One of the first articles I ever wrote for my site was about Absinthe, which explored the relationship between Absinthe and the literary and visual masters who became famous in the 1920s Parisian salon scene. (I was fascinated with Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Co. at the time.)
Greats like Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso were into—some say heavily into—the consumption of Absinthe, so much so that they incorporated it into some of their works, turning the spirit into a muse of sorts. Some say their probable addiction to the drink was the reason for their genius or even artistic madness which gave rise to the myth of the “green fairy” that supposedly drove drinkers to a certain level of insanity.
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The association between these artists and Absinthe is as indelible as the ink and paint of their masterpieces, which some Absinthe historians credit as the reason for the spirit developing a terrible reputation. It got so bad that Absinthe was banned from several countries for a greater part of the 1900’s.
It was a sad development, considering that the original purpose of Absinthe was medicinal in nature. It was developed by the French doctor Pierre Ordinaire in 1792 as an elixir, and was used largely by French troops as medication against malaria and stomach issues. Tasting good, it started to gain popularity along with the rise of the artsy Parisian café, consumed as an afternoon beverage before dinner.
Then came the cases of overconsumption, the reported mixing of opiates for a more intoxicating drink, and studies that suggested thujone, found in minute traces in Absinthe, shared the same chemical structure as THC, and Absinthe was all but gone. In truth, there is little evidence that Absinthe contained a hallucinogenic in the bottle. Rather there is more literature suggesting that a drinker himself put said opiates in his glass for a stronger effect.
With countries lifting the ban as recently as 2007 (with more stringent rules, further guaranteeing the improbability of any unwanted chemical added to the spirit), the revival of the drink began and a new generation has started to discover Absinthe beyond the myths.
Absinthe is an anise-flavored spirit whose taste is derived from its “holy trinity”: Grande Absinthe (wormwood), green anise, and fennel. Variations in recipes lie in the other botanicals a maker chooses to use. The better quality versions have no artificial ingredients added to it and are naturally white or green. In fact, naturally green Absinthe loses its color if exposed to heat, as opposed to those with added artificial coloring.
A good example of proper Absinthe makers who emphasize quality is La Maison Fontaine. They make handcrafted “ultra premium artisan Absinthe” distilled in the oldest Absinthe stills in the world found in Pontarlier, France. The region is famous for its rich history with Absinthe and a unique wormwood, the Pontarlier Grande Absinthe.
In a wonderfully conducted masterclass recently held at Salon de Ning in The Peninsula Manila, La Maison Fontaine’s CEO Sven L. Olsen gave a primer on Absinthe as well as the brand. He also introduced us to its three variants:
La Maison Fontaine Blanche is lauded as the world’s most awarded blanche (or white) Absinthe. It is both sweet and refreshing, and has intense floral notes with a touch of citrus fruits.
La Maison Fontaine Verte is the brand’s take on the green fairy, or la fée verte. A spirit with pronounced herbal and peppery notes, it is made out of Pontarlier-grown Grande Absinthe and natural herb coloration.
La Maison Fontaine Chocolat was based on a “hand-written recipe for Crème de Cacao” in the distillery’s 1920s recipe book. It was crafted using Pontarlier-grown Grande Absinthe and an infusion of chocolates. It was very interesting in that the chocolate and anise flavors were equally perceptible and seamlessly blended.
Guest bartender Timothée Becqueriaux (awarded as one of Hong Kong’s top 25 bartenders and currently working in Highline at the Ascott, Shanghai) served as the bar’s guest mixologist, where he used La Maison Fontaine Absinthe in several cocktails, including the Green Cobbler, Femme Fatale, Trinité, and Artemik Punch.
For the masterclass, he also showed us how to traditionally prepare Absinthe using an Absinthe fountain, a sugar cube, and a slotted spoon.
Olsen explains the preparation: “The classic French Absinthe ritual involves placing a sugar cube on a flat perforated spoon, which rests on the rim of the glass containing a measure or ‘dose’ of absinthe. Iced water is then very slowly dripped on to the sugar cube, which gradually dissolves and drips, along with the water, into the absinthe, causing the green liquor to louche into an opaque opalescent white as the essential oils precipitate out of the alcoholic solution. Usually three to four parts water are added to one part of 68% absinthe.”
For those intrigued by Absinthe, you can try La Maison Fontaine at the following bars: Salon de Ning in The Peninsula Manila, The Back Room at Shangri-La at the Fort, Dr. Wine and Kartel Rooftop in Poblacion, The Curator and Mandalay Cigar and Whisky Bar in Legaspi Village, and Bank Bar in BGC.
La Maison Fontaine Absinthe available at www.winedepot.com.ph
Gail Sotelo has a WSET Level 3 Award in Wines and Spirits. She is a wine consultant, blogger, and lecturer. She owns the drink blog 2shotsandapint.com which aims to make wine and other drinks accessible to everybody, and holds classes at Enderun Colleges.