In 2007, the U.S. government reversed its 95-year-old policy, once again allowing the sale of liquor products labeled absinthe into the country. Since then a slew of old and new brands hailing from France, Switzerland, Austria, and America have hit the market. All of them have less than ten parts-per-million thujone, the compound in wormwood that's dangerous in high doses but considered safe (and certainly nonhallucinogenic) at these small levels.
Many people do not realize that absinthe tastes like anise, fennel, or licorice, depending on your frame of reference. But bartenders do. They've been using it (and substitutes like Pernod and Herbsainte) in cocktails for more than a hundred years. Below are five cocktails that feature absinthe in different ways: as a primary flavor, as a rinsing agent, and even as breakfast.
Absinthe is usually very high in proof, clocking in at nearly 70 percent alcohol compared with 40 percent for most vodka, gin, and whiskey. It needs water to bring it down to drinking strength. That's the concept behind the Frappe, an easy way to transform the well-known Absinthe Drip into an iced drink. To make the basic Drip, simply add an ounce of absinthe to a glass, set a sugar cube atop a slotted spoon over the glass, and slowly drip icy cold water over the cube until it dissolves. Those absinthe fountains that you see in old pictures are full of cold water, not absinthe, and allow boozers to dilute the drink to their preferred level. The absinthe in the glass will "louche," or turn cloudy. Add three to five times as much water as absinthe, to taste.
Goat cheese and onion tarts
A rich cheese like goat cheese works well with absinthe, and the onions accentuate the spirit's savory herbaceousness.
Spiced tuna steaks with fennel and red peppers
The bold flavor of absinthe can stand up to steaks, burgers, and other hunks of meat. With this spicy tuna steak, the soft anise flavor is downright soothing.
What could be more decadent than absinthe and Champagne? Absinthe and Champagne and oysters. Death in the Afternoon is not only the name of a Hemingway book, it's also the author's name of a drink he contributed to a book of celebrity cocktail recipes in 1935. His instructions are: "Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly." I heartily recommend drinking less than five of these, and you may also try pouring the absinthe on top instead; some brands of absinthe will float for a time on the Champagne, and this makes a nifty visual effect.
Both this decadent oyster dish and the Champagne cocktail contain absinthe -- and loads of history.
Fennel- and dill-rubbed grilled salmon
Champagne works well with grilled or smoked salmon, and the fennel in absinthe matches the herb rubbed on the fish.
The Chrysanthemum Cocktail, adapted here from the classic Savoy Cocktail Book, is an unusual combination of dry vermouth, the liqueur Benedictine, and absinthe. Each of these ingredients has many herbs or spices as part of its recipe, and it's pretty amazing they don't clash when they come together. In absinthe, the three flavors most brands have in common are anise, fennel, and wormwood, though different varieties add everything from mint to stinging nettles.
The herbs and spices in the Benedictine -- including juniper, myrrh, saffron, aloe, arnica, and cinnamon -- would taste great mixed into the sliders.
Whole-wheat pasta with pecorino and pepper
Strong flavors like pecorino cheese and peppercorns demand an equally complex and savory set of flavors, as found in the Chrysanthemum.
Absinthe has a very strong flavor in addition to its high alcohol content, so most recipes don't call for very much of the alcohol. A large number of cocktails including the Sazerac, Corpse Reviver #2, and even some tiki drinks call for just a rinse of absinthe. It is poured into the glass, swirled, then discarded. But it still adds a layer of complexity, especially in the aroma, to the final cocktail. Use Peychaud's bitters if at all possible.
Rye twists with anise, fennel, and orange
This pairing plays with the duality of the rye (in whiskey and twists), fennel (in absinthe and bread), and citrus (in drink and food).
Gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce
A good Sazerac is a little sweet, but the rye whiskey is spicy. Reduce the sugar in the drink to better pair with the creamy Gorgonzola sauce in this dish.
In this cocktail, absinthe is paired with orgeat, an almond-flavored syrup. The egg white and cream give the drink a frothy, milkshake-like texture. (As with wormwood in absinthe, the danger of raw eggs in cocktails can be exaggerated.) In New Orleans, many people consider this a breakfast drink.
Twice-baked almond croissants
Sticking with the breakfast theme, we pair the almond in the orgeat with these almond croissants.
Poached eggs on artichoke bottoms with white truffle cream and mushrooms
Almond, orange, absinthe, and cream balance the dish's artichoke and truffle cream.
Camper English is a freelance cocktails and spirits writer for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Magazine, and Imbibe Magazine, and is the publisher of Alcademics.com.
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