Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Absinthe for dinner?


Having sold and promoted wines, champagne and cognac with food in the UK and in Asia for brands including Krug and Remy Martin, I was always keen to explore the idea of an Absinthe Dining event. There are a lot of misguided pre-conceptions about absinthe, so an Absinthe Dinner could help overcome those and also prove to be a memorable event.

In fact, after absinthe dinners in Asia, Europe and most recently the USA, I'm convinced that combining good absinthes with good food works perfectly. There's something in the herbal mix that goes into good absinthes that makes them a perfect fit with great food. I'm equally convinced that there's NO point in pairing some of the more "one dimensional" absinthes that may just look pretty (artificial colours do that) with the skills of a good cook!

So how should one plan for an absinthe dinner? These notes were originally written for restaurant owners and managers and those organising bigger events, but much of it is relevant for absinthe lovers organising dinner parties for friends at home.

Firstly, remember that when diluted with chilled water or in many cocktails, absinthe may be no stronger than a glass of wine. So don't worry too much about that (but, as ever, make sure that people who have been indulging don't drive afterwards).

Secondly, note that an absinthe dinner can include both drinks to accompany the food, and dishes made with absinthe. And that those drinks need not necessarily be limited to the traditional absinthe serve or absinthe cocktails. Our recent US dinner focused on a range of absinthe cocktails, both classic and modern, to complement the dinner, and that's a great way to do it. But not the only way, as my UK dinner proved!

So what would a typical absinthe dinner look like?

Apéritifs

If a dinner would normally start with an apéritif, then there are plenty of absinthe options.


The Death in the Afternoon above (or a variant) works perfectly, and is a real surprise to those who don't know absinthe well.

Hors d'oeuvres

Oysters Rockefeller



are an excellent start to the dinner itself, and a small top-up of the Death in the Afternoon can accompany it, if required. There are some good alternatives, using the Rockefeller inspiration, such as the Scampi Rockefeller shown here.

A ricotta cheese stuffed ravioli, with fresh and dried tomato and lemon olive oil


worked well with a Clandestino at this absinthe dinner in Malaysia.

Second and Third Courses

I'm not a cook, so I can only report what I've seen - and enjoyed - elsewhere. It seems that the herbal notes of an absinthe (especially the anise, the fennel and the grande wormwood) work especially well with the type of food dishes that work well with those plants. For instance, a salmon dish works well with fennel, so the classic absinthe drip cocktail works very well alongside salmon.


And this hollandaise sauce made with absinthe seems to go very well with roast beef. While a more robust dish - in this case a goat curry - works well with a more robust style of absinthe, 



served here in the Calmer: Angélique Absinthe, dill, cucumber, elderflower and cava blended with crushed ice.

This Casserole de Poulet with pan-fried spatzle, glazed shallot and carrot was accompanied by a classic fountain-served Angélique absinthe.

Desserts

Lots of options here!

When I enjoyed a Crème Brûlée, as served in the café near the Artemisia Distillerie in Couvet, it was the only time I have seen a Swiss distiller set fire to his absinthe. And it worked excellently.

At a UK absinthe event we enjoyed Fairy Delight: Coconut and Butterfly Absinthe Ice Cream with Fig Tarte Tatin ..


.. while my friends in Denmark seem to love pancakes made with absinthe egg nog!

Theatre

The absinthe ritual is a wonderful way to present it at dinner, and I was impressed to see an absinthe fountain bought to every table at one event. The absinthe balancier can be just as dramatic, even a little mesmerising, and doesn't stop love-struck diners looking into each other's eyes the way a fountain does. Theatre can go much further, however, and I love the way this UK restaurant prepared 



a pre-made Sazerac bottle to be shared by each couple, with a spray of absinthe added to each glass. Theatrical ... and it saved time since the restaurant did not have to make lots of sazeracs at the end of dinner.

And it's a nice touch to have all the plants available and some literature ..



Summary

Finally, how can an enterprising restaurant manager or owner organise such an event?

Firstly, talk to an absinthe company that has organised similar events in the past. Ideally try to find a company that can provide some different styles and make sure you have the opportunity to experiment with the products well in advance. 

As far as price is concerned, consumers do not expect absinthe to be cheap, so make sure you at least cover your costs. The events shown here (UK and USA) were both priced at around $ 60 (plus tax). Click on the photos to see the menus more clearly.




