Bringing Out the Best
Some spirits are best consumed neat. Others are better appreciated when chilled or served on the rocks. Some benefit from a splash of soda or shine when integrated into a classic cocktail. And then there’s absinthe. The spirit’s dominant anise, fennel, and mint flavors are, by themselves, unique among most alcohol distillations. But its separation from its peers is heightened further when louching—the time-consuming method of adding sugar and water—is added to the equation.
The purist segment of absinthe connoisseurs will tell you that the method is a necessary step in the spirit’s consumption. But louching is more than just a preparation, it’s a transformation. The technique, which rose to prominence during absinthe’s 19th-century heyday, requires a slow, dissolving drip of cold water over a sugar cube, which is set on a slotted spoon resting above a glass of absinthe.
Louching is considered the proper way to imbibe absinthe for two reasons. First, the spirit is notoriously high in proof; many brands register as much as 70 percent alcohol by volume—a stronger measurement than most cask-strength whiskies and overproof rums. If it weren’t for the addition of water and sugar, the alcohol would overwhelm the other flavors. Second—and perhaps more important—the slow, steady infusion of water releases essential oils from the herbs that are at absinthe’s core. During the process, the liquid slowly changes from a translucent emerald green to a milky whitish-green, and the flavors blend and soften. It’s as beautiful to look at as it is to drink.
A modern-day twist on the absinthe ritual involves pouring absinthe over the sugar cube, lighting it on fire, and using the water to slowly extinguish the flame. This pyro-focused approach horrifies many purists, but it’s an interesting and appealing variation for laymen and newcomers. “The flaming sugar cube is going to caramelize the sugar, so it’s going to add a different flavor,” explains Todd Licea, a bartender at Manhattan’s absinthe-centric William Barnacle Tavern. “Different absinthes have different alcohol content, thus the sugar cube burns at a different temperature, so you get a whole different process happening depending on which brand you use. The flame is a lot more beautiful at higher proof.”
Idealists advocate that the perfect louche requires a Parisian café and a long and lazy afternoon, but absinthe spoons are easy to find and can bring a touch of Paris to any home bar. More ambitious absintheurs can go the route of an absinthe fountain, a large tabletop affair usually made of glass and silver with several tiny faucets designed for slow, steady, and beautiful louching rituals.