Monday, 29 October 2012

Death in the Afternoon re-visited

Two years ago at Halloween, I examined the Corpse Reviver No. 2:

a classic cocktail to enjoy at any time. In fact since then I have enjoyed this at Boston's backbar, and was also pleased to see Boston's Royal Sonesta making a ready bottled version!

For more details of this, see the excellent IndulgeInspireImbibe blog.

This Halloween, I want to look at another classic absinthe cocktail, and to see how it might be twisted to make it even more suitable for Halloween: the famous Death in the Afternoon, invented by Ernest Hemingway. The cocktail shares its name with Hemingway's book Death in the Afternoon, and the recipe was first published in So Red the Nose, or Breath in the Afternoon, a 1935 cocktail book with contributions from famous authors (coincidentally 1935 was the year when La Clandestine Absinthe was born). Hemingway's original instructions were:

"Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly."

I have always enjoyed Death in the Afternoon, but have also been aware that it might be a little dry for some people's tastes, especially if using a top quality champagne. So I was pleased to have the opportunity to try an interesting variation on this when my US partners visited us in Switzerland recently and suggested using a Swiss sparkling rosé to make a Death in the Afternoon.

Maybe it was the rosé itself (a little over-powering), or maybe it was the temperature of the rosé (ambient), but although it looks gorgeous, this didn't quite work. So with Halloween approaching, I tried again, this time with a Jacob's Creek sparkling rosé, which is probably easier to find in most countries. And to add some atmosphere, I dug out my daughters' Halloween straws and dimmed the lights ...

First the jigger of La Clandestine Absinthe, then top up with the sparkling rosé (I did top it up, but the members of the tasting panel sampled it before I could take my next photograph).

Nice colour, but maybe for Halloween, it needed a bit more drama. And so I added a few drops of blood ...

a.k.a. Grenadine.

Perfect to look at ...

... and perfect to taste. Not too dry and not too sweet, with the absinthe and sparkling rosé working very well together.

Of course a good cocktail needs a good name. I thought about calling this a Bloody Death in the Afternoon, but that might make people think it contains tomato juice. And for Halloween, I think a murder sounds better than death. It's definitely not an afternoon drink either, hence the final name .. Murder in the Evening. If you like a Death in the Afternoon, I think you'll love this. At Halloween or at any time.


Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Bartender's Guide to Absinthe

Whenever I get the chance to talk with others about absinthe, then I'll accept the offer, start right away, and it's almost impossible to stop me. It's the part of the "job" (if you can call it a "job") that I like best. It beats selling, it beats paperwork and it certainly beats all those pesky tax returns!

However, one day I may have to face up to the fact that I cannot talk about absinthe with everyone who's interested in it in all of the 25 countries currently selling La Clandestine. And that's not even factoring in my language skills (or lack of). And that is why it's so important that I talk as much as I can with those in the front line for absinthe: bartenders and shop staff.

So today's article is for some of them, and at the risk of offending the shop staff, especially in liquor stores, off-licences, cavistes etc. I'll focus this time on bartenders. Using the term to include bartenders, wait staff, sommeliers, managers and owners and to include staff in bars, clubs, restaurants and hotels. If I say "he," it means "he" or "she" or "they."

Preamble over ... what do bartenders need to know? And what do they need to do to be able to make the most of the absinthe selling opportunity?


No need to be too scientific about this: the Wikipedia article is fine.

Distilled absinthe

Distilled absinthe employs a method of production not unlike high quality gin. Botanicals are initially macerated in distilled base alcohol before being redistilled to exclude bitter principles, and impart the desired complexity and texture to the spirit.

The distillation of absinthe first yields a colourless distillate that leaves the alembic at around 72 % ABV. The distillate may be reduced and bottled clear, to produce a Blanche or la Bleue absinthe, or it may be coloured to create a verte using natural or artificial colouring. Traditional absinthes obtain their green colour strictly from the chlorophyll of whole herbs, which is extracted from the plants during the secondary maceration. This step involves steeping plants such as petite wormwood, hyssop, and melissa (among other herbs) in the distillate. Chlorophyll from these herbs is extracted in the process, giving the drink its famous green colour.

The history of absinthe is fascinating and is a key part of why consumers - your customers - are interested to find out about absinthe. You can buy the Absinthe Encyclopedia, read Barnaby Conrad's Absinthe: History in a Bottle shown above, watch the film "Absinthe," or, the best value option (said modestly), even get me along to talk about it. I have addressed the history side of absinthe (along with a few issues resulting from that) in my 10 key facts series on this blog, and that's a big part of what I share with people I meet.

