Absinthe’s history mirrors the way it’s meant to be prepared: a mix of the misunderstood and the legitimately unusual. For most of its existence, the spirit has been slandered, ostracized and, in rarer cases, revered. It’s been dragged across borders, masqueraded as other liquors, aspersed with hallucination claims and — since its ban was lifted in America in 2007 — the spirit has been secretly embracing it all.
“There’s a tradition. There’s a lure to the preparation of absinthe”, says Will Elliot, a bartender at Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere, an oyster and cocktail den with the allure of a New Orleans haunt. Absinthe, at 68 percent alcohol, is a compacted spirit. Once diluted with water, the essential oils and flavors loosen to reveal the drink’s nuances. Preparing an absinthe drink involves combining botanicals, flavors and aromatic elements, Elliot says. “It’s not the sort of spirit that you just toss back.” As for lighting it on fire, which often is brought up in discussions on how absinthe’s served, “You wouldn’t…that’s really damaging the alcohol”, Elliot says. He got behind the bar to debunk some myths and walk us through two traditional absinthe drinks — a drip and a frappe — and a new twist on an old cocktail.
Household items — slotted spoons, forks — can be used to make absinthe drinks. You don’t need specialized barware. But absinthe utensils are affordable and available at stores like Cocktail Kingdom, which Elliot suggests is a leader in absinthe paraphernalia.
1 Get Started. A Pontarlier is small glassed chalice used for drinking absinthe. If you don’t have one, fear not. A wine glass is an acceptable alternative. Absinthe is an aromatic spirit, so basically you want a glass you can get your nose into. Measure the absinthe using the bigger end of a Japanese graduated jigger — effectively it’s just a little larger than a shot glass — and pour into the Pontarlier.
2 Rest a slotted spoon on top of the glass. A small slotted fork is an acceptable fallback. Place a Domino sugar cube on top of the spoon.
3 Slowly drip cold water onto the sugar cube. It’ll dissolve and mix with the absinthe below. Ideally an absinthe fountain should be used, but cold water can be slowly poured over the sugar cube as well. A common misconception is that absinthe fountains drip absinthe — they don’t. It’s just water. Dripping the water slowly gives the liquids time to mix.
4 Even out the drink. Diluting the absinthe will bring it to a louche, or a cloudy consistency. There should be an evenness to the drink, which is why you don’t want to just pour water on top. Once it’s about one part absinthe, five parts water, it’s good to go.
1 Fill a shaker with a handful of crushed ice. Essentially, Elliot says, this is “just absinthe with crushed ice, and a little bit of sugar.” You don’t need a dripper for this one.
2 Pour a jigger of absinthe into the shaker. Add a sugar cube. Shake. The act of shaking mixes the ice and absinthe and dilutes the drink. “I like to shake it with not very much ice, but shake it for quite a while”, Elliot says, “You really want a lot of dilution. A good indicator is when it frosts up on the shaker’s outside.”
3 Pour the drink into a Pontarlier. Packing more crushed ice on top of the drink will further chill it. It also encourages a person to drink slower, and to better taste the drink’s flavors.
“I prefer it with lighter fare, so earlier in the meal. I don’t see it as an after dinner drink. I see some classic absinthe cocktails as after-dinner drinks, but as far as drinking, you know, drip or frappe, I would say less so. Yeah, I would say earlier in the meal, or by itself.
“People get really caring, happy, or crazed [about the absinthe they drink], and I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s good to think broadly about that kind of thing. Also, most of all, absinthe by itself, you know, it’s delicious. It warrants that much attention.”
– Will Elliot
There’s a wide variety of absinthe cocktails. Many mixed drinks also call for a splash of absinthe. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the star of the show, says Elliot. “But a touch of it in the cocktail can be really good.” There’s also “a classic cocktail called Death in the Afternoon, which is just a jigger of absinthe in a glass of Champagne.” Elliot even suggests that absinthe was originally dashed into Manhattans in Manhattan. He settled on making us a Sazerac, which was easy to prepare and delicious.
1 Add crushed ice to a glass. Since this is a cocktail, it doesn’t have to be a Pontarlier. A whiskey glass is perfectly acceptable.
2 Add a jigger of absinthe to the glass and stir. Elliot used a swizzle stick. Stirring does two things: chills the glass and allows the absinthe to louche.
3 Bitters and syrup. Add Peychaud bitters, the quintessential New Orleans bitters, and a quarter ounce of simple syrup.
4 Add rye whiskey. For the Sazerac, add a few ounces of rye whiskey. Elliot used two ryes: Rittenhouse and Old Overholt.
5 Stir. If the drink is too strong, the act of stirring melts ice and dilutes the drink further. Also, since this is a stirred drink and not served on ice, the more you stir, the colder the drink.
6 Pour and Garnish. Using a julep spoon, pour the drink into a fresh glass, separating the liquid from the ice. Finally, add a final aromatic element — a twist of Lemon.