Absinthe: a matter of style

Brasserie BlancEducation and new products are helping to grow the appeal of absinthe, reports Mark Ludmon

When Soho House Group took some of its top bartenders to New York a little over a year ago, their trip took in Maison Premiere, a bar in the boho neighbourhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The “Oyster House and Cocktail Den” was opened in 2011 by Joshua Boissy, partly inspired by Parisian cafés and the bars of old New Orleans. Since then, its list of premium absinthes has grown to 26, with about half coming from the US and the rest from Switzerland and France. Along with its absinthe fountain and cocktails, it was an eye opener for Jay Newell, bars manager of Soho House and Café Boheme in London. “I was inspired so much by their offering,” he says.

Now, the absinthes behind the bar at Soho House are more premium, led by La Clandestine from Couvet in Switzerland. He worked with La Clandestine’s distributor, Distillnation, to provide training for the bar staff and develop cocktails. He created the Mother’s Ruin, which is made with fresh lime juice, house-made grapefruit sherbet, Bombay Sapphire gin, apricot liqueur and La Clandestine, shaken with ice and strained into a classic goblet glass. “We are looking at doing more with absinthe,” Jay adds. “It is a real talking point to interact with our members.”

La Clandestine is one of a handful of premium, small-batch Swiss and French absinthes that have arrived in the UK over the past few years. While it remains a niche category, absinthe has become a must-stock item in cocktail bars, with a handful putting together more substantial lists such as the Nightjar in Old Street, London, and Bond No 7 in Leith, Edinburgh.

However, it is not in the long-term interests of absinthe for it to grow too quickly, claims Alan Moss, who looks after the sales development of La Clandestine in the UK and overseas. “We don’t want exponential growth of the category because we will end up with people not serving or drinking it in the right way and we will be back to where we were 10 years ago,” he explains. “We like to be able to train staff wherever we can.”

This includes explaining the different styles of absinthe. La Clandestine’s distillery’s flagship product is the clear “Bleue” La Clandestine, at 53 per cent ABV, but it has also developed the green Angélique Verte Suisse, a more rounded full-bodied spirit with a reduced anise taste and a higher ABV of 68 per cent. The brand’s owner Artemisia has also joined with retailer Absinthe Devil to launch Butterfly, based on an American recipe from Boston in the early 1900s, with citrus peel giving a spicy edge to the anise.

More products are set to be available this year including La Clandestine Barrique, which is aged in oak barrels for more than five years, making it smoother with notes of vanilla. They are also looking at introducing the rich, creamy La Clandestine Sabayon, mixing the absinthe with egg, inspired by the French version of the Italian dessert, zabaglione.

The two core styles are reflected in the Enigma range, owned by Liqueurs de France and produced in Fougerelles, available as the clear Enigma Blanche and the green Enigma Verte. Another traditional absinthe is Absente 55 from Distilleries de Provence, distributed in the UK by Emporia Brands, which is a traditional green absinthe with spicy notes.

Traditional French recipes inspired John McCarthy, head distiller at Adnams in Suffolk, to create two English absinthes last year. The smooth Adnams Absinthe Verte, with an ABV of 66 per cent, is the most traditional, with aromas of anise, fennel and lemon balm, while Adnams Absinthe Rouge, also at 66 per cent, is full of flavours of anise, fennel and coriander but has an added hint of hibiscus flowers to give it a ruby-red colour and more subtle fruit flavours. The first batches sold out in seven months, so more are due to be released later this year.

The variety of flavour profiles within the category are demonstrated in the Jade Liqueurs range developed by Ted Breaux to re-create authentic absinthes of the past. Made at the Combier Distillery in Saumur in France, the four products include the smooth and fresh Nouvelle-Orléans, at 68 per cent ABV, and the PF 1901, also at 68 per cent, which is based on a Pernod Fils absinthe and named after the year in which the original Pernod Fils distillery in Pontarlier, France, caught fire.