So why is the history so interesting, even more relevant than knowing what's in absinthe? Put simply, and using the words of a former boss of mine: "Sell the sizzle, not the sausage." Your customers are much more interested in everything around absinthe (including the myths and half-truths which you can correct) than knowing every last detail of what's in it.


If your bar or restaurant sells a range of single malts, XO Cognac, some 100% blue agave tequilas, and some craft spirits, you can probably consider a range of absinthes to complement the rest of your list. Top bars, especially in Europe, may not always want to carry the absinthe(s) that can be found in every local shop, and with the wide range of absinthes available nowadays you can choose a range that suits your bar, your needs, and your customers' expectations.

As a bare minimum, carry a verte and a blanche. Some customers expect the green fairy to be green or at least "greenish;" others will probably find a good "blanche" to be a softer introduction to absinthe while many bartenders find blanches to be more versatile in a wider range of cocktails (It's not just me saying that: the famous Bariana Guide - the first French cocktail book - recommends blanches over vertes in several of its cocktails).

Develop and segment your absinthe list, either by country or by colour. A country split allows you to tell some of the history about Swiss origins and how Swiss moonshiners kept absinthe alive during the ban; and about French development, the green hour, the artists and the ban. And in some countries such as the USA, you can use a country split to tell the story of a locally made absinthe or two.

Select a range of tastes, from herbaceous to floral, from slightly more bitter to slightly sweeter.

If you only have 3 absinthes, make sure you can explain the differences to your customers. If you stock more than 20 absinthes ... make sure you can explain the differences to your customers!

Absinthes should be a good revenue earner for bars, so it normally makes sense to stock premium quality absinthes, rather than trying to save a few dollars per bottle. Absinthe lovers are loyal to the category, and loyal to the brands they love, so bars can use that to make customers loyal to them too. Absinthe lovers are big spenders, whether buying a traditional serve absinthe or absinthe in a cocktail, so keep them loyal!


To repeat that ..


The Perfect Pour, serving absinthe the traditional way via a fountain, dripper or carafe, is what your customers who are discovering absinthe want to see. Troy Clarke from the Royal Sonesta, Boston, home of the ArtBar, confirms that the correct serving of absinthe is a key element. The ritual of the absinthe serve conveys all the history in an eye-catching way that will attract other customers in the bar to absinthe. Fountains and drippers are part of that, but what really intrigues customers is watching the "louche," the way the absinthe turns cloudy when chilled water is added slowly.

A carafe (which was evidently good enough for Van Gogh) ...

or a jug (provided it can be used to do a slow pour) can work just as well as a fountain (with less risk of breakage), and ideally your customer should be allowed to add the water himself. Recommend they pour it as slowly as possible, adding too little water to start with (perhaps 3 parts of water with a 53% blanche, 4 or more parts of water with a 65% verte) on the basis that it's easier to add more water, than to take it out! After the first addition of water, they should taste and add more water to find what works for them. Like tea or coffee, we all have different preferences.

Sugar and spoon? They are fun, maybe, but after 8 years tasting lots of absinthes, I've come to the conclusion that most good absinthes don't need sugar, and that sugar is mainly required to paper over the cracks of less good absinthes. Again, that may be more a reflection of my own tastes, but it is generally accepted that the better blanches in particular really don't need sugar (and the same goes for Butterfly).

Classic Cocktails with absinthe, almost all of which are listed here, are a must. One day, a bar will produce a printed cocktail menu offering all 108 cocktails containing absinthe from the 1930 Savoy Hotel Cocktail book (that's a challenge!), but in the meantime, make sure you can offer some of the basics, including

the Sazerac, the Corpse Reviver # 2, the Absinthe Frappée, as well as the slightly more modern
Death in the Afternoon (I am sure good bartenders will be able to work on a much longer list than these basic classics). I also like to see how some bartenders introduce their own personal twist to the classics.

Modern mixes, using ingredients that were rare or even non-existent in the classic cocktail era. Using methods that come from other countries. Using molecular mixology. Drinks such as the Absinthe Mojito. And the Absinthe Caipirinha ... or as I like to call it the Clandestino.

Modern mixes may be how you can make a powerful statement as to what your bar is. They don't have to be over-complicated, and may just capitalise on, for example, the fruit bases that are available nowadays. We have found that some bars love to work with Butterfly Absinthe, because the citrus/mint elements work really well in modern fruit-focused cocktails.

And here is a great way to communicate exactly that three way split of how to offer absinthe from the Onyx Lounge, LA.


