Tuesday, September 16, 2008
White Star, Green Liquor
I passed by White Star—Sashe Petraske's new absinthe joint on the Lower East Side—a few times before I realized it was the place I was looking for. Another of the currently popular no-sign bars. (Honestly, when will this increasingly infantile trend reach its natural end?) The small place is on the south end of Essex Street, just before the lane runs out of steam. Not much in the way of decor at this point. The bar, white marble, up front near the door, is the main feature. That and the two absinthe drips on top of the bar.
Better than television, those absinthe drips. I could watch them in operation for hours—the cool, iced water slowly passing from the transparent basins through the silver faucets, gradually dissolving the sugar cube placed atop the serrated absinthe spoon, which is in turn balanced over a glass half filled with the potent herbal green liquor. Mesmerizing. And, based on their stares, most of the customers felt the same way.
Sasha was pouring out only the Swiss Absinthe Superieure Kubler. He said he would expand to include more brands in the future, saying "Watch this space." He also had some rather blunt words for some of the other major absinthe brands out there, comments I won't include here if case he'd like those opinions kept private. He and his fellow bartenders kept the drips filled with fresh ice at all times, to ensure the chilliness of the aqua.
Absinthe—served the way that would be familiar to any 19th-century Frenchman—was being dolled out gratis that night, and two came my way. That was about one too many. Dilute it as you like, this stuff still packs a punch, and gets you drunker faster than any other legal intoxicant I know. I got about half way through my second glass and decided to call it a day before I started seeing visions of Edgar Degas.
But, truthfully, another thing kept me from finishing my second helping. And that is, well, I just don't love the stuff. I like the idea of it very much—the history, the romance, its exotic nature, and, above all, the way the drink is prepared. (Those ingenious drips are half the fun and half the attraction where absinthe is concerned, in my opinion.) It's all beautiful. I also love a dash of absinthe as a component in cocktails that claim their base liquor elsewhere. But just absinthe and water and sugar? You pretty much have to be in love with the dominant flavor of anise to want absinthe more than once in a while. And I am not in love with that flavor, which I am well aware is the defining aspect of many a liqueur the world over. Good absinthes have layers of flavor, but layers within that limited herbal spectrum. One absinthe lover described it to me as "liquid springtime," which is great, unless you're longing for a little summer, winter and autumn in your drink.
This, I suspect, might be the difficulty in making a go of an absinthe bar (though, certainly, Sasha intends for people to drink other things as well at White Star). I also doubt the market can support a couple dozen new brands.
Still, I must admit I got a bit of a thrill standing there knowing I was inside the first New York bar that was legally selling absinthe by the glass, in the traditional manner, in nearly a century.
One side note: Sasha mentioned he would open a place in Long Island City sometime in the future. Name: Dutch Kill.