Night with the Green Fairy

When I was in New York last month I stopped into a liquor store to pick up a bottle of Lucid, the first genuine absinthe approved for sale in the U.S. in nearly a century. With unusual restraint I held onto the bottle through the holidays and for several weeks after, waiting until I could have a few friends over to try it out. A few days ago we finally got around to cracking it open — about a week after it became available in DC.

[Pale green Lucid, before the louche]

The story of how absinthe came to be banned, degraded, and finally reborn, is long and winding. The short version is this: In 1912, on the basis of myths about its tendency to drive people mad, prohibitionists succeeded in getting absinthe banned by name in the United States. In 1972 the ban on absinthe was superceded by a more scientifically precise definition. The new rule forbade products containing thujone, a chemical found in wormwood, in quantities greater than 10 ppm.

For decades it was assumed that this requirement effectively prohibited absinthe. In fact, it has been shown that at least some traditional recipes come in well below the legal limit. Once this was realized, talented distillers began once again to develop products for the American market, navigating byzantine government requirements every step of the way. (The launch of one brand has been delayed by the Treasury Department’s disapproval of a monkey on the label. Government regulators actually make a living considering such things.) Now, finally, Americans have access to a few artisan absinthes instead of just lousy smuggled knock-offs and extremely bitter “kits.”

Absinthe is very high in alcohol; Lucid weighs in at a serious 124 proof. This is one good reason to dilute it with ice water. The other is that the water transforms the drink, bringing out insolubles from the herbs that soothe the liquor’s soul and give it much more complexity. This is the louche that turns it from a clear green to milky white. Before adding water, Lucid is hot and powerfully anise-flavored. After, it’s smoother, with notes of licorice candy and herbs. Stirring a sugar cube into the glass is another option. About half of our group preferred it that way. (Lighting the cube on fire is a contemporary bar trick and not generally recommended.)

Absinthe tasting
[Jason Talley listens intently to his absinthe-driven hallucination of Radley Balko]

Drinking absinthe straight isn’t for everybody all the time. A great way to use it is in the Sazerac, one of the classic cocktails with which bartenders endlessly tinker. Here’s a typical recipe:

2 oz. rye whiskey
Several dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Rinse of absinthe
sugar cube
lemon zest

Chill one cocktail glass with ice water. In a pint glass, muddle the sugar with the bitters. Add ice, add the rye, and shake. Pour out the water from the first glass and rinse it with absinthe. Strain the rye mixture into the glass, wipe the rim with lemon zest, and serve. It’s a fantastic drink. (Early recipes called for cognac instead of rye. I like the spice of the latter, but try both.)

[Bonus photo: Fire with absinthe might be lame, but there’s nothing lame about capping the night with Jeff Morgenthaler’s Angostura-Scorched Pisco Sour. “Flare” bartending?]

For more background on absinthe, see the cover story in the latest Imbibe, this New York Times article, or the Wormwood Society. Absinthe spoons and other accessories are available at La Maison d’Absinthe.

[Credit to Radley and Courtney for the photos.]


Starbucks drops hot sandwiches

It strikes me as a good move if they really want to put more focus back on the coffee, but I’m not sure what Schultz means when says that serving sandwiches hurt employees’ “ability to make the perfect shot of espresso.” I thought it was switching to superautomatic espresso machines that did this. Does making a sandwich distract workers from pushing a button?


SWM seeks new bar

On Sunday the Uno pizza restaurant in the Fair Oaks Mall closed its doors for good. I’m not normally the type to mourn an Uno, but this one was special. It had fun, witty bartenders, friendly management, and a very laid-back atmosphere. Most importantly, it was one of only two bars in the mall that allowed cigar smoking, making it a natural hangout for the guys who work or relax in the John B. Hayes tobacco store. I didn’t go often, but the good company and the cheap beer were enough to lure me to Fairfax every once in a while.

A couple of the guys put up the following ad in search of a replacement. It well captures the appeal:

A guild of loyal patrons is hiring a drinking establishment to become it’s new preferred after hours destination. The candidate establishment must sufficiently satisfy the following legacy criteria.

1. Cigar smoking allowed, encouraged, and not subject to regulatory PM restrictions.

2. A range of moderately priced blended scotches regularly stocked (i.e. Johnny Walker Red/Black, J&B, Dewars etc.)

3. Tasty but likewise moderately priced cusine (ability to cater to special diets a plus but not a requirement)

4. A Bartender(s) who resent their station in life and are willing to castigate patrons in accordance with their existential dissatisfaction (a penchant for the vulgar and profane is a plus)

5. An acceptably mid range decible level of music sufficient to elicit cranial bobbing but NOT inhibiting verbal conversation and interaction.