There are a few more absinthe and food suggestions shown on this ever-expanding Pinterest board. Hopefully there will be many additions to come.

And I would not be at all surprised if after future dinners I get the same reaction and feedback heard already. "I never knew you could do so much with absinthe," "That completely changed my view of absinthe," etc.

In the meantime, santé and .... bon appétit!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Lucid acquisition



Topline news about the sale/acquisition of Lucid, the first absinthe marketed in the USA since prohibition.

"Oregon-based Hood River Distillers has acquired Lucid Absinthe Supérieure from New York’s Viridian Spirits LLC for an undisclosed sum."

More news later as and when it emerges. At this stage, it is surprising to see no mention of this anywhere apart from on the well-respected Shanken News site.

No doubt absinthe connoisseurs will want to know what this means for the other brands sold by Viridian, i.e. Ted Breaux's Jades, as well as the people concerned. Viridian also helped launch La Clandestine in the USA in 2008, and although La Clandestine has subsequently moved to DC Craft Spirits, I am grateful for Viridian's early help.

Here are the press releases issued by the companies concerned:


Hood River Distillers, Inc. Acquires Lucid Absinthe Supérieure
Northwest’s largest importer of distilled spirits maintains expansion momentum, adds absinthe to
premium portfolio

HOOD RIVER, Ore. (March 15, 2013) – Continuing its national rise as an innovative leader in the spirits industry, Hood River Distillers, Inc. announced today its agreement with Viridian Spirits LLC to acquire Lucid Absinthe Supérieure. Lucid is the first genuine absinthe to be legally available in the United States in over 95 years. Launched in 2007, Lucid is an authentic absinthe crafted and distilled at the historical Combier Distillery, founded in 1834 in Saumur, France. Lucid is formulated by world renowned absinthe expert T.A. Breaux, and is distilled in strict accordance to traditional French methods.
“We are committed to offering a diverse portfolio of premium, quality spirits,” said Ronald Dodge, Hood River Distillers president and CEO. "All of our brands are rooted in history, heritage and authenticity, so the addition of Lucid to our brand roster is a natural fit. We look forward to its strong future in the U.S.”
Unlike many contemporary imitators, Lucid is naturally green in color and features a full measure of Grande Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium), green anise, sweet fennel, and other culinary herbs representative of
European traditions and historical absinthe. Each bottle of Lucid is carefully prepared by skilled craftsmen, using ancient copper absinthe alembics.
For more information about Hood River Distillers, Inc., visit www.hrdspirits.com or contact the sales and marketing office at 503.574.3693 or hrdsales@hrdspirits.com.

About Lucid
Launched in 2007, Lucid Absinthe Supérieure (SRP $59.99/750ml) was the first genuine absinthe made with Grande Wormwood to be legally available in the United States since 1912. Lucid is distilled in strict accordance to traditional French methods, in the historic Combier distillery (Loire Valley, France), founded in 1834 and designed by Gustave Eiffel. Lucid is distilled entirely from spirits and European whole herbs and uses no artificial additives, oils, or dyes. Lucid is ideal in both traditional and modern absinthe drinking methods. Visit Lucid at www.drinklucid.com.

About Hood River Distillers
Founded in 1934 and headquartered in Hood River, Ore., Hood River Distillers is the Northwest’s largest and oldest importer, producer, bottler, and marketer of distilled spirits. Pendleton Whisky, 1910 Rye Whisky, Broker’s London Dry Gin, SinFire Cinnamon Whisky, Yazi Ginger Vodka, ULLR Nordic Libation, HRD Vodka, Lucid Absinthe Supérieure, and the complete line of Monarch distilled spirits are just a few of the company’s brands distributed across the country. Hood River Distillers is a member of the Century Council and promotes responsible drinking habits. For more information, visit www.hrdspirits.com.

LUCID ABSINTHE, THE BRAND THAT BROKE THE BAN, ACQUIRED BY HOOD RIVER DISTILLERS


March 18, 2013 / New York:  Viridian Spirits, LLC today announced the sale of Lucid Absinthe Supérieure to Hood River Distillers, Inc. effective immediately.  Lucid Absinthe is the brand that ‘broke the ban’ after Viridian’s founders lobbied the U.S. government, making absinthe legal in the U.S. as of 2007.  Developed from 19th century absinthe recipes by T.A. Breaux and still hand-crafted in antique copper pot stills, Lucid is made from whole European herbs at the Gustave Eiffel-designed Combier distillery in France’s Loire Valley, without any artificial colors or flavors, making it -- by historical definition -- one of the most authentic absinthes available today.  Lucid is also the world’s best selling absinthe, sold in all 50 U.S. states and throughout the world.

