I've had a fascination with absinthe since I first saw it being consumed by Lodz on the television series Carnivale (which is WICKED). I also witnessed it being drunk by Johnny Depp in From Hell, and then Ewen McGregor in Moulin Rouge!. I wondered what the milky green drink was, that seemed to affect all of these characters so strongly with visions and hallucinations. The first time I ordered it was a couple of years ago at The Ruby Revue which is held at the Art House, and unfortunately they completely fudged the order, giving me a glass of harsh, bitter absinthe diluted with warm water. They had also run out of sugar, which totally ruined the expectations I'd had. However, I was still determined to one day try REAL, properly prepared absinthe, and so apparently were a couple of friends.
My darlings Roxy, Sonia and I decided to quench our collective curiosities at The Absinthe Salon, a little parlour in Surry Hills that specialises exclusively in serving this drink. There is a three drink limit (the weakest variety of absinthe is 45 percent), and they close at 10pm, so straight off the bat I get the impression that this little establishment is serious about appreciating the absinthe they serve. We got a little lost trying the find the place (damned iPhones), but when we reached the store-front it was unmistakable that we were there:
We rang the doorbell, and even though we were a little early, a lady in a black bustle skirt and maroon underbust corset graciously let us in. The front room was filled with paraphernalia related to the consumption of this spirit, from traditional absinthe glasses and perforated spoons, to books and display bottles. These things are for sale except for the absinthe bottles, which they can't legally sell over the counter, but it is not this room which we came for, and we were lead to the back room where about 10 tables were spread out, and chairs were grouped into intimate pairs or trios.
We were shown to our table, and each one had an old fashioned water fountain, and absinthe glasses and spoons. We were also given menus, in which the drink selections were sorted in order of alcohol content. The lady who showed us in explained that each drink would have a different taste as well, and that all of the selections they have on the menu are either French or Swiss, as opposed to the Czech varieties we commonly buy here in Australia, which are really harsh and bitter.
We made our first selections from the tame end of the menu, and the lady swung by to show us how to prepare our drinks.
First, a measure of absinthe was poured into our glasses:
Then a French 'A La Perruche' sugar cube goes onto a perforated spoon, which is balanced over the top of the glass. The tap is then turned on at a slow, steady drip - the idea is to dissolve the sugar and dilute the absinthe at the same time:
The ratio should be at least 1:1 water to absinthe, but can be diluted up to 4:1 depending on taste and preference. As the absinthe becomes diluted, it starts to 'louche', or change colour:
And then it's ready to drink!
My first drink was French, the Francois Guy, and was a verte, however by itself the colour is more of a yellow than anything. Our hostess told us it was made at the Distillerie Pierre Guy, and gave us a short background of how it was made. As the water was added (at a ratio of 3:1), it louches almost straight away to white. The aroma was very sweet and chock full of anise, which hid everything but the smallest amount of bitter wormwood. My first sip was a shock of anise and alcohol, and at first it's like a kick in the teeth, but as I got used to the strength of the drink, I found myself enjoying it immensely. I definitely thought it a good choice for my first glass.
The second one I tried was the Nouvelle Vague (as above), which was stronger at 68%. Our hostess told us this was a Swiss variety, made at Oliver Matter AG, and it was a light, rich green colour before I added the water and sugar. Because it had a higher alcohol content, I used two sugar cubes and a bit more water. Being so new to absinthe, I'm not sure if I was able to fully appreciate all of the subtle differences in these two varieties, but the prominent notes of chocolate and coffee were obvious, with anise and wormwood in the background.
One thing I was shocked to discover in my experience here was that absinthe tasting can have the complexity and variety that wine or cognac tasting can - each variety has its own character. When sampling these varieties in a setting as dark and decadent as The Absinthe Salon, where every question is answered to the fullest extent in an attempt to educate and the hosts dress the part, the experience becomes extraordinary.
We'll definitely come back here, not least to try the absinthe truffles that they had run out of - but not too often, because after those two drinks, I couldn't even let myself in to my apartment.
Note: There were NO hallucinations experienced by any of us after our two drinks each.
The Absinthe Salon
87 Albion St
Surry Hills, NSW
Phone: 02 9211 6632