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!


Evan Camomile said...

Wonderful article. It highlights some things my business partner and I have already been working on.

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.

Bars may feel that they are losing business if they don't acclimate to such false practices, but as a customer who avoids and never recommends bars for burning absinthe, they're really losing more business by pandering to falsehoods.

Alan said...

Thanks, Evan. That's a very good point. Knowing that some readers may miss your comment, then I'll modify my post in the next few days to make this point, and I'll credit you (with a link to your blog). Is that OK?

... said...

Thanks for presenting this information in a clear and concise manner, Alan. I'd love to visit a bar which incorporates these techniques.

On a side note - where can I get the tall and skinny martini/cocktail glass you have pictured with the Angelique and Clandestine?

Alan said...

Thanks ... I think there are an increasing number of bars using these techniques, but I don't know about where you live (Washington?). It's true that there is a lot more work to do!

The glasses were used by a hotel in Malaysia. The Traders Hotel in KL, I believe. A Google image search for buy champagne glasses produces some great results, and some close matches. Sorry not to be able to help more than that.

Alan said...

Small changes made, mainly to reflect Evan's point. I hope he approves of the change!