It all started in Provence with a glass of rose wine. Well, actually, a glass of pastis before the rose. While Paul Sanguinetti, lead mixologist for the Patina Group, was in France studying wine, he and his colleagues always started dinner with a glass of pastis. Sanguinetti returned to the States with a taste for the anise-flavored spirit and, when the chance arose at the Patina Group's Kendall's Brasserie, he began to build a bar program around what he calls “aperitif culture,” particularly absinthe and pastis.
Now, on weeknights, after the theatergoers have dined and headed to their shows, the restaurant quiets and the bar becomes the perfect spot for the Green Hour, Sanguinetti's absinthe-centric happy hour, which runs from 8 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. Add Absinthe 101, a free absinthe-tasting class on Thursdays, and you have plenty of excuses to venture downtown in prime time.
Sanguinetti's enthusiasm for absinthe and its cousins — and the ritual surrounding them — was born of the realization of what gets lost, and what doesn't have to.
“This is a lost art, which represents a very creative and artistic time in both France and the world,” Sanguinetti says. “We're in a time when a lot of great quality absinthes can be found on the market. There's a big resurgence happening, with old recipes being resurrected and re-created, and it's really exciting to be part of this.”
Due to its anise character, absinthe is a polarizing spirit — Sanguinetti realizes this. For that reason, he has assembled a wide and versatile lineup of absinthes from various countries — from the Swiss Kubler to Abyss from France and the esoteric Butterfly, an old Boston recipe now bottled by France's La Clandestine. Pastis and pernod, often less aggressive than absinthe, round out the offerings.
Sanguinetti's absinthe cocktail menu is a mash-up of classics such as the Turf Club (Plymouth gin, Dolin dry vermouth, Luxardo maraschino, Ridge Distillery absinthe blanche, bitters, lemon peel), the light and refreshing Absinthe Frappe (Kubler absinthe, Luxardo maraschino, Peychaud bitters, Angostura bitters) and a riff on absinthe's supreme cocktail expression, the Sazerac, in the form of the bracing D-Day (rye, apple brandy, Peychaud bitters, absinthe).
For those still uncertain whether absinthe is their tipple, there's La Fleur du Mal (vodka, absinthe, rose essence, lemon juice, egg white), Sanguinetti's take on a drink originally conceived by British cocktail impresario Tony Conigliaro.
Perhaps most intriguing is Kendall's Thursday night Absinthe 101 class, which starts at 8 p.m. sharp. At the classic curved brasserie bar, which prominently features an absinthe drip, Sanguinetti holds court, clearly demonstrating both love and knowledge of the spirit he pours. “Students” can sample any number of absinthes, plus pastis and pernod, artfully prepared in their proper styles.
As he offers pastis, Sanguinetti explains that you should never pour the spirit directly over the ice or the alcohol will crystallize, altering the aroma and creating a more harshly alcoholic flavor. The proper order is pastis, then chilled water, then ice in a proportion of 3 to 5 parts water to 1 part pastis. The flavor that emerges is delicate and calming.
Sanguinetti then liberally offers samples of his various absinthes, pouring them side by side for clear taste comparisons and noting that each country's profile is different, depending on the herbs used and the distillation process. With the Butterfly a major citrus component emerges, while the French Jade Nouvelle Orleans Absinthe Superieure has a more herbal, slightly bitter flavor, a classic absinthe profile; the American-made St. George is by far the most aggressive of the offerings.
As the absinthe glasses start to line up, Sanguinetti eagerly discusses the myth surrounding absinthe's thujone component. Rumored to cause hallucinations, thujone is what got absinthe banned from the United States. For the record, it does not cause the reputed hallucinations (although it has caused seizures in extremely overdosed rats). So, bottom line, absinthe won't leave you writhing on the floor seeing pink elephants.
Finally comes the absinthe drip, which requires the placement of a sugar cube on an absinthe spoon held over a glass of absinthe. As the water is released, dripping over the sugar, it dissolves the cube into the absinthe, softening the spirit's flavor and causing the cloudy louching that occurs when absinthe comes in contact with water.
What makes this entire classroom experience remarkable, beyond the wealth of knowledge shared, is that it is completely free. While any absinthe cocktails one orders after class incur a fee, Absinthe 101 — and the weeknight happy hour — is Sanguinetti's attempt to demystify absinthe's image and create new enthusiasts, who he hopes come to realize that the anise spirit has many incarnations, from grand to subtle, drunk solo or in cocktails.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book “Gin: A Global History.” Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.