Lucid’s combination of being first to market, the quality in the bottle, its eye-catching packaging which pays homage to Toulouse-Lautrec’s iconic “Le Chat Noir” painting, and dedicated, clever sales and marketing campaigns over the years earned Lucid its enviable position as the absinthe category leader.  This independent brand is a classic David vs. the Goliath brands that are part of much larger, multi-national companies.

Jared Gurfein, a corporate lawyer and co-founder of Viridian who spearheaded the effort to overturn the Federal ban says, “We are happy that Lucid is going to a great home with Hood River Distillers, and will always have the brand in our hearts.  We were very proud to make history and shape the spirits industry when we overturned the ban.”   Co-founder and industry veteran Jonathan Bonchick says, “To achieve what we achieved as an independent brand on a reasonably small investment is really impressive, and simply speaks to the quality of the product.”  Co-founder Eddie Soleymani says, “For Jared and myself, Lucid was our first foray into spirits.  We were fortunate to enter the industry with an historical accomplishment and a successful product – no small feat in the face of the worst recession in a generation.”   Jared and Jon are already working on their next project, which they intend to be “another groundbreaking achievement,” while Eddie is continuing his entrepreneurial career with several other startup ventures both within and outside of the spirits business.

Established in 1934 in Hood River, Oregon, Hood River Distillers began by making fruit wines and brandies from the apples, pears, and berries that were going to waste as excess production from the valley’s abundant harvests.  Located beside the Columbia River with majestic Mt. Hood as its backdrop, Hood River Distillers has been at its current bottling facility since 1968.  The largest and oldest importer, producer, bottler, and marketer of spirits in the northwest – a particularly strong market for absinthe – the company’s portfolio includes Pendleton Whisky, SinFire Cinnamon Whisky, and Broker’s London Dry Gin, among others.  “The groundbreaking advancements Lucid achieved in the U.S. is something we have admired and respected for some time now,” said Ronald Dodge, Hood River Distillers president and CEO. “We are proud to have the history that comes with this product included in our portfolio of premium, heritage brands, and we’re excited about its future.”
In closing, the typically understated Breaux says:  “I greatly enjoyed working with Viridian, and look forward to working with Hood River Distillers.”





Thursday, 14 March 2013

Absinthe Antiques


There is no hidden significance in my use of the above photo in an article called "Absinthe Antiques!" From left to right, it shows me, Kamal Mukherjee of DrinkUp NY, Scott MacDonald (more about him in a second), and Maxwell Britten of Maison Premiere. We're at Maison Premiere here. It's a rare photo showing four absinthe "movers and shakers," none of whom seem to be drinking absinthe. To be fair to us (and our livers), some of us had started drinking absinthe a little earlier (Maison Premiere's Happy Hour offer of $1 oysters is a must) and some of us would be seen drinking absinthe cocktails a few hours later in Battery Park!

This was the first time one of the most important US absinthe retailers (Kamal) had met with one of the most important US absinthe mixologists (Maxwell). It was also the first time I had met with fellow absinthe forum member, Scott, and it is always great to find fellow absinthe lovers several thousand miles from home. Scott makes and designs guitars for a living (what a nice job!) and indulges his love of hand-crafted absinthe and the paraphernalia surrounding absinthe in many of his spare time moments. And now he is becoming well-known in his own right as the author of Absinthe Antiques: A Collection from la Belle Époque.


Scott kindly arranged an advance digital copy of the revised edition of Absinthe Antiques for me a few weeks ago, and I have been enjoying it enormously. If some people can derive a lot pleasure drinking absinthe by feeling that they are enjoying history (and absinthe has more than its fair share of history), then what better way to enjoy that history by drinking absinthe in antique glasses, using antique spoons, antique pourers etc? Sadly, however, while most of my readers can access good absinthe at a variety of prices, it is not possible for all of us to enjoy drinking them using antiques. Which is where Scott's book comes in. In sumptuous details, he shares with us an "orgy" of antiques, from fountains


through spoons


 and glasses,


and many, many other types of advertising ephemera that you need to read about and to see to understand.

