I just finished an article on absinthe, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to do the piece, as I will admit that it's not a spirit I particularly knew a great deal about before I started my search. I got a bottle of Lucid last year, and excitedly prepared it the traditional way (1 ounce of absinthe, plus 4 ounces of ice water slowly poured over a sugar cube until it louches--i.e. turns milky white, the result of botanicals that can't remain in solution after water is added.) While I like a piece of licorice taffy now and again, I found a whole glass of that flavor to be too much for me personally. But, as I found out, there's much more to absinthe than the fountain, or rinsing the glass for a Sazerac.
Whether you love licorice/anise, or not, if you haven't given absinthe a try either with sugar and water, or in an inventive cocktail, I encourage you to do so. Ted Breaux, Lucid's Master Distiller, told me that while Europe has a long history with the product, much of what is released there nowadays are novelty products--basically vodka with artificial coloring and flavors. By contrast, most of the brands available in the U.S. are of high caliber--so you have the chance to try some good stuff. Breaux refers to absinthe as "perfume with a punch," and his brand was the first to be relaunched in the U.S. after the government lifted the ban in 2007.
Swiss Kubler Absinthe seems to be the darling of creative mixologists these days. The Edison Downtown in Los Angeles has four or so seasonal cocktails with absinthe at any given time, all made with Kubler. The Moonlight cocktail mixes Kubler with gin, Luxardo Marashino and St. Germain; while Mr. Prosser's Formula combines the Green Fairy with white grape juice and a bit of pineapple. The Edison sells the most absinthe in the United States at a freestanding bar. Director of Spirits and Beverages Aidan Demarest explains that "People are very interested in the history, how it became legal, whether there is 'real' wormwood in it. My staff had an intensive training on absinthe and absinthe cocktails before we introduced it. "
As far as the wormwood question--there is so little in modern brands that the amount of alcohol you would need to consume for the wormwood to have any mental effect would be far more dangerous than the wormwood itself...
Breaux recognizes that the American palate is not accustomed to the flavor or anise/licorice, and also admits that absinthe does not easily mix with everything. His suggestions? Try pineapple juice, cranberry juice, ginger, mint, almond and coconut (though not all in the same drink...). But he recommends avoiding lime juice--not a perfect partner. And you probably don't want to mix it with another high proof spirit like vodka or gin, since it already packs a potent proof.
Bar guests who think they just can't get past that strong licorice flavor but want to sample absinthe nonetheless have one of two options: try it in a cocktail, where the amount is typically smaller than other ingredients so it doesn't overwhelm more delicate flavors; or try absinthe traditionally, but with Mata Hari absinthe. A so-called "Bohemian style," Mata Hari admittedly doesn't have historical roots, but the anise flavor is muted so the herbal components come through. I tried Mata Hari a few nights ago, and it was a lot more palatable drinking it with water and sugar than I found other brands to be.
My article will appear in the August issue of Nightclub and Bar. I'll post it and Twitter about it when it's out.