Absinthe has a colourful history – both figuratively and literally. Known in the 19th and early 20th centuries as la fée verte, or “the green fairy”, absinthe’s seductive appeal to writers and artists of the day has been well documented. Its allure for aficionados – or “absintheurs”, as they were known – has been ascribed to the seductive emerald-green tint of the liquid in the bottle, and its cloudy iridescence when diluted in the glass.
The ill-founded belief that the wormwood in absinthe was a hallucinogen also generated fascination among the creatively minded, and Oscar Wilde – having been up with the fairy for three straight nights – is alleged to have seen flowers growing from the floor of a French café. Considering its potency (19th-century absinthe could be as strong as 74 per cent alcohol by volume), it was a miracle that he could even stand.
Though sometimes described as a liqueur, absinthe is technically a spirit. Like gin, it is flavoured with botanicals, and just as juniper is the defining element in gin, so grand wormwood – artemisia absinthium – is in absinthe, and now the green fairy is enjoying a new wave of popularity worldwide.
Absinthe almost disappeared in the years leading up to the First World War, having been banned in major markets such as France, Switzerland and the United States (where it had been an ingredient in New Orleans’ signature cocktail, the Sazerac, since the 1850s). First sold on a serious commercial scale in Switzerland in the late 18th century, it caught on in France in the 1840s, when colonial troops – who had been issued with it to purify suspect drinking water (how this would have worked remains unclear) – began asking for the drink in cafés when they came home.
Bohemian Paris took to it, too, and devotees included poets Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, and painters Édouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It was after an absinthe-fuelled binge that Verlaine shot his lover, Rimbaud, in the wrist. Artists and writers can’t have been the only ones drinking it, however. Before absinthe was banned in France in 1914, the French were consuming about 36 million litres per year.
In truth, absinthe never entirely went away. The United Kingdom never formally banned it, and it continued to be made in Czechoslovakia, Portugal and other countries. Its serious international comeback, however, is credited to British entrepreneur George Rowley, who imported absinthe from the Czech Republic to the UK in the late 1990s, and then began making it in France in 2000 under the La Fée brand.
Initially, all La Fée was exported, but the drink was re-legalised in France in 2011, and it is now available in most international markets. La Fée Absinthe Parisienne is an impressive 68 per cent alcohol by volume.
According to Jigmee Lama, head mixologist at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental’s MO Bar, absinthe was used in classic cocktails like Death in the Afternoon, a creation of American writer Ernest Hemingway that mixes absinthe with champagne. “It is also used as a rinse for cocktails like the Sazerac and Corpse Reviver #2,” he says. “I like the use of absinthe in my drinks as it helps to add some complexity and some brightness.”
Recipes for such cocktails are to be found in Harry Craddock’s classic The Savoy Cocktail Book, first published in 1930, and the source for the Chrysanthemum cocktail recently introduced at Zuma restaurant at Landmark Atrium.
“It has a dry-vermouth base with a small amount of Bénédictine and a dash of La Fée Absinthe Parisienne, which gives it a touch of spicy, floral herbiness,” says Zuma’s bar manager, Arkadiusz Rybak.
Armani/Aqua at Landmark Chater also serves a Sazerac, made with La Fée, the customer’s choice of spirit – bourbon, rye whiskey or cognac – and Peychaud’s Bitters. What’s more, discerning tipplers can create drinks fortified with absinthe at home – La Fée is available from Oliver’s The Delicatessen in Landmark Prince’s.
Words by Robin Lynam