All with just the right amount of accompanied text to get the reader involved in the subject!

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that this is the revised edition. However, it's much more than just "the Director's Cut." At 221 pages with more than 300 photographs, it is more than twice as long as the first edition. This also has new chapters on postcards, art, antique bottles, the Pontarlier Museum's absinthe exhibit and the absinthe antiques market at the Absinthiades (sorry to say, Scott, that with the new Absinthe Museum opening in the Val-de-Travers in 2013, you may need to add a section on that too!).

I asked Scott what was his vision of the book, and his reply was illuminating. "What seems to happen for many reading it is this: they come away with a deeper understanding of what absinthe is and was, despite it being a book about the pieces used in its service. It's almost as if it is a round-about way of seeing absinthe through the eyes of its history. The spirit of the Belle Époque is clear in these antiques, as is the romantic way I feel about them."

And, to me, it's clear that Scott's vision has been achieved here.

To describe Absinthe Antiques as a coffee table book might be accurate, but it doesn't do the book justice. Yes, it's a great book to have at home to dip into from time to time. But it's also one of those rare books in which the passion of the author for his subject is clear on every page. You can see Scott's love for his antiques in the way he has organised his compositions ... the backgrounds, the lighting, the shots themselves and the whole layout of the book.

And at a time when many things are becoming smaller (iPad minis etc), it's nice to find it's a big book too, as this photo makes clear (11" x 8.5," so 17" wide when opened).


Two final comments.

Since it's a book about antiques, it might have been interesting to have told the reader how much the items shown actually cost (or maybe a range of costs). That would have made it an even more useful reference work, although I know it is not always easy to put an accurate value on antiques. And maybe the prices would have scared people! I put this point to Scott, and his eloquent response was that he did not want to talk about something that has nothing to do with the spirit and original purpose of the antiques. He prefers to celebrate the antiques, rather than to demean them with a monetary value. In any case, "For the price of a couple of bottles of absinthe, one can easily find a full service for two of very nice spoons, saucers and glasses!"

A nice detail for the French (and those in the French-speaking part of Switzerland): the book includes a complete French translation (by Marc Thuillier) via an appendix.

And here's my favourite photo, which serves so well to illustrate the care Scott has taken with details: an Everett upright grand piano, born between 1900 and 1905 in Boston, birthplace of the vintage American absinthe Butterfly of the same era (that's NOT a pre-ban Butterfly here!).


Finally, reader, beware. Some of the more unscrupulous online absinthe "dealers" exaggerate the completely irrelevant "drug" side of absinthe. Absinthe Antiques, however, could well prove addictive, and you may find yourself scouring the markets for antiques every weekend ...

Availability details for the book are here.

Santé, Scott, for an excellent, enjoyable (but maybe addictive!) book.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Pernod Absinthe: "The Original Recipe"


Almost three years after the April Fool's Day blogs (mine and the original French spoof) about Pernod bringing back the original Pernod Fils, it looks like this - or something like it - may eventually be happening. On March 5th, 2013, the TTB issued their approval of the following labels:



Absinthe lovers will note the inclusion of the words "The Original Recipe," the fact that Pernod clearly states that their 1805 distillery is France's first absinthe distillery (and not the first absinthe distillery in the world which was in Switzerland a few years earlier), the mention of plants being distilled in wine alcohol, and the disappearance - at last - of the artificial colours that have been in Pernod Absinthe up to now.

I, for one, am delighted that Pernod have at last removed the artificial colours. Several other high volume absinthes still use artificial colours, and maybe this will force them to ditch them too. Artificial colours are a short-cut that provides a cheaper cost and a sub-standard product. Companies using them have had an unfair cost advantage over those companies that have chosen to make traditional absinthe in the original way.

In fact, I tasted what I was told was the new Pernod product a few weeks ago, and it was clearly a significant improvement on the current product.

Pernod's new, old recipe may well herald improved standards globally in the category and the consumer is the ultimate winner!

UPDATE: July 5, 2013.

I wrote above: "I, for one, am delighted that Pernod have at last removed the artificial colours. Several other high volume absinthes still use artificial colours, and maybe this will force them to ditch them too. Artificial colours are a short-cut that provides a cheaper cost and a sub-standard product."

And now (surprise, surprise), the first French post-ban absinthe becomes the first to copy Pernod in ditching its artificial colours.

One wonders what took them so long ...





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!"