Time for the Green Hour: the absinthe revival in the UK

Absinthe fountain from La Maison Fontaine at 22 BelowAfter nearly 100 years, absinthe is about to become legal again in France. The French Senate voted last month to lift the ban on what was once its national drink in the 19th century. But absinthe has been going through a renaissance in the UK since the late 1990s and even in France it has still been produced with the label of “a spirit made from extracts of the absinthe plant”.

Brands such as La Fée, La Maison Fontaine and Pernod Absinthe have been active in promoting absinthe in UK bars, reviving the classic serving ritual of the fountain (pictured) – a clear container full of ice and water with small taps that slowly drip the chilled water into a shot of absinthe, normally through a slotted spoon holding a sugar cube.

Charles Vexenat's Absinthe Opium Pipe
Fountains featured as part of a series of dinners organised by the Rebel Dining Society last year, supported by Pernod Absinthe. These kinds of consumer events help to educate consumers about the much-misunderstood spirit and dispel some of the myths such as the belief that absinthe was traditionally served using a flaming spoon – a ritual that was in fact invented in the 1990s by brands from the Czech Republic.

Last night, the first of the 2011 schedule of the Rebel Dining Society – dubbed “The Green Hour 2.0” – got under way upstairs from an art gallery tucked down a side street in Hackney. Alongside food created by chef Shay Ola, leading mixologists are devising absinthe cocktails to match the dishes. Last night it was Charles Vexenat who has already been working with Pernod Absinthe, creating its new signature serve, the Green Beast – absinthe, lime juice, small chunks of cucumber, water and ice, all stirred together and ideal for serving like a summer punch. Charles’s new creations for last night’s dinner included the Perfect Fairy, made by putting absinthe, crème de pêche, lemon juice, egg white and ice cubes through a blender and serving the drink with grated nutmeg on top. This was paired with boulangère potatoes of confit duck and duck breast.

Death in the Afternoon Revisited
Charles Vexenat's Death in the Afternoon Revisited
Charles also reworked Ernest Hemingway’s classic Death in the Afternoon cocktail for serving alongside Shay’s savoury macaroons, serving it up in a spoon as an absinthe jelly and champagne foam, topped with candied poppers. Another creative idea is his Absinthe Opium Pipe, served in an absinthe pipe, combining home-made pomegranate syrup with a mix of absinthe and water smoked with applewood. More dinners are to follow featuring mixologists such as Tony Conigliaro of 69 Colebrooke Row and Zetter Townhouse, Alistair Burgess of Hoxton bar Happiness Forgets and Matt Armitage of Bartechnics. The “Green Hour” was traditionally in France the time between 5pm and 7pm for drinking absinthe but the Rebel Dining Society proves you can drink it all night long and enjoy it with food.

Only a few days earlier, I had been sipping another absinthe – La Maison Fontaine – at Paramount bar at the top of Centre Point in London’s West End. This clear style of absinthe – sometimes called “bleue” – is produced in the spirit’s French home of Pontarlier and was developed using traditional methods by master distiller Dominique Rousselet and brand owner Metropolitan Spirits. It can be seen on Paramount’s new cocktail menu in La Fontaine Flower, created by bar manager Amanda Humphreys, who mixes the absinthe with St-Germain elderflower liqueur, lemon juice and orange bitters, served in a champagne flute topped up with Billecart-Salmon champagne.

Esprit d'Edouard from Jade LiqueursMaster distiller Ted Breaux is bringing his new range of absinthes into the UK under the banner of Jade Liqueurs, working with drinks distributor Jenny Gardener who led a tasting of them at Paramount. The four products are based on original recipes from the late 19th century and early 20th century which Ted has worked out through the magic of backward science. They include the complex and slightly sweet Esprit d’Edouard (72 per cent ABV), the smooth and fresh Nouvelle-Orléans (68 per cent ABV) and the Swiss-style VS 1898 (as in “Verte Suisse”, with an ABV of 65 per cent). The fourth is PF 1901 (68 per cent ABV) which is based on a Pernod Fils absinthe and named after the year in which the original Pernod Fils distillery in Pontarlier caught fire.

La Maison Fontaine is one of a number of brands that are part of a new series of absinthe tastings at 22 Below off Regent Street in London’s West End. Under bar manager Alessandro Paludet, a small selection of absinthes is being built up behind the bar, including La Maison Fontaine, Pernod Absinthe and La Fée, alongside their own home-made absinthe fountain. Some classic-style cocktails have also been added to the menu such as the Green Sour, made with Pernod Absinthe, cucumber, apple juice, lime juice, mint bitters and egg white. Mint bitters are also used along with La Maison Fontaine, mineral water and sugar for a La Maison Fontaine Old Fashioned.

Bond No 9 in Leith, EdinburghIt is not just London that is embracing the absinthe revival. Bond No 9 in Leith, Edinburgh, has created a new Absinthe Den – a space for up to 40 people to enjoy the spirit in an atmospheric setting. The bar has long specialised in French, Swiss and Czech absinthes since it opened over two years ago and has sourced traditional fountains and absinthe pipes, where the spirit is poured into a small bowl with ice and sipped through a connecting pipe. Bar staff are trained to explain absinthe to customers, and the bar has also set up an Absinthe Appreciation Society. “Absinthe is something you find in every bar but served properly in virtually none,” says co-owner Chris Flint. “People just take it as a shot but there’s a whole range of serves and styles.”

More information on the Rebel Dining Society at www.therebeldiningsociety.co.uk.

22 Below, 22 Great Marlborough Street, London W1F 7HU www.22below.co.uk

Paramount, Centre Point, 101-103 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1DD www.paramount.uk.net

Bond No 9, Commercial Street, Leith, Edinburgh, EH6 6LX www.bondno9.co.uk

Information on Jade Liqueurs at www.bestabsinthe.com.

Information on La Maison Fontaine at www.fontaineabsinthe.com

For more on the lifting of the absinthe ban, see the story on the BBC news website.

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