Absinthe cocktails are usually very old, and this one, the Absinthe no. 2 is no different. Dating to 1936, and published in Frank Meier’s The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, the Absinthe no. 2 is a straight forward absinthe cocktail with gin and bitters. Mixed similar to a Martini, it’s likely this was around and known before Meier published it, and it’s also likely he learned it at the Ritz Bar in Paris where he worked. This is definitely a drink for those who love the flavor of licorice, but what exactly is this green stuff anyway?
The history of absinthe is as sordid as the history of any spirit, except in this case, politics rears its head. You see, absinthe found popularity in Europe during the 1800s, first appearing early in the century when it became a French military issue malaria preventative. Eventually, troops who took the absinthe went home from service and took their thirst with them. By 1900 absinthe was everywhere, and popular among both the upper classes and the working class. It became Bohemian, especially popular among artists, and nowhere more so than in Paris among the natives and ex-pats who would later become the voice of the Lost Generation. For now, though, they consumed great quantities of absinthe, as did many folks, in the bars and cafes of pre-war Paris, and this became a problem.
Anything rabidly popular among the working class is bound to attract suspicion, and thus it was with absinthe. Blamed for an upswing in violent crime, it’s effects were overly exaggerated as hallucinogenic, and, in some cases, poisonously fatal. We know better now, of course, but if you’re going to mount a temperance campaign, what better place to start than by creating a perceived threat to public health. Yes, fear, uncertainty, and doubt existed even 100 years ago and by 1914 absinthe was illegal in most western countries, just in time for World War I, a real and present public health danger.
One can look back and imagine this as the first step towards prohibition in the United States, but at the time the outcry against absinthe set it apart as especially dangerous. Absinthe is made with wormwood, as is vermouth, some bitters, and lots of other things, but in the case of absinthe, contemporary pundits bestowed the ingredient with magickal and sinister powers. It’s all untrue, of course, but if you want to ban something, you have to vilify it somehow.
Besides wormwood, absinthe also contains fennel, and anise. These three basic ingredients are found in most absinthe, both then, and now. Known as the green fairy, absinthe gets it’s color from the chlorophyll in the whole herbs used in it’s production, but back when it was a bad thing, the color was often changed or removed altogether as a means of stealth. Other flavorings can be used, but the three core ingredients usually remain the same.
Our absinthe of choice, Haint, sticks true to form. It adds other things to the basic 3 ingredients, but remains a traditional product. Absinthe requires a base spirit, and is produced much like gin, where a base spirit is distilled, the herbs are macerated in it, then it's distilled again to remove bitterness and make it wonderful. Most times absinthe starts with a white grape spirit, but neutral grain spirits can also be used. Dogwood Distilling, makers of Haint, start with a brandy distilled in house from Oregon pinot noir. It’s as local as it gets, and the result is something that should stand front and center in a drink such as the Absinthe no. 2. It’s no surprise, then, that we choose Union Gin, also from Dogwood Distilling for our cocktail. Union is a dry gin, intended for cocktails, and stays true to it’s London dry inspiration. While many Portland style gins are floral and citrusy, that’s not what we want here. We want dry, something good for gin forward drinks like a Martini because the absinthe will overwhelm and dominate anything else. That’s not always bad, we like absinthe in the most traditional way, with a sugar cube and water drip, but in a cocktail, we want complementary complexity among ingredients, and that’s what we get with Haint and Union. For a finishing touch, some Scrappy’s bitters because what else would we use?
As with all things absinthe, you’ll either love the Absinthe no. 2, or hate it. The green fairy is just that way, as polarizing as black licorice candy, but, don’t worry, it won’t make you hallucinate, or take up crime, so raise a glass and enjoy one of the most elegant spirits of them all. You can sleep it off tomorrow, just like Hemingway would have done.
Stir with ice and serve up. No garnish.
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