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Lightly Toasted: Chronicles of the Friday Night Cocktail Club

the paris sun is peasant yarn 
Jan. 28, 2010 8:54 pm 
Updated: Jan. 30, 2010 6:15 am
On the short list of things long suspected never to have encouraged a person’s positive mental health, we would surely find absinthe. One clue that it’s not entirely intended for human consumption? The name absinthe likely derives from a Greek word meaning “undrinkable” (apsinthion). Put that in your marketing campaign!

At any rate, in its heyday, absinthe got more than its fair share of blame for driving artists and poets (and presumably other tortured souls) to fits of madness; Exhibit A, of course, being van Gogh’s loopy night of earlobe loppery. As the story goes, it was Christmas eve in Arles, France, 1890, when van Gogh, always the romantic, gifted his severed earlobe to a pretty girl at the local brothel down the street . She opened the box, saw the ear, and toppled over into a cold passed-out heap. “Unlucky in love” is the technical term. 

Now to be fair to absinthe, van Gogh was arguably ear-removingly unbalanced even without any help from “the green fairy.” But like I say, absinthe probably didn’t help any. [For a modern update on drunken self-abuse, see the scene in The Hangover when Ed Helms' character, the brow-beaten dentist, discovers he removed his own tooth sometime during the night.]

Van Gogh, of course, wasn’t the only artist to be emotionally undressed by absinthe. There was Toulouse-Lautrec  and Gauguin, and poets like Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud, and closer to home, Poe. I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but these examples can get us started.

Many of these artists did their absinthe drinking in France. Which makes sense in that France seems an arty place, but in another sense is odd because…shouldn’t they have been drinking wine? The French, after all, were primarily wine drinkers, who as a result presumably enjoyed relatively few alcohol-related hallucinations. But the absinthe craze, if you can call it that, which began in France quietly enough in the 1840s with soldiers returning from duty (they drank absinthe in the field to fend off malaria), really took off a few decades later as France’s vineyards were being decimated by a tiny insect accidentally imported from...oops...America. 

With the wine industry in les toilettes, more and more French folks turned to absinthe--and enthusiastically enough to cause some measure of alarm, principally among those easily made measurably alarmed by such things. The ingredient most blamed for causing people to go clear out of their minds was wormwood. (For one thing, it just sounds bad.) But even minus the wormwood, the alcoholic strength of absinthe—back then it weighed in anywhere between a very hot 120-proof and an astoundingly hot 180-proof!—would have been enough to put a sane person under. This level of toxicity, particularly for someone used to drinking relatively low-alcohol wine, would have made for some interesting times out on the town.  

Finally, absinthe caused the French such concern that they outlawed it in 1915. At this point, of course, American Prohibition was still a few years off; though, actually, we Americans got the jump on absinthe, outlawing it already back in 1912 (presumably not to be outdone by the French). 

In the United States, it would not be legal to drink absinthe again until 2007. Today the only thing prohibitive about absinthe is its price (a bottle starts around $70)…oh, and it’s generally disagreeable flavor. Or I should clarify that: I don’t really like the way it tastes when it’s served in the traditional way, with water dripped over a cube of sugar. But as it turns out, some of my very favorite cocktails call for a miniscule amount (many recipes direct you to swirl around a half teaspoon or so in the glass and then toss it). Consumed like this, a bottle can last for…many, many years. I just finished a bottle of absente recently that I’d had for a decade.

So after more set up than is necessary, here at last are a few of my favorite absinthe cocktail recipes. Caution: They’re formidable. Some of the names here are in themselves instructional:  Death in the Afternoon, the Third Degree, Corpse Reviver, and the one that has the same name as a famous general who razed his way from Atlanta to the sea. So be warned, these drinks are enough to box your ears. Also, you can always replace the absinthe in these cocktails with Pernod or Absente and be no worse for the wear. Cheers!



3/4 teaspoon sugar (or 1 sugar cube)
2 dashes Peychaud bitters
1 teaspoon water
2 ounces rye whiskey
1/8 teaspoon absinthe
Twist of lemon peel for garnish

Place sugar in another cocktail glass. Add bitters and a splash of water. Stir to dissolve sugar. Then add ice and whiskey. Take another glass from and rinse it with the absinthe, coating the sides of the glass. (Dump or drink the excess absinthe.) Strain the contents of the whiskey glass into the absinthe glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.


1 sugar cube
¼ teaspoon absinthe
Sparkling wine
Lemon twist for garnish

Place sugar cube in a champagne glass. Drip absinthe over the cube. Fill with sparkling wine. Float a small amount of good cognac on top and garnish with a twist of lemon.

