"As a ritual, absinthe has an unmistakable allure."
When absinthe was legalized in the States in 2007, it exploded onto the cocktail scene. Its rumored hallucinogens, its illicit thrill, its glamorous history, weaving through French radicalism and Bohemian culture—and a high alcohol content to boot. What wasn’t to love?
Within weeks, New York bartenders were drowning every drink imaginable in the green stuff, turning out Absinthe Sazeracs and Absinthe Punches and, God help us, "Flaming Absinthe Mojitos." But caught in the cocktail frenzy, many self-proclaimed Green Fairy fanatics never got a chance to taste, well, absinthe.
Uptown at L’Absinthe Brasserie-Restaurant, chef and proprietaire Jean-Michel Bergougnoux takes the spirit seriously. As befitting the restaurant’s name, his absinthe list is extensive, with twelve varieties spanning France, Switzerland, and the United States.
The menu may be somewhat over-conceptualized—dubbed L’Heure Verte, or “The Green Hour,” after the time when Parisians would once crowd bars for their evening absinthe fix. But it’s clear that Bergougnoux puts a great deal of care into absinthe service and selection. And L’Absinthe, a quintessential bistro—as theatrically French as Balthazar, though without the Soho scene—is a refreshingly low-key place to enjoy it.
Your standard roster of spirits, clocking in around 80 proof, can be enjoyed neat or on the rocks. But absinthe is just too strong—ranging from 90 to 150 proof. Depending on the variety and the ABV, one part absinthe is usually diluted with between three and five parts ice water, with a lump of sugar to sweeten.
While drinking absinthe became highly ritualized, the basic logic behind the process is simple: combine the liquor, sugar, and water in an effective (and elegant) way. Sugar dissolves in water much more easily than it does in alcohol, so those elements must combine first.
At L’Absinthe, or any proper absinthe service, you'll start with about a half-ounce of liquor (or a bit more for stronger constitutions). Depending on the brand, it will be a translucent blue, green, greenish-brown, or even clear.
A lump of sugar is placed on the special carved spoon, and suspended over the glass of absinthe.
The glass is then placed under a spigot of the fountain, which releases a slow trickle of ice water. The stream of water dissolves the sugar, and that solution drips into the absinthe glass below. Upon first contact with water, the absinthe instantly turns milky and opaque, in the manner of a diluted pastis.
The proper amount of water varies with the brand—harsher varieties, often the more alcoholic, require a greater dilution. But too much will mute the herbal flavors of a good absinthe. While any absinthe must have fennel, anise, and wormwood—the spirit's three essential elements, dubbed "The Holy Trinity"—additional herbs vary. Different brands might incorporate star anise, juniper, mint, tarragon, and more. The French Le Tourment Vert, for instance, incorporates sage, rosemary, and eucalyptus; the pleasingly subtle La Clandestine, on the other hand, allows the anise to come through more strongly.
From L’Absinthe's extensive list, several stood out. The Swiss-made Kübler was among the least aggressive, but most complex: faint hints of mint and coriander, noticeably bright, with a long, pleasant finish. The Provence-distilled Grand Absente, while sharper, displayed a similar multiplicity of flavor. And the Lucid—the cat-eyed black bottle now on many Manhattan bar shelves—was a surprising contender, with a dominant, but not overwhelming anise flavor.
As a ritual, absinthe has an unmistakable allure. There's something mesmerizing about watching the slow drip of ice water onto the suspended sugar cube—and with a liquor so potently alcoholic, it's not a bad thing that each new drink takes a few minutes to prepare. Strictly speaking, the perfect Art Deco fountain (or perfect Art Deco dining room) aren't necessary ingredients to enjoy absinthe. Well-chosen spirits and knowledgeable staff, on the other hand, are. Those looking for a show-stopping drink can stay downtown with the flaming mojitos. But for a real taste of absinthe—the liquor, and the experience—L'Absinthe may be your best bet.