yet on the menu, I won't post too much about it here at this stage but will whet your appetites by saying that it plays with colours as well as with tastes and will certainly prove very popular. Oh, alright, here's a teaser ...


So .. an interesting month in which I've met absinthe lovers in Prague and London, witnessed absinthe drunk the correct way in Prague with the most surprising company, and enjoyed some amazing drinks in both cities. If enjoying absinthe can continue to be developed by the likes of Aleš, Kateřina and Tristan (and if Pavel develops his distilled absinthes), maybe the future of absinthe will indeed be amazing.

Cheers, santé, na zdraví!

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