The first thing that hits you on entering the Absinthe Salon is the heady scent of aniseed. It fills the air and smacks you in the face, taking a few moments to get used to. The next thing you notice is that the front room is a shop and not a bar: there’s bottles, books and absinthe-related paraphernalia such as slotted spoons but no tables and chairs. It turns out the Absinthe Salon started off as an online store and while they still can’t sell absinthe by the bottle over the counter (although that might change in the future), you can go into the back to buy it by the glass.
Accompanied by a friend, a bartender who’s served a lot of absinthe in his time, I head into the back to find what initially looks more like a tea room than a bar. The music is quiet, it’s well lit, there’s an Art Nouveau street lamp in the middle of the room and, most notably, there are small tables spread out, with each one containing old-fashioned metal and glass fountains containing ice water. The idea is that the absinthe is poured into a glass, a slotted spoon is placed on top, followed by a sugar cube, and ice-cold water is then dripped onto the cube from the fountain’s taps. The water and sugar both dissolves and dilutes the absinthe, causing the absinthe to become slightly milky in colour (the term for this is louche, which is French for opaque), just as ouzo does when water is added.
Before I go further, however, it’s probably time for a ultra-brief absinthe lesson. Even though absinthe has been banned around the world, was considered hallucinogenic and held responsible for driving the likes of Van Gogh mad due to its use of wormwood, a herb that contains the toxic chemical thujone, in reality the amount of thujone contained in absinthe is negligible (incidentally, thujone is also found in sage) and it’s only in the past ten years that scientists have proven that absinthe is actually harmless – at least, as harmless as a spirit that’s between 45 and 74 per cent alcohol can be.
Now to think of it, maybe it did drive Van Gogh mad.
The taste and drinking method of absinthe is also often misunderstood. Because absinthe has been unavailable for so long in most of the world the original recipes were often not followed, especially in the initial revival of absinthe in the 90s. As such, the absinthes that made it to market (and I’m mainly referring to those from the Czech Republic) were often too bitter and not representative of what people in Paris and New Orleans (these two cities were absinthe hotspots) drank a hundred years ago. This may explain why some people use absinthe in cocktails to mask the flavour or use the “bohemian” method of drinking it, where people soak a sugar cube in absinthe, light it and then drop it in a glass of absinthe – a method that purists frown on. But enough about the history (although I do suggest reading this Wired feature) – back to the review.
We’re presented with a menu that shows a wide variety of absinthes (no other drink is on offer) along with detailed descriptions of each. My friend says that Swiss absinthes are often smoother than those from other countries and opts for the Kübler (53 per cent and is clear rather than green in colour) while I follow the advice of the man who serves us by ordering the Verte de Fougerolles, an unfiltered traditional French absinthe that’s 72 per cent alcohol.
After hearing about how bitter some absinthes can be and not being a huge fan of aniseed I’m surprised by how much I enjoy my Verte de Fougerolles. It might have a similar smell to Sambucca and ouzo but the flavour is complex and pleasant. It’s not something you’d want to sip on a tropical beach but I can imagine it being perfect in a Parisian den of iniquity.
Having said that, my friend was right about the Swiss: when I taste his Kübler I’m surprised by how much of a difference there is. It’s much smoother and has a nice velvety mouth feel afterwards – as he puts it, it’s like having your mouth coated with liquorice.
Despite being the middle of the week almost all the tables here are full – when we first walked in it was mainly men (to our surprise) but by the end the balance shifts and there’s a few girls on their own as well as couples. I’m not sure whether I would take a date here myself but, considering the kick that the absinthe gives me (and it’s quite a buzz) it probably would be conducive to romance if only they dimmed the lights a bit to give it more of a romantic (or den of iniquity) feel. After all, the Absinthe Salon has everything else: a great selection, friendly service, and some fantastic water fountains to help recreate the whole decadent experience. If you want to try absinthe for yourself, then this place is worth visiting.
Update: since writing this review, I ordered a bottle of the Jade Nouvelle Orleans, which is made by the same guy (Ted Breaux) mentioned in the Wired story above. The NO is considered one of the world’s best absinthes and, in keeping with its concept of being as close as possible to the original absinthes, comes with a cork that is sealed with wax. Opening it was a son of a bitch and I destroyed the cork (and only through luck avoided getting any cork in the absinthe) but the Nouvelle Orleans is my favourite absinthe so far: gentle, complex, very easy to drink and with a beautiful aftertaste.
Absinthe Salon, 87 Albion Street, Surry Hills. See the Absinthe Salon website or phone 9211 6632. Open Wednesday to Saturday from 4pm to 10pm. Prices range from $13 to $22 per glass.
Now it’s your turn – how do you rate Absinthe Salon?