La Feé Verte: the absinthe genie escapes the bottle
This Bohemian pick-me-up is shaking off its shady image and reinventing itself as a staple on London’s cocktail menus
Beloved by Bohemians, absinthe, highly potent wormwood-based spirit, has a history steeped in mystery and controversy. Hedonistic symbol of the Belle Époch and muse to its artists and writers, it gained a reputation as an hallucinogen and danger to propriety; blamed for van Gogh lopping off his ear and filling Parisian mental asylums with its devotees. In the early 1900s it came under attack by the French Government, who claimed it was highly addictive and caused madness, resulting in a series of bans across Europe and the US. France only lifted theirs in 2011.
Perhaps due to our love-affair with gin, absinthe was always legal in Britain. And maybe because of a renewed obsession with our national spirit, absinthe is riding on its coattails and gaining cult status among the style-conscious young as well as an older, more affluent consumer who maybe had their hay-day in the swinging 60s. The global market is predicted to rise 30% by 2026 and reach sales of $44.3 billion.
Traditionally enjoyed by adding water dripped through sugar from an absinthe fountain over a specially perforated spoon, it is ready to drink when the mixture clouds, a phenomenon known as ‘the louche’. The modern way is with a perfectly paired mixer or in a cocktail.
During lockdown, as well as baking banana bread and sourdough, many of us were mixing it up in the drinks cabinet, and home bartending became a thing with mail-order cocktail kits. A report from the drinks firm AG Barr claims Britons are drinking more cocktails than ever, with 7.4 million of us ordering one when we visit a bar or restaurant. And with mixologists constantly striving for something new, absinthe has it all: distinctive flavour, the alchemy of the louche, and a florid history.
In 2016, rather ahead of the curve, London’s first absinthe parlour was opened by drinks historians and absinteurs, Rhys Everett and Allison Crawbuck. Crawbuck is Brooklyn born and raised with a background in art history, Everett an East-End boy from Hackney. Crawbuck was drawn to London as the only place she thought might match Brooklyn’s fast pace, creativity and multi-cultural vibe. She wasn’t disappointed, met Everett in the Hackney pub he was managing, and hasn’t looked back.
Everett’s drinks background and Crawbuck’s artistic vent and love of history coalesced, and when they came across a bizarre local venue the dye was set. Victor Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities on Mare Street, a wunderkabinet crammed full of its eponymous founder’s bonkers collection of the weird and surreal, was looking for a partner. Everett and Crawbuck immediately recognised the potential to establish a bar with a difference. And so the Last Tuesday Society’s Absinthe Parlour was born, a murky, atmospheric space filled with curious taxidermy, occult ephemera and the UK’s most extensive list of absinthes. Downstairs, Wynd’s museum persists and bar clientele enjoy a reduced entrance fee. There’s no doubt its freakish exhibits - among them a preserved two-headed lamb, a collection of ancient Chinese dildos and a clump of Russell Brand’s pubic hair - are best viewed after a drink or two upstairs.
Crawbuck thinks her first encounter with absinthe was in an Amsterdam nightclub, taking it as a shot and ‘thinking it was going to make me hallucinate.’ It didn’t. It was just very strong, coloured, artificial ethanol, like many of the brands on the market. However, absinthe’s mythology and aesthetic drew her back to it when they were developing the new bar concept, something that would ‘hold up to the weird and wonderful collection’. Their research took them to the home of absinthe, to Switzerland and France, Pontarlier and Val-de-Travers, where they met many of the producers that kept the tradition alive, distilling illegally throughout the ban. They began importing, and their affaire-de-coer with absinthe had begun.
Tried absinthe, ‘thinking it was going to make me hallucinate’
When the pandemic hit, they took the pause to take it up a level. The couple got themselves a two-and-a-half litre still and a licence to experiment with it at home. Meanwhile, Crawbuck had found a first edition London apothecary’s book from 1718, which included a recipe for a tincture ‘to raise the spirits’ made from absinthe’s signature botanical, Grand Wormwood. This is the foundation of what they now call Absinthe Regalis. They went on to develop a clear spirit, made along the lines of a London dry gin, substituting juniper for wormwood grown in their Hackney garden. This is marketed as London Absinthe, and both are sold under the resulting commercial distillery’s Devil’s Botany brand alongside their third product, a chocolate absinthe liqueur.
To seal its mainstream credentials, absinthe is now available in TESCO, the first of the supermarket giants to make the leap, and who confirm it is the UK’s fastest growing specialist spirit. To enjoy it at home or out and about, Everett recommends pairing it with a mixer and drinking it as a highball, ‘elderflower tonic is really, really tasty, and so is pink grapefruit soda’. But a cocktail is where absinthe comes into its own.
Annabel McSwiggan, a young professional Londoner, is a regular at The Parlour and a big fan of an absinthe cocktail. ‘I’d heard of absinthe, and knew something about it, mainly that it was a bit suspect and for the hardened drinker! So when I first tried it at a specialist bar in Prague a couple of years ago, I was surprised by how smooth good absinthe can be. It has a really complex flavour, and works so well in a cocktail’. Her favourite is Death in the Afternoon, created by Earnest Hemingway and named after his famous novel: simply chilled Champagne poured over a measure of absinthe. Would she consider drinking it as Everett recommends, as a long drink? “I already have. I love it with ginger ale, the ginger balances the aniseed really well. Or with bitter lemon. Everyone should try it.”
Three of the Best
Traditional wormwood paired with juniper, yarrow and elderflower, plus Hendrick’s signature rose and cucumber.
Devil’s Botany’s London Absinthe
Naturally sweet with a tongue-numbing sensation from the green anise, remaining slightly dry from the bitter wormwood. Exceptionally balanced with a smooth and silky mouthfeel.
Unmistakable fragrance of wormwood, a burst of fresh herbal notes of anise and citrus and natural bitter notes that linger forever.