So Much Absinthe: Firpo's Balloon

What is it about a full jigger of absinthe that so intrigued Charles Baker? While tastes have changed since the late 1930s, especially those regarding sweetness, Mr. Baker's fascination with all things involving heaping amounts of absinthe befuddles me. As someone who used recently learned to enjoy all things licorice-flavored, I can completely appreciate the beauty that hints of anise bring to so many classic cocktails, such as the Morning Glory, the Sazerac, or any Improved Cocktail. I can even understand the joys of a  Suissesse, Absinthe cocktail, Absinthe frappe, or any other cocktail that is wholly centered on the unique flavor profile of absinthe. But what I can't grasp is why anyone would make a cocktail with all these other substantial ingredients and then add so much absinthe to it that nothing else could be tasted. If you want an absinthe-based drink, have an absinthe drip.

Firpo's Balloon is one of Baker's more notorious drinks in this respect. Baker collected many extremely tasty libations like the Remember the Maine, the Jimmie Roosevelt, and the Hotel Nacional Special, which have turned many cocktail enthusiasts into hard-core Baker aficionados. But it is usually the Balloon, or one of the other drinks like it, that marks the time where the fascination begins to wane. Firpo's Balloon is one of those cocktails that creates skepticism, if not outright contempt. You don't even have to drink it to know something is wrong. The recipe provides all you need to know; we attempted it anyway.

Firpo's Balloon Cocktail (mildly adapted)

1 jigger rye (1 ounce)
 1 jigger sweet vermouth (1 ounce)
1 jigger absinthe (1/2 ounce)
2 dashes orange bitters
1 1/2 teaspoons egg white

Dry shake ingredients. Add ice to shaker and shake again. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Pray.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Pikesville rye, Martini & rossi vermouth, and Angostura orange bitters.

The original recipe calls for an entire jigger of absinthe. I just couldn't do it. The point was made just as thoroughly with half the amount. This cocktail smelled and tasted heavily of absinthe. None of the other ingredients could puncture this hard steel casing of absinthe. I wasn't surprised. But sometimes a drink can provide a cocktail geek like me with something beyond the mere exploration of flavors. It's hard to admit, but I have actually been looking forward to this drink for quite some time. For the nature of experimentation, I assure you. Before Firpo's Balloon, I had never tasted, or for that matter ever heard of, a cocktail that included egg white, and that did not also include some form of citrus. Egg white cocktails almost always call for some form of lemon or lime juice because the acids help stabilize that beautiful characteristic foam. I was very curious to see what happened when egg white was called for in a cocktail consisted entirely of, well, alcohol. Result: given the small amount of egg white, only a very little foam appeared. In contrast to most egg white drinks, the Balloon's texture was not velvety--in fact, it was quite grainy. And thus, our ultimate conclusions were: it tasted one-dimensional and the mouth feel made it undrinkable. Alas, a sink donation.

When I first really looked at the ingredients in an effort to salvage the Balloon, I felt very optimistic. Vermouth, rye and bitters--hello Manhattan variation. By significantly decreasing the absinthe, this drink is absolutely wonderful. In fact it could be considered a close relative of William Schmidt's Manhattan recipe in The Flowing Bowl. The differences are small but significant, my variation of Baker's Balloon will include some amount of egg white, and Schmidt uses gum syrup and maraschino. This similarity aside, a Manhattan with absinthe sounded fabulous to me. The question became--how much egg white do I use? I decided to see what would happen if I used the same amount of egg white that I would use in a whiskey sour.

Firpo's Balloon Cocktail (as adapted, trial #1)

2 ounces rye
1 ounce sweet vermouth
3 dashes absinthe
2 dashes orange bitters
1/2 egg white

Dry shake ingredients. Add ice and shake again . Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The drink looked gorgeous, almost like coffee ice cream with a big layer of foam. The aroma smelled of anise mingling with the rich herbal notes of the vermouth. Each sip started with the flavors of the absinthe and vermouth, again herbal and rich. The flavor of the rye created the perfect foundation and rounded out the flavors. The orange hints and dryness of the bitters came through at the end before the vermouth and the absinthe mellowed into the aftertaste. The texture was the real star--a creamy, velvety Manhattan with a touch of anise. Unfortunately, it was too good to last. About halfway through, I noticed particles sinking to the bottom of the glass. As it turned out, with all of that booze, the egg white just wouldn't stay together. Back to the drawing board.

Firpo's Balloon Cocktail (as adapted, trial #2)

2 ounces rye
1 ounce sweet vermouth
3 dashes absinthe
2 dashes angostura bitters
2 teaspoons egg white

Dry shake ingredients. Add ice and shake again. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.

I didn't change anything except for the amount of egg white and the bitters. I went back to the original amount for the egg white and found that such a small amount is exactly what this cocktail needs. While it wasn't as pretty as the last--the color was not as rich and no real foam appeared--it did not separate. The smell and taste were very similar to that above. I did replace the orange bitters with aromatic on the fly, which was a welcome addition. The spiciness came through on the aftertaste and really brought the idea of the Manhattan to the forefront. The texture was still creamy and smooth, though less so, as expected. All in all, a worthwhile experiment, with a very tasty cocktail at experiment's end. Now I feel like Mr. Baker's words will work: "This is another one to watch cannily lest our pedal extremities fold up at some totally inappropriate moment." Indeed!

1 comment:

  1. Really? All of that effort (and expense) and I'm the first to comment? Sorry, I'm just discovering your (not so) hidden talent...well written, and I'm intrigued by your diligence! Way to find the "sweet spot"!