Is there any liquor with a reputation as misleading as absinthe? Sure, it may be a hip, edgy cocktail ingredient today, but not long ago it was blamed for everything from Van Gogh slicing off his ear to Ernest Hemingway moving to Idaho to the L.A. Rams' 1992 season.
America's ban on importing absinthe has only been lifted since 2007, but since then bartenders have been busy rediscovering cocktails that make use of the green stuff, like the Sazerac or the Corpse Reviver No. 2. At Z Cuisine's À Côté Bar A Absinthe, a local version of the spirit reinvigorates a classic cocktail.
For those not in the know, the component in absinthe that fueled the legend of the Green Fairy is thujone, a compound in wormwood also found in plants like coriander and tarragon. Sure, ingest enough thujone and you could catch a case of delirium, start seeing fairies and Abe Lincoln in the nude. But even in true absinthe, very little thujone survives the distilling process. You'd get fatal alcohol poisoning before you cut off your ear or anything. Ain't that reassuring?
The wonders of modern science have cleared absinthe of its alleged crimes, but too late to save it from widespread bans across the world. Fueled by sensationalistic stories of murder and debauchery, the Green Fairy provided another convenient scapegoat for temperance activists in the twentieth century.
The byproduct of this hysteria was giving absinthe the kind of bad-boy cache that no amount of money could buy. And the mesmerizing "La Louche" ritual of preparing absinthe separates the drink from its staid cousins in the liquor cabinet. The act of dripping water into the drink releases its essential oils, giving the green drink a hallucinatory sheen. Most absinthe purists agree that drinking it straight up is for chumps and particularly eccentric alcoholics.
Eli Kerlin, bar manager at the art noveau-styled À Côté, doesn't worry about the drink's sordid past. "We just focus on bringing in the best quality absinthe we can find," he says. His personal favorite, and the favorite of his customers, is Redux absinthe from Golden's own Golden Moon Distillery. Considered against À Côté's spread of the finest European and American absinthe, Kerlin still puts Steven Gould's formulation on top. "I couldn't say enough good things about Steven's absinthe. It's far and away our top seller," he says.
Redux's slightly anise-forward flavor and strong body make it a good inclusion in the bar's version of the venerable Brunelle cocktail ($12), a simple lemon and absinthe drink with a mysterious cloudy green color. Kerlin dials up the absinthe in his version, so put the knives back in the drawer -- just in case.
Ingredients: 2 oz. absinthe .5 oz. lemon juice .25 oz. organic agave (to taste)
Combine ingredients in ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake, strain and serve in martini glass with a lemon twist. Remember that the voices in your head commanding you to stab things are probably imaginary.
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With every installment of Coming of Age with 21 Drinks, I'll be featuring a cocktail recipe cooked up by me or the bar itself. Have a suggestion for a place I should visit? Post it below.