Friday, 8 March 2013

Back to the future

I am delighted to confirm that I will be co-presenting a seminar largely about absinthe at this year's Tales of the Cocktail: the theme will be "The Savoy's Green Fairy Secrets Revealed." I will be talking about Harry Craddock's Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930 which contains no less than 105 cocktails made with absinthe, and I will be joined by two very well-known bartenders. More on this at a later date.

As part of my preparation for this seminar, I recently purchased

The Deans of Drink, a brand new book by well-known cocktail historians, Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller. It is a fascinating book with an amazing amount of information about the Savoy's Harry Craddock (now known to have been born in England) and about Harry Johnson, whose "New and Improved Bartenders' Manual" of 1882 is a classic. Mixologists and bartenders with any sense of history will already know Harry Johnson's book and many will have a re-print. For me, it gives a very interesting perspective on how absinthe was perceived in the USA towards the end of the 19th century, and, in particular, how it was served. Following a long list of the different liquors that are required in a Bar Room (primarily whisk(e)y, brandy, rum and gin), the book lists the principal cordials used for mixing drinks. This list starts as follows:-

Absinthe (green and white)

and this is one of the few times that a classic cocktail book distinguishes between the two. Even today, that doesn't always happen.

While Harry Johnson's book doesn't contain as many absinthe cocktails as The Savoy, it contains two (and a bit) intriguing pages about how to mix absinthe.

Without a time machine, it can be difficult to know how drinks were perceived and served over 130 years ago, but these pages (and the rest of the book) come close to providing that insight on absinthe in the USA at that time. Absinthe was clearly seen as a "normal" drink, with no hint of green fairies! The so-called old French style does not include sugar, while the other styles have several different ways of sweetening the absinthe. "American or frozen absinthe" resembles today's Absinthe Frappé as drunk in the USA, (although it is different from Craddock's Absinthe Frappé). And, surprise, surprise (!), there is no mention of fire.

So why is this post entitled Back to the Future? Because in providing an insight into the past, Harry Johnson and other famous cocktail practitioners and writers of the past are inspiring what happens in some of the top bars today. And I see this as a trend that will continue to grow.

Here are two very recent instances of their influence:

Last week, March 1st was the 8th anniversary of the Swiss re-legalisation of absinthe. And March 5th was the 6th anniversary of Lucid's label approval, an event now marked by some as USA's National Absinthe Day. One excellent bar in Canada (Clive's Classic in Victoria, BC) marked both events with a special absinthe menu, stating on Facebook:

"This begins tonight! We are doing 5 days to celebrate National/International Absinthe Day/s. March 1st is for Europe and March 5th for the US, so we decided to bridge it."

Fascinating to see the French, American and Italian styles itemised here, with details very similar to Harry Johnson's. And across on the other side of the continent, this is the absinthe menu, officially launched in February, at New York's Dead Rabbit Bar:

Great to see Harry Johnson and other famous bartenders/writers (Jerry Thomas, William T. Boothby, O.H. Byron, George Winter, and C.F. Lawlor) credited here.

And fascinating to see that in both Clive's Classic and the Dead Rabbit, these are essentially variations on the absinthe sweetened with sugar and with iced water theme, almost identical to Harry Johnson's drinks.

I am often asked "how else can we serve absinthe?" "How else," apart from the classic absinthe drip (with fountain, balancier or carafe)? "How else," apart from Craddock's 105 cocktails with absinthe? "How else," apart from the hundreds of absinthe cocktails created daily, it seems, by the world's bartenders? For me, going back to the past provides great inspiration for the future, and I would recommend following the examples - and drink suggestions - of Harry Johnson, Jerry Thomas, Harry Craddock, etc.

"How else?" To quote Harry Craddock: "Here's How!"

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