The Bartender's Guide to AbsintheEdit Post
Contributed by on Mar 20, 2013
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This is a more concise version of a post on the Real Absinthe Blog and is intended as a short training guide for bartenders about this much misunderstood drink. So what do bartenders need to know to be able to make the most of the absinthe selling opportunity?
1. KNOW THE PRODUCT(S), INCLUDING HOW ABSINTHE IS MADE AND WHAT'S IN IT, AND ABOUT THE CATEGORY'S HISTORY
No need to be too scientific about this: the Wikipedia article is fine.
Distilled absinthe employs a method of production not unlike high quality gin. Botanicals are initially macerated in distilled base alcohol before being redistilled to exclude bitter principles, and impart the desired complexity and texture to the spirit.
The distillation of absinthe first yields a colourless distillate that leaves the alembic at around 72 % ABV. The distillate may be reduced and bottled clear, to produce a Blanche or la Bleue absinthe, or it may be coloured to create a verte using natural or artificial colouring. Traditional absinthes obtain their green colour strictly from the chlorophyll of whole herbs, which is extracted from the plants during the secondary maceration. This step involves steeping plants such as petite wormwood, hyssop, and melissa (among other herbs) in the distillate. Chlorophyll from these herbs is extracted in the process, giving the drink its famous green colour.
The history of absinthe is fascinating and is a key part of why your customers are interested to find out about absinthe. You can buy the Absinthe Encyclopedia, read Barnaby Conrad's Absinthe: History in a Bottle shown above, watch the film "Absinthe," or get a Brand Ambassador to come and talk about it. I have addressed the history side of absinthe (along with a few issues resulting from that) in my 10 key facts series.
So why is the history so interesting, even more relevant than knowing how absinthe is made? Put simply: "Sell the sizzle, not the sausage." Your customers are more interested in everything around absinthe (including the myths and half-truths which you can correct) than knowing every last detail of what's in it.
2. CHOOSE YOUR ABSINTHES WITH CARE
If your bar or restaurant sells a range of single malts, XO Cognac, some 100% blue agave tequilas, and some craft spirits, you should consider a range of absinthes to complement the rest of your list. Top bars may not want to carry the absinthe(s) that can be found in every local liquor store, and with the wide range of absinthes available nowadays you can choose a range that suits your bar, your needs, and your customers' expectations.
As a bare minimum, carry averteand ablanche, as recommended by Harry Johnson in 1882. Some customers expect the green fairy to be green or at least "greenish;" others will probably find a good "blanche" to be a softer introduction to absinthe or more versatile in a wider range of cocktails (it's not just me saying that: the famous Bariana Guide- the first French cocktail book - recommends blanches over vertes in several of its cocktails).
Develop and segment your absinthe list, either by country or by colour. A country split allows you to tell some of the history about Swiss origins and how Swiss moonshiners kept absinthe alive during the ban; and about French development, the green hour, the artists and the ban. And in some countries such as the USA, you can use a country split to tell the story of a locally made absinthe or two.
Select a range of tastes, from herbaceous to floral, from slightly more bitter to slightly sweeter.
If you only have 3 absinthes, make sure you can explain the differences to your customers. If you stock more than 20 absinthes ... make sure you can explain the differences to your customers!
Absinthes are a good revenue earner for bars, so it makes sense to stock premium quality absinthes, rather than trying to save a few dollars per bottle. Absinthe lovers are loyal to the category, and to the brands they love, so bars can use that to make customers loyal to them too. Absinthe lovers are big spenders, whether buying a traditional serve absinthe or absinthe in a cocktail, so keep them loyal!
3. SERVE ABSINTHE IN UP TO THREE DIFFERENT WAYS:
THE PERFECT POUR
The Perfect Pour, serving absinthe the traditional way via a fountain,
balancier or carafe, is what your customers who are discovering absinthe want to see.The ritual of the absinthe serve conveys all the history in an eye-catching way that will attract other customers in the bar to absinthe. Fountains, balanciers and carafes are part of that: customers love watching the "louche," the way the absinthe turns cloudy when chilled water is added slowly.
A carafe (which was evidently good enough for Van Gogh) ...
or a jug (provided it can be used to do a slow pour) can work just as well as a fountain (with less risk of breakage), and ideally your customer should be allowed to add the water himself. Recommend they pour it as slowly as possible, adding too little water to start with (2 - 3 parts of water with a 53%blanche, 3 - 4 parts of water with a 65%verte) on the basis that it's easier to add more water, than to take it out! After the first addition of water, they should taste and add more water to find what works for them. Like tea or coffee, we all have different preferences.