6. An environment not altogether exclusionary of early 20’s patronage but sufficiently deviod of conditions which promote post meal/drink loitering.

7. Must comply with State regulations for cleanliness (we of the guild cast no judgements in these matters)

Candidate establishments should contact David or Johnathan


Links for 1/28/08 PM

The Chairman speaks: Why the stimulus will fail

Maryland smokers enjoy last week of freedom

“Harford is one of life’s nice guys, so it is a bit of a shock to open the new book and go straight into oral sex…”

Saving the wrong homes?

DC drinkers, act now for specials at Corduroy

Magicians, remember not to really use your head choppers

Duncan Rouleau talks about his Metal Men

Screw it, just give me a Yuengling


Bans vs. freedom of association

Illinois’ statewide smoking ban recently came into effect and it has shut down the annual Big Smoke event sponsored by Cigar Aficionado magazine, held annually in a reserved hotel conference hall. Local authorities had initially said that the new law wouldn’t rule out such a gathering, but there turns out to be no exemption. Thus a ban that was marketed as a means of protecting people from involuntary exposure to second-hand smoke is being used to tell a group of cigar smokers that they can’t convene publicly anywhere in the entire state.

Health and economics are side issues in the debate over smoking bans; both of these issues can be addressed by other means. The heart of the matter is that these bans do violence to people’s rights to property and free association.

[Via the Stogie Guys.]


More tasty content, less

If you take a peek to the right, you’ll see that the feed is no more. In it’s place is a mini-blog where I’ll be posting collections of links, short reviews, and brief asides.

Two complaints about the links were that they required a separate RSS feed and that they couldn’t be commented on. Thanks to the handy Sideblog plugin, both those problems are solved. Side entries will show up automatically in the main RSS feed and are open to comments; just click on the headline to get to the form.

If for some reason you want to search my archive, it’s available here.


Inmates freer than diners

At least in Danny Rodden’s jail they are. Though the rest of the Indiana county is ruled by a smoking ban, Sheriff Rodden sets the rules in the county jail.

Though the jail had been nonsmoking, Rodden began to allow smoking in the jail about a third of the way into his first term as sheriff last year.

When he became sheriff, there were “so many behavioral problems,” Rodden said. Not all prisoners are allowed to smoke, but inmates with good behavior are given the option…

The new jail allows inmates to choose whether they reside in a smoking or nonsmoking pod.

What a concept. It’s too bad our governments aren’t equally willing to treat ordinary people like the adults they are.


More Virginia ABC idiocy

Enough ragging on Alabama. Virginia’s alcohol laws are ridiculously archaic too. The latest: The VA ABC has fined local Spanish restaurant La Tasca for serving genuine sangria:

The fruity cocktail of wine and brandy that is a must-have at Spanish restaurants violates a law that forbids mixing wine or beer with spirits. If convicted, a bartender could go to jail for a year…

The state prohibits combining wine or beer and spirits and pre-mixing or storing drinks outside their original containers, except for those in approved frozen-drink dispensers.

Officials say the goal is to show customers that they are getting what they asked for and to show regulators that the alcohol has been purchased from the state, as is required in Virginia.

The ABC seems determined to ruin places I enjoy. Their previous assaults include shutting down beer pong at Dr. Dremo’s, closing Best Cellars for not selling enough food with its wine, forbidding Rustico to sell hopsicles, and ending pitcher margaritas at Mexicali Blues. It’s hard to imagine a more consumer-unfriendly agency.


I’d also like to meet Beija

Mike at the newly revamped Days That End in Y writes about his sampling of Beija, a new high-end cachaca just introduced in Boston. Cachaca, a Brazilian spirit distilled from sugar cane, is underutilized in the US, and mass market brands are pretty harsh. Beija is the first “virgin” designated cachaca and is made only from the first press of sugar cane. Mike says it tastes fantastic. I just hope it makes its way to Virginia or DC in time for summer caipirinhas.


Bud responds

Pat Lynch, the Budweiser representative in Birmingham, has responded to Free the Hops’ call for a boycott on his products. In his defense, he notes that he does support a statewide bill lifting ABV limits, and only opposes local changes in the law. Seems like a weak excuse, but ok. But then he says this:

Lynch said he continues to support a statewide bill raising the ABV limit. He said he might still be willing to discuss that and perhaps a local bill with FTH, but that the call for a boycott wouldn’t help.

“A boycott’s not going to endear me into negotiations,” he said.

People shouldn’t have to endear themselves to the local Bud rep for the right to drink beer that doesn’t suck.