Charles Baker and Absinthe

Charles Baker is my hero. Like many other cocktail enthusiasts, I have fallen for his languid prose and bon vivant lifestyle set against the backdrop of exotic locales from the distant past. Ah, what it must have been like, traveling the world in search of the redolent and quaint, throwing back drinks with Ernest Hemingway and other exciting personalities, stumbling through foreign towns discovering and rediscovering the fabulous and the sublime all in the name of experience and adventure. Baker escaped America, and its ever-present Puritanical leanings, at the exactly the right time, Prohibition, to tramp the world in search of excitement, or at least great food and drink. One part cocktail guide, one part travelogue, and one part memoir, The Gentleman's Companion: Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask is perhaps the original blueprint for a cocktail blog: you won't love all the drinks, you might not even try all the drinks, but what will bring you back again and again is his wit and the excellent prose.

This book, like many other cocktail guides of yore, begins with absinthe. Warning: any cocktail with absinthe in the title is going to be full of black licorice-y goodness. Your mouth will be coated in refreshing anise and you will be lucky if you can taste anything else for a while. It is the nature of the beast that is absinthe. So, when undertaking the absinthe-based cocktail challenge, it is crucial to choose an absinthe that you like on its own, say in an absinthe drip. And if absinthe isn't your cup of tea, these drinks may not be for you. Sorry. The truth is that you can use absinthe as a accent, but when it is the base you can only bump up other flavors against it; at the end of the day, nothing will make it budge. For Baker's absinthe cocktail, I chose the Herbsaint Legendre. Granted, this is not an absinthe per se, but I enjoyed its complexity in a Sazerac so much that I thought, why not? Its proof is a little lower and it won't turn pearlescent in the presence of water, but I figured, close enough.

Absinthe Cocktail (as adapted)

1 1/2 jiggers absinthe (2 1/4 ounces!)
1 dash anis, anisette
1/2 jigger water (3/4 ounce)
1 tsp or less simple syrup (1 tsp)
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters
1 tsp egg white (1/4 ounce for two)

Dry shake ingredients. Add cracked ice and shake very hard. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass . Twist a piece of lemon or lime peel over the surface, but do not drop in.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Herbsaint Legendre for the absinthe, Sambuca in the place of anisette, and a richer demerara and turbinado simple syrup of 1.5:1. The orange bitters were Angostura orange.

I can't say that this was the most successful absinthe cocktail I have ever had. Let's start there. It was bright green, as expected, like the Wicked Witch of the West's face. The inclusion of the egg white produced a smidgen of white foam on top. The measly teaspoon of egg white that Baker calls for greatly limits the foaminess. The drink smelled of anise and tasted of anise. The lemon oils, though, were noticeable in the aroma and, to a lesser extent, the first sip. But barring that first sip, I could not detect the presence of anything else, save the slight sweetness that the sugar added. The egg white, though paltry, did contribute its characteristic smooth texture to the drink. Alas, though I tried to push through, and have in fact enjoyed an absinthe cocktail in the past, I couldn't finish this one. I wonder if using a real absinthe would help, but instead of going down that patch, I geared myself up for the absinthe frappe.

Absinthe Frappe (as adapted)

2 ounces absinthe
1/2 tsp anis del mono or French anisette
1 glass of cracked ice (1 cup cracked ice)
(4 mint leaves)

(Muddle mint briefly in anisette in a chilled mixing glass. Remove mint.) Add ingredients and shake hard but briefly. Pour into chilled rocks glass. Garnish with green straw. 

Notes on ingredients: I used Absinthe Verte de Fougerolles and Sambuca in the place of anisette.

This drink was much more successful. I chose to add the muddled mint mostly because of the previous drink's failure. And in the past, I had consumed a wonderful absinthe julep with muddled mint, simple syrup, and absinthe, so why not? The fact is that in spite of my intentions, I couldn't taste the mint. Oh well. But in general I found this tipple extremely tasty and refreshing. I don't know if it was because of the relative simplicity of this drink , or because I used a real absinthe. The cracked ice made sure that the absinthe could evolve through the various stages of dilution, and I could really taste the different notes in the absinthe itself. Regardless, this drink made me almost forget the previous absinthe cocktail and was a nice end to the evening. All's well that ends well, in cocktails at least.