You don’t see much absinthe these days. Most bars have a dusty bottle or two on their topmost shelves, but orders tend to be limited to dirty pints by particularly cruel birthday party attendees. Unlike rum, pisco, whisky and especially gin, absinthe hasn’t enjoyed a fashionable revival in recent years, but that could be about to change.
One reason it hasn’t happened yet is probably because absinthe is scary. It’s bright green, for one, the same colour of arsenic and also of Mickey Finn’s brand apple sours, which should never be drunk in any circumstances. It’s also strong – at least 45%, but as much as 70% – and tastes like sambuca on steroids. You’ll have heard (false) rumours of hallucinations (you’d die of alcohol poisoning before the tiny trace of hallucinogenics in the stuff got you), and it was, after all, banned all over Europe. (Though not, interestingly, in the UK.) Finally, there’s the various paraphernalia that comes with drinking absinthe: the ornate fountains, the glass chalices and the little perforated spoons that look, well, a bit methy.
Absinthe’s saviour comes in the unlikely guise of a Hackney pub called the Bonneville, which is decked out like Jack the Ripper’s living room, if Jack the Ripper were French and had a thing for stuffed rhino heads. (The toilets, especially, are something to behold. They are the second coolest bogs I’ve ever had the privilege to piss in, after Sketch’s egg pods.)
In addition to Belgian beers and locally-made spirits (including some from the East London Liquor Co down the road), the Bonneville also offers a selection of absinthe cocktails, most of which I’d never seen before on any drinks list. I was actually in attendance for a blogger event specifically to sample these concoctions, so I got to try the lot. *hic*
The simplest way to drink absinthe is la louche, which means ‘cloudy’, and requires the use of a beautiful absinthe fountain and a specially designed slotted spoon to dilute a cube of sugar into the drink, which on its own is quite bitter. For me, it didn’t do enough to tone down the spirit’s natural anise flavour, which I’m not keen on. That was okay though, because absinthe actually turned out to be quite versatile, despite its strong, distinctive taste. (It’s also not ever designed to be drunk as a shot – it should be watered down or used in a cocktail.)
We pushed on to ‘Mauresque’ (£7.00), which tasted of liquid marzipan, and ‘Tomate’ (£7.00), a grenadine-tinted variation. ‘The Green Beast’ (£7.00), the Bonneville’s most popular absinthe cocktail, was almost universally agreed to be the tastiest, watered down with sugar syrup, tang’d up with a generous dash of lime and garnished with cucumber. (I loathe cucumber, but it was quite delicious once I’d fished it out.) For those who like their cocktails a little sweeter, ‘Le Bonnebonne’ (£7.00) mixes absinthe with Chambord for an aniseed spin on a Clover Club, though not, I think, as tart.
My personal favourite was the ‘Sazerac’ (£8.50), invented in New Orleans and nowadays the official cocktail of Louisiana, which I think is wonderful. (I wonder what the official cocktail of London would be? Perhaps something gin-based, muddled with English strawberries.) It’s a twist on an Old Fashioned, and named for the cognac that makes up most of the alcohol by volume. I like absinthe best when it’s not overpowering, so this – along with the excellent, gin-based ‘Corpse Reviver No. 2’ (£7.00) – is the cocktail for those who aren’t die-hard aniseed fans.
Absinthe can count quite a number of creative geniuses in its fan club alumni: Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway and almost every nineteenth century French artist worth a damn, including Van Gogh. After a night muddling through the Bonneville’s entire cocktail list, though, I can’t say I felt any more creative, or, indeed, any more ingenious. Surely it can’t be coincidence? I’ll have to keep drinking it, just to make sure…
The Bonneville, 43 Lower Clapton Rd, London E5 0PQ
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in Islington and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.