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Absinthe: Crawling Toward Oblivion

There's nothing like riding through the streets of downtown L.A. in a horse-drawn carriage to restore a sense of surrealism to daily life. Throw in a dose of dazzling green absinthe, and you've got the makings of a decidedly Decadent evening. The invite from Pernod Absinthe promised a "19th century-style absinthe excursion," which would have inspired anyone -- not just consumptive poets and painters -- to don a velvet cape and hobble out of their wretched garret.

Once favored by everyone from Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin to Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway, the anise-flavored spirit has become a hallmark of hedonism, authentic or calculated. Marilyn Manson had already paid tribute to the emerald stuff in the video for "The Perfect Drug" when he debuted Mansinthe -- proof positive that the absinthe fad hadn't merely jumped the shark, it had rocketed over it, steampunk-style, on a coal-powered jetpack.

As long as absinthe was forbidden and people believed it drove you insane, it had a certain cachet. When it turned out the insanity wasn't caused by wormwood but by unscrupulous distillers who had added toxic chemicals as a cheap way to achieve the bright green color, absinthe lost some of its outlaw allure. But if the availability of absinthe spoons on end caps at BevMo has made The Green Fairy more prosaic, it has also made it more marketable. And that requires cocktails...

A horse-drawn carriage ride through downtown L.A. begins with a Sea Fizz cocktail at Varnish.
A horse-drawn carriage ride through downtown L.A. begins with a Sea Fizz cocktail at Varnish.
Elina Shatkin
Bartender Chris Bostick mixes a Corpse Reviver cocktail at The Varnish.
Bartender Chris Bostick mixes a Corpse Reviver cocktail at The Varnish.
Elina Shatkin

You don't sit down and drink absinthe straight. At 45-74% ABV it's too strong. Absinthe is traditionally served by poring a shot into a small glass, placing a lump of sugar on a slotted spoon balanced on the rim and drizzling cold water over the sugar into the absinthe, which turns milky and opalescent. That calls for long, lazy afternoons in Paris cafés or at least a stolen hour in a Silver Lake pied-à-terre. People need a cocktail they can hold in their hand while they fiddle with their difference engine and mingle at their local speakeasy. That's where the New Cocktailians come in.

At the Varnish, bartenders Eric Alperin and Chris Bostick mix classic absinthe cocktails: the Sea Fizz, an egg sour made with absinthe, lemon, sugar and egg white; the Corpse Reviver, a tart drink made with gin, Lillet (a citrus aperitif), lemon, Cointreau (triple sec) and a quick spritz of absinthe from an atomizer; and Remember The Maine, an aromatic made with rye, Heering (a cherry liqueur), Dolin Rouge (sweet vermouth) and absinthe. It's all very precise and artisanal with none of the dissipation one might wish for in an incipient absinthe bender.

A carriage takes us up the hill to First & Hope, a soon-to-open supper club steeped in Jazz Age glamour. We wave to baffled drivers and gawking pedestrians. One should always arrive at bars via horse-drawn carriage; it adds a touch of unnecessary glamour. At First & Hope, Marcos Tello, who recently resigned from the Varnish as head barman, slings drinks. Mine was pale yellowish green. It had absinthe in it -- and it paired surprisingly well with chicken-fried bacon.

Perhaps horse-drawn carriages were the Humvee limos of their day. We squeeze back into our carriages, stabled between a Subway outlet and a State Farm office. Trotting back down 1st St. we pass homeless people sleeping on bus benches. The carriage ride may be more wild and opulent than the absinthe.

The mixologists at The Edison treat us to what tastes like an excellent variation on their already excellent Mother's Ruin punch -- only this version is made with gin, champagne, pomegranate, orange, Peychaud's bitters and absinthe. But most of us weeknight absinthe crawlers have to answer to kids, partners or deadlines. Before anyone shoots their lover through the wrist in a jealous rage or paints any mad Van Gogh-esque canvases, it's time to retreat to our respective garrets.

Absinthe as a glamorous throwback for chic cocktailians -- that's smart marketing. You can expect to see this spirit conjured on more cocktail menus. Absinthe as anything other than drinkable nostalgia for a long-lost Baudelairean "derangement of the senses"? You're at least a century too late. The real intoxication of absinthe lies in its history. Turn the page for more pictures...

Editor's Note: the author was comped into this press event.

A horse-drawn carriage waits outside First & Hope supper club in downtown L.A.
A horse-drawn carriage waits outside First & Hope supper club in downtown L.A.
Elina Shatkin
Marcos Tello mixes absinthe cocktails at First & Hope supper club.
Marcos Tello mixes absinthe cocktails at First & Hope supper club.
Elina Shatkin
Absinthe-based punch at The Edison.
Absinthe-based punch at The Edison.
Elina Shatkin

More pictures after the jump.

 

A horse-drawn carriage in downtown L.A.? Yes, that is what you're seeing.
A horse-drawn carriage in downtown L.A.? Yes, that is what you're seeing.
Elina Shatkin
The absinthe cocktail menu at Varnish.
The absinthe cocktail menu at Varnish.
Elina Shatkin
Remember The Maine cocktail at Varnish.
Remember The Maine cocktail at Varnish.
Elina Shatkin
Absinthe cocktail at First & Hope supper club.
Absinthe cocktail at First & Hope supper club.
Elina Shatkin
Your carriage awaits.
Your carriage awaits.
Elina Shatkin

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