Death in the Afternoon

1 ½ ounces absinthe
About 5 ounces sparkling wine 

Pour absinthe into a champagne glass. Gradually add sparkling wine.

Corpse Reviver #2

1 ounce gin
1 ounce Lillet Blanc
1 ounce Cointreau
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon absinthe
Maraschino cherry for garnish

Add ice to a cocktail shaker. Pour in gin, Lillet, Cointreau, and lemon juice. Add absinthe to a separate cocktail glass and swirl to coat sides of glass. Shake cocktail, and then strain into the glass. Garnish with a cherry.

McKinley’s Delight

2 ounces rye whiskey
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 teaspoon cherry brandy
1/4 teaspoon absinthe

Place ice in a cocktail pitcher or shaker. Pour in whiskey, sweet vermouth, cherry brandy, and absinthe. Shake or stir to mix. Strain into a chilled martini glass.

Third Degree

2 ounces gin
½ ounce dry vermouth
¼ teaspoon absinthe
Lemon twist for garnish

Pour gin, dry vermouth, and absinthe into a shaker or pitcher with ice. Shake or stir to mix. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

Sherman Cocktail

2 ounces rye whiskey
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1/2 teaspoon absinthe
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Twist of lemon for garnish

Place ice in a cocktail pitcher or shaker. Pour in whiskey, sweet vermouth, and absinthe. Shake in Angostura and orange bitters. Shake or stir to mix. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

Cocktail a la Louisiane

Cocktail a la Louisiane
Cocktail a la Louisiane
Cocktail a la Louisiane
Cocktail a la Louisiane
1 oz rye whiskey
¾ ounce Benedictine
¾ ounce sweet vermouth
1/8 teaspoon Pernod or absinthe (or in the unlikely event that you have it, Herbsaint)
Several dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Maraschino cherry for garnish

Fill a cocktail pitcher with ice. Pour in whiskey, Benedictine, sweet vermouth, and Pernod. Shake in bitters. Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry or a twist of lemon.
Jan. 28, 2010 10:26 pm
I don't know what I enjoy more... reading your blogs or the names of some of these cocktails you come up with. Great as usual.
Jan. 29, 2010 7:07 am
Another great blog, thanks!
Jan. 29, 2010 11:46 am
Thanks for your comments! I have to say: I can't take credit for the cocktail names. Most have been around for a long, long time. Also, I forgot to credit the title: I was reading an article in the New Yorker about a book that suggests van Gogh actually didn't chop off his ear! Gauguin did! Who knows? But in the article, Adam Gopnik writes about vG: "Bright verdant greens and strange acid blues and, above all, weird peasant yellows -- he saw the Paris sun as peasant yarn." I just liked the description.
Jan. 29, 2010 1:38 pm
Great blog! Years ago I bought my husband a bottle of absinthe...had to have it shipped from Czech...he liked it- but I was too afraid of seeing the fairy to try it!
Jan. 29, 2010 6:25 pm
Great blog. I love learning and laughing at the same time. Thanks!
Jan. 30, 2010 5:43 am
WOW!!! how your cyber pen flows...
Jan. 30, 2010 6:15 am
Love to read your stuff! Great history preceeding your recipes. You're a great writer and always look forward to reading your blogs. You seem to be the only AR person with such an education regarding cocktails and it's very helpful. Keep on mixin'!!!
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About Me
My wife and I and our two devilish kittens live on Capitol Hill in Seattle. A few years ago, I got a masters in gastronomy. I'm a food/wine writer. I’m also blogging about cocktails.
My favorite things to cook
We cook fairly simple dishes using fresh local ingredients that we pick up at the Seattle farmers market. My favorite thing is making a nice slow-braised or long-roasted something on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I like cooking with wine (in the dish and in the glass...and in the cook).
My favorite family cooking traditions
My mom never liked to cook, but she did well despite herself. Her mother, my omi, was from Munich and made delicious rouladen, sauerbraten and other traditional German and American dishes. Always bins and bins of home-baked cookies at Christmas. Wonderful rye bread. And beer. Opa would say, "Brotzeit ist die beste zeit."
My cooking triumphs
We’ve made the signature timpano dish from The Big Night a couple times. And for Thanksgiving 2007, we made Turducken. My wife and I are always volunteering to cook the big holiday meals with the family. We mix a signature cocktail, and get down to it.
My cooking tragedies
I made Thanksgiving Dinner for myself once when I was snowed-in in Denver. I nearly burned down the neighborhood.
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