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Absinthe: The Quiet Revolution

David Harfield explains London’s newfound love affair with the Green Fairy

Written by . Published on August 10th 2011.

Absinthe: The Quiet Revolution

THE next time that you find yourself propping up a London bar, asking the staff to recommend their favourite spirit, you may be surprised to find that they offer you a measure of absinthe. This green-tinged beverage is slowly but surely creeping its way onto the back shelves of many of London’s top bars and restaurants, with key mixologists and drink industry professionals tipping it to be the next spirit to enjoy the kind of renaissance that gin is currently experiencing. London Confidential is delving deep into the city’s drinking scene to see what it could uncover about all of this absinthe adulation.

"The fact that people are now drinking it for the taste as opposed to just the effect, debating whether it’s better with or without sugar and how diluted they prefer there absinthe to be is promising.

Absinthe enjoyed a brief-lived boom in England around nine years ago, when canny marketing promoters tapped into the culture of alcopops and shooters and marketed the spirit as a gimmicky shot that punters had to burn sugar over in order to release its psychoactive properties. As the culture of stag dos and hen nights extended to locations such as Prague and Amsterdam, absinthe became the drink of choice to get the consumer utterly paralytic, mumbling of purported hallucinogenic experiences. This blanket marketing of absinthe as a novelty drink did nothing to help the drink’s reputation in the long term and since the eighteen-month honeymoon period, in which bars were shifting cases and cases of it every Friday night, absinthe has been fairly unpopular in Britain. That is, until now.


With the current trend of London’s speakeasy-style bars, such as Purl, 69 Colebrook Row and Experimental Cocktail Club, coupled with such establishments’ enthusiasm for reviving classic cocktails with a modern twist and promoting refined, regional sipping spirits, absinthe is now experiencing a quiet revolution. This revolution is coming in the form of bars banishing the idea of absinthe being just a drink to get you drunk and exploring the many different varieties and regional blends of absinthe. 

We join Ian Hutton, owner of Liqueurs de France, (the world’s leading distributor of quality, historically authentic absinthes), at Purl cocktail bar to sample some of his favourite tipples. “Saying that you drink absinthe is like saying that you drink whisky; it’s a generic term for what is actually a complex and varied spirit. Just like single malts, say an Islay versus a Highland, pre-1915-ban absinthes had a regional style dependant upon where they are produced.  Given the current absinthe renaissance and drink connoisseurs’ renewed interest in the actual history, production and regional origin of absinthe, we used a specific historical recipe known as ‘Absinthe Suiss’ to create Enigma, an absinthe that stays true to how the drink was first perceived, as a spirit that varies from region to region. 

So, could it be that absinthe is going to become a connoisseur’s drink of choice, with absinthe-philes bickering over which region yields the best finished product in bars around the city? Hutton states, “A lot of the gimmicks that people associate with absinthe are based on common misconceptions, such as the fact that it has hallucinogenic properties. However, absinthe certainly brings with it a lucidity that one doesn’t feel with other spirits and is much less likely to give you a hangover, as long as you stick to it and don’t mix it with other drinks. The fact that people are now drinking it for the taste as opposed to just the effect, debating whether it’s better with or without sugar and how diluted they prefer there absinthe to be is promising. As with spirits such as whisky and gin, people will undoubtedly have their favourite brand of absinthe, provided that they take the time to investigate the absinthe world.” 

 The whole culture of absinthe, from the billows of cloud induced by the trickling of water from a specifically designed font, to the absinthe spoons that are used to balance sugar cubes as they dissolve, (which have begun to be used as key-rings by absinthe enthusiasts), offers a glimpse of a world that is truly unique in its mystic ceremonies and romantic history. But beyond that, past the accessories and the romanticism, is a spirit that is so distinct in flavour, style and aroma that it can sit happily amongst much more established drinks and hold its own. Due to its current rise in popularity, you’ll no doubt have an opportunity to become a tourist in the absinthe world very soon. If London’s best bars continue to stock it in its alternate forms and regional varieties, you may well find yourself wanting to become a permanent resident.


Absinthe Cafe (Ontario, Canada) photograph via Art is Everything

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