La Maison Fontaine, a clear “blanche” absinthe from Pontarlier, has played a leading role in getting absinthe understood better by both bartenders and consumers in the UK through distributor Jenny Gardener. After focusing on the one style over the past three years, it has now introduced a classic green absinthe, La Maison Fontaine Verte with rich herbal and peppery notes. More adventurously, it has launched a chocolate absinthe liqueur, inspired by a 1920s crème de cacao recipe found at the distillery, called La Maison Fontaine Chocolat.

Last year saw the introduction of a lighter Swiss-style blanche to the popular La Fée range, developed by absinthe historian Marie-Claude Delahaye and La Fée managing director George Rowley. It provides the brand with a cross-section of different styles from the premium Parisienne at 68 per cent ABV to the Czech-style Absinth Bohemian which has a lower anise content. At the top end, there are the ultra-premium XS Française and XS Suisse while, for the mainstream market, the NV Absinthe Verte is aimed at the 18 to 25 market who enjoy it in a bomb serve.

While NV has been growing sales at bars for students and young people, the Parisienne and the Blanche have been embraced by high-end bars, says La Fée brand manager Nick Barker from distributor Cellar Trends. “The overall outlook for absinthe looks great at the moment,” he says. “During visits to bars there is a thirst for knowledge and understanding about La Fée and also the absinthe category, supported by the rise of the absinthe bars in the UK.”

Cellar Trends continues to support La Fée in the student market with promotional items and branded equipment while, to support the launch of the Blanche, it released 100 hand-made classic fountains. They have been installed on the Art Deco bar at the new-look Café Royal Hotel bar in London’s West End which was once frequented by many absinthe-drinking artists and writers of the late 19th century.

Two contrasting styles of absinthe are available from UK drinks company Hi-Spirits which offers the green Louche Absinthe, distilled in France with an ABV of 50 per cent, and the Czech-style Sebor Absinth at 55 per cent. The latter is made according to the central European tradition of macerating the spirit with the wormwood and other botanicals and then filtering it.

With both absinthes winning awards, Hi-Spirits chairman Jeremy Hill says there is a place for both styles behind the bar. “Sebor helped to pioneer the UK absinthe revival more than a decade ago, and there is a loyal following, catered for by bars which offer the traditional absinthe ritual and premium cocktails such as the Sazerac,” he says. “However, there are also many spirits drinkers who have a broad cocktail repertoire but are cautious about absinthe, just as there are mainstream bar operators who are reluctant to stock the pure spirit, often because they aren’t sure they have front-of-house staff with the skills to serve absinthe drinks.”

Jeremy believes there are opportunities to open up the category through investment and innovation to broaden its appeal. Last year, Hi-Spirits added an absinthe flavour to its Antica Sambuca range with an ABV of 38 per cent. “Consumers in the 18- to 35-year-old demographic, the ‘big night out’ market, are important to the bar trade. Absinthe has the indulgent appeal they are looking for but, if its high ABV is a deterrent, more mid-strength, flavoured drinks are what’s needed, whether through new product development or a wider range of serves.”

Case study: Brasserie Blanc

Brasserie Blanc in London’s Covent Garden specialises in absinthe at its stand-alone Bar Blanc where it lists Jade 1898 VS, Vieux Pontarlier, La Maison Fontaine, Enigma, Pernod Absinthe and La Fee’s XS, Parisienne, Bohemian and Blanche. An absinthe-themed mural has been created with Pernod Absinthe, while absinthe fountains are available for the traditional serving ritual. Alongside absinthe classics such as Corpse Reviver No 2 and a Sazerac, there is a twist on Pernod Absinthe’s signature Green Beast cocktail (pictured) called the Green Monster, made with Pernod Absinthe, cucumber, mint, lemon juice and soda plus Angostura Bitters on top.

Case study: Brompton Bar & Grill

Customers at London’s Brompton Bar & Grill are encouraged to go on an “Absinthe Journey” at the end of their meals as an alternative to dessert. This involves an absinthe fountain being brought to the table for diners to learn about how to drink the spirit. It follows the conversion of the basement into a bar specialising in absinthe, including absinthe cocktails, two years ago. As well as classics such as a Sazerac and Corpse Reviver No 2, it offers an Absinthe Daiquiri – an aged rum mixed with Campari, lime juice, sugar syrup and absinthe.

First published in the February 2013 issue of Bar magazine.

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