Monday, January 5, 2009

The Absinthe Backlash Begins

It was bound to happen. You knew it. There were too many articles about the once-forbidden elixer. About 47 new brands were dropped on the market at once. Cocktail geeks wouldn't shut up about it. And then there's that clown down at Apotheke making homemade, flaming absinthe every hour on the hour. (Like there aren't enough brands to choose from already.) A liquor has to taste incredibly good to withstand that kind of publicity without inspiring contrarians like myself and, now, Eric Konigsberg at the New York Times.

Konigsberg just authored a long piece on the Green Goddess which is basically a long, hilarious slam on the booze and the trend. A sample:

Now it is legal, and so we are in the midst of what appears to be an absinthe mini-craze. But to follow the arc of this craze, like others that have come before (remember cigar bars?) is to see just how quickly something that was once illicit — and acquired notoriety because of that very illicitness — can lose its sheen of mystery and become, well, rather uncool. Once the naughty aura of the forbidden fruit is removed, all that remains is a grasp at unearned sophistication.

Konigsberg is too mean by half, and he purposely avoids talking about Absinthe's virtues. The good versions of the stuff have a complex and interesting flavor profile you won't find elsewhere, and it makes for an irreplaceable accent to many fine cocktails, including my beloved Sazerac and the wonderful Remember the Maine. But I know what he means. Absinthe is just not that good. It's begin poised to play with the big boys of booze, but it can't begin to compare with the classic, seducing, impossible-not-to-love tastes of other liquors, like scotch, bourbon, gin, or even various liqueurs and amari. Konigsberg puts it as bluntly as possible:

The first, Lucid, came in a dark bottle with cat’s eyes on it and had what Mr. Bergougnoux called a “classic absinthe taste.” It tasted like licorice.

Remember: licorice jelly beans are always the last to go.

The second absinthe, Tourment Vert, was listed on the menu as containing the maximum legal amount of thujone. It tasted like mouthwash.

I have listened to spirit experts tell me for a year that Absinthe is going to explode in the next year or so. I'm here to tell you the Absinthe trend will not explode; it will implode. Brands will appear and disappear. And the stuff will go from being the Next Big Thing to being just one more bottle in the back bar. Which is probably where it belongs. It's an interesting addition to a bar. It's not a star player. 19th century France didn't have the variety of drinks we have today. It if had, Absinthe wouldn't have been as big a deal.

As the bartender at a recently opened New York saloon that prominently features Absinthe told me, when I asked him if first-timers ordered the drink: "They do. Until they realized they don't like Absinthe. Then they order something else."


Anonymous said...

What amuses me about the Times article is the writer's ability to have his cake and trash it, too. He's managed to be paid for writing a long article about absinthe on the theme of how there are too many articles written about absinthe.

Tom Matthews

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

Good point, Tom! Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

It's been interesting to see and read about some of the recent developments surrounding absinthe since it first became available again with the introduction of Lucid to the market a while back.

As you mentioned, the main appeal with absinthe seems to be its novelty factor, as it is a liquor that has developed the notoriety that comes with having been banned for years and years. As such, you're bound to have quite a few people that want to try it for the sake of it.

However, the fact remains that the actual taste of absinthe is not something that's for everyone. I've had it and I enjoy it. I also enjoy comparing the different bouquets involved in various blends much as I do those found in all of the wines I try. However, I was also that one person that actually ate all the black jelly beans when no one else would all my life as well.

While I know a lot of people that wanted to like absinthe because it is something that's been so heavily shrouded in mystery all these years, I know very few that actually did really like it. That being the case, I think the absinthe craze will certainly die down sooner or later once it stops being the hip new thing.

In the meantime, I'm sure we'll continue to see absinthe tastings, and maybe even absinthe clubs, the same way we see wine clubs. However, the fact remains that absinthe doesn't have the mass appeal that wine does. It's definitely an acquired taste to say the least.

Anonymous said...

They are missing the point. One does not drink absinthe for the flavor, but for the effect. Anyone that has had absinthe with a proper thujone content can attest to the fact the the 'buzz' is quite different than that of normal liquors. As with most drugs, taste concerns come in a distant second at best...