Tired of going to the same bars over and over again, drinking the same old mojitos and caipirinhas?! Here's my tip on how to spend a really fun night in Bohemian Paris without leaving Sydney.
As you may know, the Green Fairy is back... Almost a century after it was prohibited for (supposedly) driving people mad, absinthe is making a much-noticed comeback on the global bar scene.
And in Sydney, there's no better place to experience this renaissance than Absinthe Salon, one of Surry Hills' most exciting new small bars.
One Friday night, eager to meet the Fairy (I've never tried absinthe before) and take a trip back in time to Montmartre and the Belle Epoque, I find myself at the door of a grey building in Albion Street. I ring the doorbell and owner Gaye Valttila lets me in. Gaye is a tall, slender woman with beautiful dark auburn hair. Straight out of a Toulouse Lautrec painting!
As Gaye shows me the way to the cozy salon, she tells me about her long-time fascination with absinthe.
"I fell in love with absinthe during one of my many trips to Europe," she says. "I really enjoyed the herbal complexity of fennel, green anise and wormwood - also known as Artemisia absinthium."
"I've always been drawn to the mystique absinthe," she adds. "How it began in the 18th century as an all-purpose healing elixir; how it became a popular drink in Bohemian Paris in the 19th century and was rumoured to cause hallucinations; how it's influenced the work of so many major artists (Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, van Gogh, Picasso, Oscar Wilde and Hemingway all were noted absinthe drinkers); how it became the victim of a smear campaign by temperance zealots in the early 20th century and got banned in most countries; how bootleggers in the French and Swiss Jura then started distilling clandestine absinthe; and how the late 1990s saw a revival of absinthe in a twist of fate, after evidence showed that its psychoactive properties had been much exaggerated."
"Back then, I was living in the Netherlands with my partner Joop van Heusden," she says. "In 2001, absinthe was legalised in most European countries and one day, as we were holidaying in France, we decided to visit the famous Lemercier absinthe distillery. We started chatting to the owner, and when we asked him if they wanted to start exporting absinthe to Australia, he just said: Mais oui, bien sur!! And here we are, nine years later, at the helm of Australia's one and only absinthe salon."
How do you prepare absinthe?
I look down at the menu: 18 types of absinthes are available by the glass. They all offer different levels of complexity, with colours ranging from pale yellow to deep green. Gaye tells me that the very best absinthes come from France and Switzerland, and recommends that I try the Lemercier Freres first.
Traditionally, absinthe is prepared by placing a sugar cube on top of a specially designed slotted spoon (and Absinthe Salon has the most amazing collection of absinthe spoons!), which is then placed on a glass filled with a shot of absinthe. Gaye says she only uses French sugar cubes from La Perruche - they're the best for absinthe.
Ice-cold water is then dripped over the sugar cube (1 part absinthe, 3 parts water) using a specially-designed fountain. As the sugar cube melts, the absinthe dilutes - or goes "louche" (French for 'shady'). This is very fun to watch! In the process, the aniseed and fennel essential oils dissolve, allowing the most interesting herbal aromas to blossom.
I really love the Lemercier absinthe, with its clean, refreshing flavour of star anise. It reminds me of "Pastis", the classic summer drink traditionally served in the South of France. I also like the more complex herbal tones of the Clandestine absinthe I try next, from Switzerland.
As I'm pondering my third and last drink (absinthe is a restricted alcohol in Australia and Absinthe Salon has a house policy of three glasses max per person), Joop joins me for a chat and tells me about the incredible story behind Ted Breaux and the Combier Distillery.
From New Orleans to the Loire Valley
"The Combier Distillery, which is located in the heart of the Loire Valley, is one of the oldest and most emblematic absinthe distilleries in France," Joop says. "It was built in 1834 and features a most amazing iron gallery, designed by Gustave Eiffel (yes, as in Eiffel Tower). A couple of years ago, the ageing distillery was given a new lease of life with the help of Ted Breaux. It's now home to the super-premium Jade Liqueurs Absinthes - as well as a museum you can visit year-round."
"Ted is a prominent absinthe historian and one of the leading figures in the world of absinthe these days," Joop continues. "He's originally from New Orleans, which has always had a strong historical connection to absinthe through the famous French Quarter. There's an old absinthe bar there called The Absinthe Room which was frequented by people such as Franklin Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Oscar Wild and Frank Sinatra."
Ted has gone to considerable lengths to dispel the myths surrounding absinthe. Through his studies, he proved that absinthe's reputation as a maddening elixir was owed to the shoddy ingredients and distilling practices of disreputable manufacturers cashing in on the absinthe craze. From then on, Ted set out to "reverse-engineer" absinthe, using recipes created a hundred years ago.
However, his plans came to a grinding halt one day in August 2005 when he lost his home and belongings to Hurricane Katrina. Among the very few items he managed to salvage were a guitar, some vintage firearms and a collection of hundred-year-old absinthes. That's about all he took with him when he decided to go live in France for a while, help relaunch the old Combier Distillery and get up close and confidential with the green fairy again... These days, Ted lives in Alabama and travels back and forth between the US and France, pouring his heart and soul into his vintage absinthes.
So tell me, dear reader, have you ever tried absinthe? What was your experience like? Also, there's a number of really talented bartenders in Australia and beyond who've been creating fantastic cocktails using absinthe. Let us know if you have any good tips on where to go next on our green quest!
Sydney's Absinthe Salon is open Tuesday to Sunday, 4pm to 10pm. Booking is strongly recommended on Friday and Saturday nights.
87 Albion Street, Surry Hills NSW 2010.
Telephone: 02 9211 6632
Visit the website www.absinthesalon.com.au for more info or to order absinthe online.