Bridget tackles the Green Fairy at
Australia’s only dedicated Absinthe Bar
“Have you heard the one about a guy who walks into a bar…? How about the one where The Internet chef walks into a bar…?” And this is no ordinary bar, in fact it fails to resemble any bar I’ve ever had the fortune or misfortune of stepping into. Welcome to the world of the Absinthe Salon, the brainchild of Absinthe devotees Joop Van Heusden and Gaye Valltila.
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” And don’t even consider ordering a gin here. Joop an Gaye are an absinthe bar, pronounced Ab-sant, and absinthe is what you order and absinthe is what you drink. The Absinthe salon in Sydney’s Chic Surry Hills is unique in that they only serve absinthe ~ 28 varieties and all ranging in flavor, taste, price and alcohol content.
Stepping up to the nondescript door of the absinthe salon, you ring a bell to announce your arrival. There are no signs indicating what lies behind this iron clad doorway, just a simple plaque with 87 Albion Street gives those in the know the indication that they have arrived at there destination. Gaye greets you at the door with a warm smile and leads you through the front parlour to the bar and lounge area which delights in its design and feel. With such a dramatic change from roadside to barside the ambiance is intoxicating and breathes to you ‘Its time to relax and unwind’.
Black and beige French brassiere chairs hug the sides of white linen tables, ceremoniously set with silver Absinthe water fountains, silver spoons, bowls of white sugar cubes and different styles of heavy set absinthe glasses. A fiery red head, draped in a flowing green dress is painted on the back wall with an absinthe glass raised to the heavens and a black bar over flowing with glass and silverware sits on the opposing wall flanked by a glowing Verdigris three headed lamp post which warms the cosy room.
When I visited the salon, I felt like I had stepped back in time and in doing so felt rather underdressed in my hipster bootleg blue jeans and long flowing navy blue tunic. I needed a smooth drink to soothe my worries, and up stepped Joop to my table to take me through the absinthe journey. I had heard the stories. You know the ones that say that Absinthe is hallucinogenic and makes you feel like your on LSD. To much of the green fairy can drive you mad. Joop quickly dispelled all said rumors.
The story of absinthe is bitter sweet, romantic yet unfortunate by the rough reputation that precedes it. Absinthe started life in France and Switzerland in the 18th century as a medicinal drink. An elixir made from selected herbs that was used for those with stomach problems. Absinthe is the French word for wormwood which is the herb that is picked and then distilled to produce the drink. As it gained in popularity, it was discovered that when mixed with a small amount of water it become a delicious aperitif or pre-dinner drink.
Its popularity soared throughout the artistic and literature types in France becoming the symbol of the Belle Époque or beautiful era of European social history. “The green hour” was born from the light green tinge that good absinthe possesses. From the green hour, the green fairy came about due to the haze produced from the emulsification of the water and the absinthe. Such was its popularity that some distillers began producing inferior versions of absinthe to keep up with demand, many of which were using shortcuts and materials that were harmful when consumed. This combined with the French wine industries fear that absinthe would eventually take over wine sales lead to a political banning of absinthe in 1915.
The stories of hallucinations and people going mad from wormwood were some of the unjustified condemnations used by parties against absinthe to help in creating this prohibition that went right throughout many parts of Europe. Drinking absinthe will not drive you mad. Nor will you hallucinate. If you over indulge you will get very drunk as absinthe alcoholic strengths range from 45% to 70+%, but with Joop as your host, there is no chance that this will occur. The absinthe salon has a three drink policy. If you are intent on going onto the salon to get hammered, its best you find another watering hole.
Drinking absinthe is a ritual. Its social with no rush as you need to allow time for your drink to slowly draw itself. Once you decide which absinthe to try, its best to start off with the lower alcoholic varietals as they are very much like your entree ~ you need to ease yourself into it and awaken your taste buds gently.
The absinthe fountain on your table is filled with ice and water. Joop then free pours you a dose of absinthe at the table and instructs you on what to do next.
- Position your glass under the fountain tap.
- Place the spoon across the top of the glass
- Position a French ‘a la perruche’ sugar cube on to your spoon and directly under the fountain tap.
- Gently tun on the tap and allow the water to ever so slowly drip on to the sugar cube, dissolving as it goes.
- The absinthe will began to ‘louch’ or go cloudy and emulsify with the water.
- Once your drink reaches a ratio of 2 water to 1 absinthe. Turn off the tap.
- Remove the spoon from the glass and stir your drink gently before sipping leisurely
- If you feel your absinthe is to strong, you can adjust the strength by slowly adding more water, observing the drinks need to louche
Absinthe tastes of anise and fennel, and for my first glass which was a 45% Francios Guy, it was sweet, bright and lively, perfect for a warm summers afternoon. I enjoyed it immensely, noticing just a slight hint of wood behind the candy nose. At this stage its a good idea to move to another absinthe that’s slightly stronger in flavor and strength. Joop recommended for my mid level drink a 68% Eichelberger limitee distilled in Germany.
This Absinthe was a darker green than my starter and I found it to be well balanced with citrus and spice. It had a fuller mouth full and it louched a lot heavier than that of the Francois Guy. I drank this slower than the Guy as I immediately could feel an appealing lightness in my head. Joop refers to this as becoming lucid and euphoric. At no time did I begin hallucinating as I was far to busy enjoying the wonderful sensations brought on by the green hour.
In between sips, myself and my drinking ( or should I say sipping) companions were treated to a plate full of delectable sweets. Bricohe, chocolate covered biscuits and biscotti were eagerly nibbled at as we discussed war and peace through the eyes of the Belle Époque. Joop joined us, regaling us with fascinating stories of his love for this delightful activity.
Having Drink number three is a personal choice, and I chose ‘yes’ as did my table of merriment. As we were all now moving onto the top level, we allowed Joop’s experience and professional approach to the task to guide us in the right direction. I felt like I had won the lottery as Joop proudly poured me a dose from a bottle that was not on the list. It was a 72% Jade Edouard absinthe, the famed French distillation that is made exactly as it would have been pre ban or pre 1915. “This…”, I am told “Is absinthe”
It has a deep creamy mouth feel, strong flavor of herbs and the slight bitterness of wormwood. The liquorice from the anise was delightful and complex. Its strength numbed my tongue somewhat but allowed the back of the mouth to detect some citrus. It was smooth as silk yet packed a wonderful punch.
Joop plans to get little buttons made for those of us that have successful completed the top level. I could have happily done one more, but as Joop so correctly put it, the three drink limit is there for a reason. The wormwood in the drink numbs the tongue and after three drinks you can no longer taste the flavor or strength of the absinthe, which makes continuing to drink it dangerous and silly as it becomes an alcohol bomb.
I had bombed out on my attempt to get anymore, but my head thanked me the next day as I awoke feeling only slightly groggy due to the late night rather than over consumption.
Joop and Gaye plan to open other absinthe salons so more lucky people can partake in the experience. With their flagship Surry Hills bar being booked out three weeks in advance on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, it pays to give them a ring rather than popping in on the off chance. They also sell bottles of Absinthe online and are the largest distributors of Absinthe in Australia. You can also purchase fountains, spoons and glassware from them too ~ an Absinthe party in the making!
So if your planning on a night at the salon, I suggest you grab a few ‘nice’ friends, book yourself a table near the window, and dress to impress because you won’t feel out of place in all your elegant finery. Ask Joop to the tell you the story of Absinthe and allow yourself to float away with the green fairy.
Absinthe Salon: 87 Albion Street Surry Hills, Sydney Australia
+64 2 9211 6632
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