Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Proper Application of Absinthe

Location: 823 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70116, USA
Here's something important: absinthe is a concentrate!

No one ever explained that to me before. The rumors and mythology around absinthe are multifarious and nebulous. Conversation about absinthe is choked with too many soi disant experts who are only repeating the first half-understood story they heard.

But I stopped by la Maison d'Absinthe, the Absinthe Museum on Rue Royale in the French Quarter, and I subscribe to the opinions of the charming lady behind the counter there as a suitable authority on the matter.

Among the many things I learned: Lucid is actually a respectable "starter" absinthe for beginners and is chemically similar to a recipe from the 1800s, so I'll stop looking down my nose at it. Pernod (pron. pair-NO) is indeed similar to absinthe, as is Chartreuse. Most importantly, absinthe is a concentrate that is intended to be diluted in water. Its ingredients and alcoholic content are so strong that it can actually damage the vocal folds and esophagus if drunk straight. That's a big thing I've been doing wrong.

How it's served is another point of contention. My first understanding was that you soak a sugar cube in absinthe and rest it on a slotted spoon, which rests on the glass of absinthe. You set the sugar cube on fire, let it drip into the glass, and when it's gone you stir it up quickly and knock it back. The most recent and authoritative information I've received contradicts this--and in fact, the Absinthe Museum sells stickers that represent an iconic burning of sugar cubes with the round, red NO symbol superimposing it. I'm not saying this practice is universally wrong, I'm suggesting it is a regional practice, certainly, but not how absinthe was originally enjoyed at the time the grape crops withered and wine production went down, allowing absinthe to rise to the fore.

Traditionally, you set the sugar cube upon the slotted spoon, which rests on a glass holding one ounce of absinthe. You run three ounces of cold water over the sugar, letting it dissolve and causing the herbal essences contained in the alcohol to release. This is evidenced by the drink turning from a deep, translucent green to a milky, opaque pale green, and the effect is called louching (pron. LOO-shing). Properly diluted, it is supposed to be a light, refreshing drink that relaxes the body yet retains the clarity of mind, and for this result it was celebrated by artists and creative types. It is also how the legal version of absinthe, Lucid, got its name.

I had to try this for myself. I don't have any sugar cubes on hand, so I used this bowl of unrefined sugar and a souvenir spoon rather than a more appropriate slotted spoon, of which I have three and through which this sugar would fall like rain. I have two bottles of Czech absinthe, one bitter and one slightly sweeter, and the woman at la Maison d'Absinthe warned me against Czech absinthe or any product which boasted high levels of thujone, and she mentioned something that sounded scandalous but I'm not clear on what it was so I shan't repeat it. But I dumped in a tsp of sugar and three ounces of cold water (looking back, I should've dissolved the sugar in the water first) and stirred it as well as I could.

The absinthe is still bitter on the edges of my tongue, but this drink is far and away the pleasantest glass of absinthe I have ever had. I regret all the straight absinthe I've knocked back or shared with friends, nescient of the proper serving method. I'll probably pick up a bottle of Lucid soon, then.

1 comment:

BATTLEFINCH said...

> You set the sugar cube on fire, let it drip into the glass, and when it's gone you stir it up quickly and knock it back.

i've never heard of this serving method.