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Absinthe: Meet the ‘Green Fairy’

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Absinthe Popularity Rises Worldwide

“The stories about green fairies are exactly that: Fairy tales,” bartender David Andrle says with a laugh and a Czech accent.

He’s standing behind the wood of Hemingway, the best kept secret of Prague’s bar scene, expertly preparing my first sip of absinthe. “Or perhaps they are more of a reflection of the absinthe of the early 1900s actually being cut with other substances? Either way, you have nothing to worry about here.”

Crossing the threshold of Hemingway Bar feels as though you’ve stepped back to the Prohibition era. Being a great bar, this transportive feeling is not a coincidence, but rather the result of smart design. The strapping mixologists don suspenders, pocket watches and sleeve garters and mostly keep to themselves. Or, at least that’s the case when an international journalist is sidled up to the bar. It has the perfect air of mystery in which one should experience absinthe “the real way,” which is exactly what I am there to do.

Available in verte and blanc varieties, real absinthe is the result of grape spirit distilled with a ‘trilogy of herbs’

With its proximity to what seems to be the epicentre of Prague’s tourism business, the Charles Bridge, you’d expect Hemingway to be overrun with travellers. But during my visits (of which there were three in just about as many days), the place was full of locals, the majority of whom were Czech. That must be why Prague’s streets are designed to be so discombobulating for those unaccustomed to them; they keep most of the tourists relegated to the main drags. Ironically though, one of the main goals of Andrle and fellow barman, Jakub Slaba, is to educate tourists — mind and palate — about the true beauty of this European spirit. So when visitors do find their way to this watering hole, they are in for a treat.

Available in verte and blanc varieties, real absinthe (and the distinction really must be made thanks to the endless rows of mouthwash-green souvenir store varieties available across the globe) is the result of grape spirit distilled with the “trilogy of herbs” — wormwood, anise and fennel. It is actually quite subtle, both in colour and in taste.

“The same absinthe can actually taste very different to different people,” Slaba says as he sets up one of the bar’s antique absinthe fountains. “That’s why there is no answer to the question, ‘What is the best absinthe?’ It all depends on your personal palate.”

That being said, if licorice isn’t a flavour you can tolerate, this is not the spirit for you.

Absinthe got a bad reputation as a result of all the debauchery in France during its rise in popularity in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. There’s no denying that painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his band of bohemian misfits knew how to party, but some circles believe the cognac and wine makers were so angered by the decrease in their sales as anise-flavoured spirits like Pernod and absinthe emerged, they began a smear campaign against it. By 1915 absinthe was banned in North America and many parts of Europe. In retrospect, the slander probably worked in absinthe’s favour in the long run. Tell people they can’t have something and they suddenly want it more than ever. Unfortunately, that also led to the rise of poorly made absinthes designed to capitalize on the hallucinogenic reputation (and sullying the name of the good stuff) when the ban was lifted late in the 20th century.

‘If it starts getting milky after only three drops, that’s not a good sign’

All the myths about absinthe trips were debunked in 2000 when New Orleans-based chemist and absinthe historian Ted Breaux examined sealed vintage bottles and found the amount of thujone, the so-called psychoactive compound in wormwood, were so trace they would pass modern regulations. In truth, absinthe is a strong drink, usually ranging from 50 to 70 per cent alcohol, but since the traditional method of consumption involves diluting with water and sipping, rather than a flaming sugar cube-infused shot, it’s really no more intoxicating than any other hard spirit on the market.

According to the guys at Hemingway, the best way to determine the quality of an absinthe is by how much water you can add before it starts to cloud.

“If it starts getting milky after only three drops, that’s not a good sign,” Slaba says. “As a rule of thumb, the longer it takes, the better the absinthe.” And while the flaming sugar cube is frowned upon (it actually brings out the bitterness), certain varieties do benefit from a hint of water-melted sugar. It once again comes down to taste, but most purists would decline.

Though absinthe’s popularity has been on the rise since the ’90s, it can still be a challenge to find the high-end varieties from countries of origin — France, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. To that end, Okanagan Spirits, based in Kelowna, B.C., began producing its own absinthe.

“We based our recipe on the traditional French methods. It’s a very faint green shade and comes in around 60%,” says Rodney Goodchild, Okanagan Spirits marketing director. “I like to drink it with a just a touch of water or surprisingly, in a mojito as a replacement for rum. Absinthe pairs wonderfully with the mint and citrus.”

Though I’ve yet to sample an absinthe mojito, I did spend many hours sipping Hemingway’s collection of anise-flavoured elixirs during my time in Prague (in the name of research, of course). While no elfin creatures appeared, I can say there is some magic to be found in that bar — if you can find it, that is.

National Post – Meghan Jessiman, Postmedia News

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