Sunday, 1 June 2014

"A cocktail is much improved by the addition of two or three drops of Absinthe."

James Fowler, World Class UK Bartender of the Year 2014

C.F. Lawlor's "The Mixicologist" provides one of the first versions of the Absinthe Suissesse (an adapted version of which I enjoyed last year at New York's Dead Rabbit):

The Mixicologist also contains the famous quote about absinthe in the title of this post: "A cocktail is much improved by the addition of two or three drops of Absinthe." Of course Lawlor's Suissesse contains far more than two or three drops, so don't feel limited by the quote!

Fast forward 119 years, and Gaz Regan writes in the Regan Report 2014 (quoted here) that absinthe is a "very important ingredient” in the bartender’s tool chest. “Apart from the fact that it pairs so well to both Scotch and to mescal — both known for their smoky characters — absinthe, when used judiciously, can bring fabulous nuances to cocktails that can be gotten from no other source.”

From time to time, I come across bartenders who are not fully convinced about absinthe. In some cases, that seems to be down to bad experiences bartenders have had with absinthe in the past, and that seems to be especially true in markets where the Czech-style of "absinth" appeared before the real absinthe that is now more globally dominant. Or they see that absinthe is burnt and/or shot in other bars, and they don't want to encourage practices like that in their own bar. 

So how can I convince bartenders and those making cocktails at home that absinthe can add so much to a cocktail? By quoting Lawlor and Regan? Well, that's one way, but "theory" is not as effective as "practice." And over the last month I have seen two great examples of world class practice (literally "World Class"), using absinthe in cocktails that have helped their creators win two of the top prizes in the cocktail world globally. 

I have written previously about the Maid in Cuba cocktail created by Tom Walker at The Savoy for the Bacardi Legacy competition. As Tom said, the inclusion of absinthe makes this a more mature and more interesting alternative to the mojito and the daiquiri, the main drinks which helped inspire the Maid in Cuba, and the audience certainly enjoyed the cocktail at our "Savoy's Green Fairy Secrets" seminar at Tales of the Cocktail 2013. 

Nine months later, I was one of many following the global final of the Bacardi Legacy competition on Facebook and was thrilled to read of Tom's victory (here's an interview with Tom about the competition and the cocktail). As I read the news unfold on Facebook, I remember thinking that the Maid in Cuba was not just an exceptionally good Bacardi cocktail, but that it was also probably the finest new cocktail with absinthe to come from the Savoy since Harry Craddock's Corpse Reviver #2. Of course there are other new cocktails with absinthe available at the Savoy including Erik Lorincz's Monet's Moment, but I suspect the Maid in Cuba is already much more famous. So I was delighted to see that the Maid in Cuba will appear in new editions of the Savoy Hotel Cocktail Book. And here's the proof (in more ways than one!):

Tom is a highly motivated, detail-obsessed bartender and maybe his time at the Savoy has given him a special understanding of absinthe. However Tom is definitely not unique in appreciating what absinthe can do for cocktails.

Today after a week of competition in London and in Hong Kong, the UK winner of the Diageo World Class competition was announced. James Fowler of The Larder House, Southbourne (near Bournemouth) has been a long-term fan of good absinthes, and hosted our first Absinthe Dinner at The Larder House on Valentine's Day, 2012. Later that year, he and Joel Solomon came to Boveresse for the world's largest Absinthe Festival. James told me that he uses as much absinthe as vodka in his restaurant and bar, a fascinating statistic, especially given that it is not positioned as an absinthe outlet.

James progressed through the early stages of Diageo's World Class with his speciality cocktail, Copper Colours. Here's the recipe:-

Mixing Glass filled to the top with fresh cubed ice
Add the following to the mixing glass in the order below:-
1.25 ml Butterfly Absinthe
20 ml Pacharan
20 ml Lepanto Olorosso Spanish brandy
40 ml Ketel One
Stir with bar spoon to chill & dilute. 50 revolutions.
Strain into chilled glass
Serve with Iberico Jamon, borage and burnt tangerine segment salad

(photo of James and his prize-winning cocktail from the Bournemouth Echo)

Over the course of a whole week in London and Hong Kong, James and the other finalists had to do far more than just preparing one cocktail (e.g. food pairing), but this speciality cocktail was a key element in James progressing to the later stages. James shows a keen appreciation of what absinthe can bring to cocktails (as well as to food), even if only in dashes. Congratulations, James!

Two great examples of prize-winning bartenders in the UK making good use of absinthe in amazing cocktails. But there are many more prize-winning bars around the world which feature absinthe as an important part of their mix. Here are just a few of the finalists from this year's Spirited Awards at the Tales of the Cocktail that make very good use of absinthe:

The Nightjar (London)
Big Easy, Covent Garden (London)
Dead Rabbit (New York)
The Anvil (Houston)
Cure and Hotel Bellocq (New Orleans)
Canon (Seattle)
Spare Room (Los Angeles)
Clive's Classic (Victoria)
Black Angel's (Prague)
Widder Bar and Old Crow (Zurich)

If you're a bartender and don't currently use good absinthe, maybe you could consider why do all these top bars (and many more) make such good use of absinthe. If you make cocktails at home and don't have absinthe, well, it's almost like being a cook without having salt and pepper.

Congratulations to Tom and James! Good luck to all the nominees at Tales of the Cocktail! And to all future potential prize-winners and those of you striving to make great cocktails at home!

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