An interesting topic, raised in the comments by Evan Camomile, another absinthe blogger. As he writes: "One thing every bartender will have to deal with is the customer who erroneously "knows better" and wants absinthe lit on fire or served in a shot." I guess you can add to that list the customer who wants to know the thujone content of an absinthe, and insists that this will influence his/her buying decision. There is a school of thought that says "the customer is always right," but in this instance I feel that a bartender will gain business for his bar in the long run by gently trying to persuade the customer of the error of his ways.

As far as a request for fire is concerned, a bartender could respond "We have a Health and Safety policy of not setting fire to any drinks in our bar, and in any case we believe that a burnt caramel taste does not improve good absinthes. Can we suggest you try absinthe the classic way as it was drunk in the 19th century or in a cocktail?"

Shots? "Absinthe was never made to be drunk as a shot: adding chilled water will give you a drink that will last three or four times as long, and one that almost all of our customers seem to prefer. Could we divide your drink between two glasses, add some chilled water to the second glass and ask you to compare the two different experiences for yourself?"

Thujone? "We do not know the thujone levels of the absinthes we have, and all the research we have done on this suggests it is not really relevant. All our absinthes are within the legal limit, and it really makes no difference to the drink what level it is. You'd have to drink several bottles of absinthe very quickly to get any so-called "absinthe effect," and we'd prefer you not to do that, for your health as much as anything!"

Any other difficult questions from "know it all" customers?


Absinthe is a relatively new category in most markets, and therefore it presents a great opportunity for progressive bars to be innovative. Here are some ideas for how to capitalise on absinthe in your bar.

Ask an Absinthe Ambassador to run an Absinthe Masterclass in your bar, both for bar staff and for consumers (best run separately). Here is the email address of one Absinthe Ambassador: alanATlaclandestineDOTcom

Run an Absinthe Dinner/Food Pairing event. I've run these in Europe and in Asia, and they can be very effective at shaking up preconceptions of absinthe. The herbal make-up of absinthe probably works better with food than many other spirits.

Serve Absinthe Flights, allowing your customers to sample 3 very different styles. A flight of 3 Vertes from France, Switzerland and the USA. Or of 3 blanches from different countries. Or 3 absinthes from one country. Or a flight of very small batch absinthes from different States/countries. And so on. This seems to be an excellent opportunity to attract consumers to your bar (assuming you're the first to do this in your area) and it's great for customers too.

Apparently, "absinthe makes the heart grow fonder," so celebrate Valentine's Day, host wedding parties etc ... using absinthe.

The whole history of absinthe provides many date-related events to use. The day it was banned, the day it was re-legalised, Van Gogh's birthday, etc etc. The opportunities for promotion are almost limitless.

And I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface here. Let me know if you have any ideas too.


In just a few paragraphs, I cannot claim to provide absolutely everything that a bartender needs to help him use and serve absinthe. Absinthe also needs passion, interest and even love ... and not every bartender will love absinthe. That's precisely the opportunity for those who do love absinthe .. to allow your passion to shine through, and to enthuse your customers. I hope to meet many more of you over the months and years ahead, in North America, in Europe and in Asia. Please feel free to contact me for help, and with any questions. And until we meet face-to-face ... Santé!

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Absinthe co-operation

I think that Blues Cat, whose label has just been approved for US launch, is the 78th absinthe to get that permission. Not that it is possible to find more than about 40 of those anywhere currently.

What I like about Blues Cat is that it represents a co-operation between 4 absinthe artists, who all appear on the back label.

I think co-operation like this is great: pooling strengths and working on a shared goal can often produce something that is more than the sum of its parts. Wine has seen great collaborations like this (notably Opus One), and absinthe has seen some transatlantic partnerships too. Notably the first Marteau was a collaboration between America's Gwydion Stone and Switzerland's Oliver Matter, and more recently Butterfly is a collaboration between America's Brian Fernald and Switzerland's Claude-Alain Bugnon. Even more recently, Stefano Rossoni and Martin Zufanek worked together on La Grenouille and L'Ancienne.

Cheers to the creators of Blues Cat: Cheryl, Eric, Kirk and Kenneth. I look forward to trying this soon!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Absinthe Days

Dates are strange things: they can take on a significance because of an event that happened years ago, but can also mark a more modern event. Today, for example, is St. David's day in Wales, a long-standing event of course, and is also the more modern World Book Day. Which is why my daughter dressed as Artemis to go to school. I wonder if she knows about Artemis and Artemisia (the name for the wormwood family of plants)?

There are also two absinthe days that are celebrated around this time.

March 5th has been declared National Absinthe Day in the USA, by Viridian Spirits, the owners of Lucid. March 5th, 2007 was the date when the Lucid label was approved by the TTB, although the recipe had been approved several months earlier.