Sugar and spoon? They are fun, maybe, but after 8 years tasting lots of absinthes, I've come to the conclusion that many good absinthes don't need sugar. It is generally accepted that the betterblanchesin particular really don't need sugar.
Classic Cocktails with absinthe, almost all of which are listed here, are a must. One day, a bar will produce a printed cocktail menu offering all 105 cocktails containing absinthe from the 1930 Savoy Hotel Cocktail book (that's a challenge!), but in the meantime, make sure you can offer some of the basics, including
the Sazerac, the Corpse Reviver # 2, the Absinthe Frappé, as well as the slightly more modern Death in the Afternoon (I am sure good bartenders will be able to work on a much longer list than these classics). I also like to see how some bartenders introduce their own personal twist to the classics. A great example of this is London's Nightjar.
Modern mixes, using ingredients that were rare or even non-existent in the classic cocktail era. Using methods that come from other countries. Using molecular mixology. Drinks such as the Absinthe Mojito and the Bloody Fairy. Or a twist on the Caipirinha, using absinthe instead of cachaca.
Modern mixes may be how you can make a powerful statement as to what your bar is. They don't have to be over-complicated, and may just capitalise on, for example, the fruit bases and other ingredients that are available nowadays.
And here is a great way to communicate exactly that three way split of how to offer absinthe from the Onyx Lounge, LA.
4. HANDLING CUSTOMERS WHO KNOW "BETTER"
An interesting topic, raised by Evan Camomile, another absinthe blogger. He writes:"One thing every bartender will have to deal with is the customer who erroneously "knows better" and wants absinthe lit on fire or served in a shot."I guess you can add to that list the customer who wants to know the thujone content of an absinthe, and insists that this will influence his/her buying decision. There is a school of thought that says "the customer is always right," but in this instance I feel that a bartender will gain business for his bar in the long run by gently trying to persuade the customer of the error of his ways.
As far as a request for fire is concerned, a bartender could respond "We have a Health and Safety policy of not setting fire to any drinks in our bar, and in any case we believe that a burnt caramel taste does not improve good absinthes. Can we suggest you try absinthe the classic way as it was drunk in the 19th century or in a cocktail?"
Shots? "Absinthe was never made to be drunk as a shot: adding chilled water will give you a drink that will last three or four times as long, and one that almost all of our customers seem to prefer. Could we divide your drink between two glasses, add some chilled water to the second glass and ask you to compare the two different experiences for yourself?"
Thujone? "We do not know the thujone levels of the absinthes we have, and all the research we have done on this suggests it is not really relevant. All our absinthes are within the legal limit, and it really makes no difference to the drink what level it is. You'd have to drink several bottles of absinthe very quickly to get any so-called "absinthe effect," and we'd prefer you not to do that, for your health as much as anything!"
5. FURTHER STUDY!
Absinthe is a relatively new category in most markets, and therefore it presents a great opportunity for progressive bars to be innovative. Here are some ideas for how to capitalise on absinthe in your bar.
Ask an Absinthe Ambassador to run an Absinthe Masterclass in your bar, both for bar staff and for consumers (best run separately).
Run an Absinthe Dinner/Food Pairing event. These can be very effective at shaking up preconceptions of absinthe. The herbal make-up of absinthe probably works better with food than many other spirits.
Serve Absinthe Flights, allowing your customers to sample 3 very different styles. A flight of 3Vertesfrom France, Switzerland and the USA. Or of 3blanchesfrom different countries. Or 3 absinthes from one country. Or a flight of very small batch absinthes from different States/countries. And so on. This seems to be an excellent opportunity to attract consumers to your bar, especially if you're the first to do this in your area, and it's great for customers too.
Apparently, "absinthe makes the heart grow fonder," so celebrate Valentine's Day, host wedding parties etc ... using absinthe. Halloween is perfect for Corpse Revivers and the Death in the Afternoon.
The whole history of absinthe provides many other date-related events to use. The day it was banned, the day it was re-legalised, Van Gogh's birthday, etc etc. The opportunities for promotion are almost limitless.
And I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface here.
In just a few paragraphs, I cannot claim to provide absolutely everything that a bartender needs to help him use and serve absinthe. Absinthe also needs passion, interest and even love ... and not every bartender will love absinthe. That's precisely the opportunity for those who do love absinthe .. to allow your passion to shine through, and to enthuse your customers.