by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes
Absinthe has history. It's been labeled a dangerous drug. It's been outrageously popular. It's been banned in the United States and many European countries. Then again, given that the drink's been keeping extreme company (Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Eminem, Marilyn Manson ...), it's bound to have gathered a story or two.
Here are a few facts: Absinthe has no added sugar, so it's not a liqueur; it's a spirit. It contains wormwood and a number of aromatic herbs, which may include fennel, anise seed, star anise, hyssop, angelica root, coriander and more. The ingredients are always securely protected by distillers - including one in Chicago.
Ah, yes. That's the most important fact about absinthe: It's back.
In 2007, the ban was lifted and absinthe returned to stores, bars and glasses across America. That was welcome news to many people, including Derek and Sonja Kassebaum of North Shore Distillery. "We've been making [absinthe] since the start," says Sonja Kassebaum, "but we never thought we'd be able to sell it, 'cause it wasn't legal."
They made it because they liked it, and to test their skill. "It's a very complex spirit. It's regarded as a challenge, and difficult for a distiller to make well," she says.
According to master mixologist Charles Joly of the Drawing Room, 937 N. Rush, they're doing everything right. "The flavor's balanced, and I think it's pretty cool that a distillery out of Chicago is making something as good as or better than some of what's coming out of France and Switzerland," Joly says.
Kassebaum describes Sirène as a classic absinthe. "There's a whole bunch of stuff that gets called absinthe that isn't," she says. As to ingredients, she'll divulge this: "Anise, fennel and wormwood are the trinity."
Absinthe is a forward spirit. "It's got a pretty pronounced flavor," Joly says. Classically, absinthe was used to rinse the glass and then thrown out. "It was there as an accompanying note," he says.
Kassebaum agrees. "Just a small amount adds a little something extra, a little depth and complexity." Today, some bartenders put absinthe in small spray bottles - the kind sold in travel kits - and spray it across the tops of cocktails.
If you like the idea of using absinthe at the table, then try rinsing a martini glass with absinthe, pouring out the liquor, then using the glass to serve chocolate gelato or blood orange sorbet.
There's no fuss needed to make a good absinthe cocktail. "In the summertime, we often drink an absinthe frappe, which was the big drink in the day," Kassebaum says. That contains absinthe and simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar, heated over a low flame until the sugar melts). The amount you need depends on the size of the glass. Kassebaum uses a one-to-one ratio of water, and then adds 1/8 to 1/4 part of simple syrup.
At the Drawing Room, Joly uses absinthe with Aquavit, whisky, gin. "I think it's a very flexible spirit," he says. He's dedicated a drink to a piece of distilling equipment. The drink "pays homage to the beautiful, hand-hammered copper still that North Shore uses to create their line of spirits. They named her Ethel. She's a hell of a lady," he says.
They named their still. That's absinthe with a twist of whimsy. Neat.
1 1/2 ounces North Shore Aquavit
3/4 ounce Galliano l'Authentico
5 dashes North Shore Absinthe Sirene
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup
1 bar spoon orange marmalade (store-bought is fine)
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and shake well. Strain into a chilled coupe.
Use a vegetable peeler to cut a strip of orange skin. Squeeze over drink to express oil. Place in glass.
Charles Joly, the Drawing Room