As far as France (one of the world's major centres of absinthe production) is concerned, there does not yet seem to be a similar date, and certainly no similar events. Apart from maybe the Pontarlier Absinthiades which is not a fixed date and moves from year to year.

Switzerland, however, and especially in the Val-de-Travers region, also celebrates its own absinthe day, on March 1st. March 1st, 2005, was the date when absinthe production and sale was finally re-legalised in Switzerland. In fact, March 1st is a public holiday in the region where most Swiss absinthes are made, although to be honest, the holiday marks the date in 1848 when Neuchatel gained independence from Berlin and Prussia. So while this area of Switzerland celebrates a holiday on the same day that absinthe was legalised here, I cannot claim that the holiday is just for absinthe. I think it likely, however, that a few glasses of absinthe will be enjoyed there today.

The fact that there are "absinthe days" in both Switzerland and the USA leads me onto some related points about these two countries.

Firstly, Switzerland, in re-legalising absinthe, became the only country to lay down specific standards about the absinthes that can be made and/or sold in Switzerland. They have to be distilled and they cannot contain any artificial colouring.

Secondly, the USA, in re-legalising absinthe, became the only country to lay down specific standards about the way absinthes can be marketed, in particular stating "the term “absinthe” cannot be the brand name; the term “absinthe” cannot stand alone on the label; and the artwork and/or graphics cannot project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic or mind-altering effects." In other words, ruling out some of the more sensational and misleading approaches to absinthe marketing that have plagued other countries.

Between Switzerland and the USA, then, standards for product and for marketing have been established; standards that will hopefully start to be adopted elsewhere. So it's a good idea to celebrate both today (the Swiss absinthe day) and next Monday (the US absinthe day). I was delighted, therefore, to see a New York bar using the US national absinthe day to promote a range of Swiss absinthe cocktails. I may just try this one later on today ...

The Edgar Degas cocktail: La Clandestine Absinthe, Kaluha, Grand Marnier, espresso

Cheers! Santé!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

"Burns Night" or "No burns Night?"

Today is the birthday of the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns, and is the time when Scots around the world, including many living outside Scotland, celebrate "Burns Night." Tonight abundant quantities of haggis, tatties and neeps will be eaten, "washed down" (as Wikipedia puts it) with a few drams of Scotch.

As an Englishman who has sold a few bottles of finest Scotch in his career (including Famous Grouse, The Macallan, Highland Park, Black Bottle etc), I have mixed feelings about the current move towards a vote on Scottish independence. But I am a great fan of Burns Night.

Now, however, I am someone selling a few cases of finest absinthe around the world, and who hates the idea that anyone should try to set fire to absinthe. Something I still see from time to time. although thankfully more often with lower quality absinthes that, arguably, deserve nothing less! So I want to mark Burns Night by declaring that henceforth this night - and hopefully all other nights - shall be "No burns Night" for absinthe (note the small "b" please; there's no anti-Scottish sentiment here). It's time to stop, for once and for all, scenes like this:

"No burns Night" is, of course, more a manifesto of future intent, since we cannot stop all absinthe burning immediately. But to help absinthe drinkers around the world tonight, I wanted to publish a very short list of some of the best bars where they carry a good range of quality absinthes, which they don't burn and hopefully never will. It's just one or two bars in ten or so countries around the world, and I'll be pleased to add the names of any bars that should be included in this list. Please add details in the comments, and I'll post into the main list.



The Soho House Group
Brompton Bar and Grill, London
Nightjar, London
Purl, London

SCOTLAND (not yet a separate country, but listed separately here in honour of Robert Burns!)

Bramble Bar
Bond No. 9, Edinburgh


Maison Premiere, New York
PDT, New York
Chinatown Coffee, Washington DC
Hundreds more bars in New York, California, Louisiana, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Massacusetts, Rhode Island, etc.


Clive's Classic, Victoria, BC
Dieu du Ciel, Montreal


Absinthe Salon, Sydney


Bar Tram, Tokyo


Blck Brd


Sky Bar, KL


Absinthe Bar, Fleurier along with probably every single bar in the Val-de-Travers!
Grune Fee, Solothurn


Antibes Absinthe Bar


Hemingway, Prague


La Petite Absintherie, Leipzig
Sixtina, Leipzig


Sadly, Burns died in 1796, just one or two years before the first commercial absinthe distillery was established in Couvet, Switzerland, so he probably never had the chance to taste absinthe. But to him, and to those responsible for the bars listed above, and to all the other non-burning bars too many to name (hopefully an ever-growing list) ... Slàinte! Santé! Cheers!