(Photo: The making of Neptune's Wrath, an absinthe and chartreuse cocktail, recipe in my absinthe-in-America article in the Chicago Tribune. Thanks Kirk Estopinal, bartender, and Toby Maloney, mixologist, at The Violet Hour.)
Everyone who's ever tasted absinthe has a first-time horror story.
In 1996 Ted actually asked a colleague to bring a bottle of Hill's back from the Czech Republic to New Orleans, "it might as well have been window cleaner and vodka," he said. A year later, David, half a world away in South Africa, fell for the same infamous Czech-sinthe, remembering it as "highly alcoholic mouthwash." Lance had only himself to blame, distilling his own, "it was insanely bitter, but I drank it anyway." Hiram was worse, he just soaked herbs in alcohol resulting in "absolutely vile horrible stuff."
Not me. These lips have never tasted Czech-sinthe, moon-sinthe, or any kind of crap-sinthe. I'm like a convent-raised absinthe drinker - if you can expand your mind to view Cantada II - the punk, metal, HxC bar in the gritty 11th arrondissement of Paris - as my absinthe convent school. Mickey, the owner, who looks straight out of 30 Days of Night and is a big sweetheart, currently lists 25 different absinthes his menu, most of them good, with more to come.
My teachers? I tasted my first absinthe under the eye of Peter Schaf, the Paris-based, Wisconsin-born absintheur, who's one of the most quietly influential absinthe makers, consultants, and obsessives alive in the world today. You saw Peter educating Tony too on the very first episode of No Reservations in Paris.
David Nathan-Maister, the mastermind behind Oxygénée, supplied my first taste of pre-ban absinthe, when we trekked out to Pontarlier, French birthplace of the spirit, to appear on the Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie episode "Contraband Cuisine".
The best place to drink absinthe? Forget about knee-deep in celebs at the Waverly Inn. Try the hill overlooking Pontarlier at dusk, sipping ultra-rare, vintage absinthe with Peter and David, at the mouth of a mausoleum.
While you'll probably never share that experience with those cats, the renaissance of Absinthe in America may banish the horror stories to history.
Even with Mansinthe. Markus Lion, the respected German absintheur (who allowed me to taste the prototype at the Absinthiades back in 2006, nothing like the current product) said it should be out by April pending final approval. "We hope that because it's Manson it won't be a big deal," he said. Hopefully not with the authorities anyway. I tasted it at Cantada and Mansinthe is a surprisingly lovely, gentle drink.
(Despite what the Epi dudes say.)
"Absinthe aromas can vary from alpine flowers to an overheated sexual smell," said Peter.
And doesn't that sound like a very good first time?