At the Fells Point cocktail bar Rye, it’s easy to spot an absinthe rookie.
“We’ll often get questions like, ‘Is this going to make me hallucinate?’” said Perez Klebahn, managing partner. “You can always tell it’s somebody’s first time because they’ll say, ‘Can I get a shot of absinthe?’ You don’t really do shots. We explain it to them.”
Rye celebrated National Absinthe Day on Monday with an all-night party. In honor of the holiday we asked Klebahn to break down the truth and fiction surrounding the green, highly alcoholic spirit that’s popping up in more Baltimore bars these days, including Rye and the Bluebird Cocktail Room in Hampden.
No, it won’t make you hallucinate.
Absinthe’s supposed hallucinogenic qualities have been celebrated and discussed in art, movies, literature and music for centuries. To be clear, though, absinthe does not possess any “Green Fairy”-type qualities that will send you down a trippy, surrealist journey, Klebahn said.
Absinthe is a high-proof spirit (45 percent to 70 percent ABV, typically) like tequila and gin, he said, so if you drink enough of it, your mind could enter a drunken stupor.
“The truth is it’s a very tasty spirit that’s not hallucinogenic unless you consume mass quantities of it,” Klebahn said, “and then it’s going to be just the strength of the alcohol that’s causing it.”
But the lure and myth surrounding absinthe is part of its fun.
Part of absinthe’s fun is its mysterious reputation, though, Klebahn said. He loves the romanticism — passed down for generations around the world — tied to the spirit.
“If you’re looking at what it did to Parisian artists in the late 1800s and in the cafes, these brooding artists were finding their muse and doing all these opiates and so forth” while drinking absinthe, he said. “That kind of adds to the lure.”
In that era, opponents of alcohol and its perceived negative effects on society — like the French psychiatrist Valentin Magnan — pointed to absinthe as a particularly notorious influence capable of “neurological disturbances, including mental changes and epileptic seizures,” according to the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. More years of studying absinthe and its components have debunked such thinking.
How’s it taste, though?
Absinthe is not for the timid, and if you hate anise and licorice flavors — which dominate the spirit — you might want to reconsider. The bartenders at Rye, though, can’t get enough of it.
“We’re anise heads here, to be truthful,” Klebahn said. “We use a lot of anise in our cocktails. I think it gives it a nice roundness, an umami that cocktails are missing.”
A proper introduction to absinthe requires a specific drinking technique, Klebhan said. Beyond absinthe, you’ll need ice water, a sugar cube, a perforated spoon and a cordial or coupe glass.
A sugar cube is placed on the spoon, which is then put on top of the glass of absinthe. The water is delicately poured onto the cube like a slow drip, which then dissolves into the spirit. You’re essentially diluting and sweetening the absinthe, Klebahn said.
The dilution is similar to an ice cube in a high-proof whiskey. The water and sugar combination also highlights the absinthe’s botanicals and essential oils, he said. “It all kind of opens up,” he said of the flavors.
Rye has 12 types of absinthe, with one-ounce pours ranging from $7 to $30.
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Rye incorporates absinthe in a handful of its cocktails. For the uninitiated, Klebahn recommends the Coin Operated Boy, which is basically a whiskey sour without the egg white. For this cocktail and others, his goal is to make absinthe a subtle, more underlying flavor, and not one that dominates the drink. There’s also rum-based cocktails like the Five Points and the Thirteen Songs that incorporate absinthe.
A staff favorite is an even simpler combination: absinthe and root beer. “It’s just a pleasant flavor,” Klebahn said.
So let’s say I’m hooked now.
You’re in luck. Rye will soon launch “Emerald Hour,” an absinthe-focused happy hour every Wednesday.