Montreal: Sarah B. Absinthe Bar
Posted by Degan on March 1st, 2011
While we were in Montreal, we stumbled (literally, between my bad knee and all the icy sidewalks) into a happy hour at the hotel next to ours, specifically the Sarah B. Absinthe in the InterContinental Hotel. It seemed like a throw-away, an absinthe bar named in honor of Sarah Bernhardt with a longer absinthe list than I’ve seen in a long time. We pulled up to the bar and ordered two in an absinthe drip – a Hills for Matt, and a La Clandestine for me. The Hills turned out to be a poor choice, overly chemical and not smooth in the slightest (despite their advertising), but the Clandestine…oh my, this is a gorgeous absinthe. It’s from Switzerland, the historic home of absinthe, it turns out. Rather than Paris, where “La Fée Verte” (the Green Fairy) was popular in creative circles in the 19th century, or Eastern Europe where it appears to be common currently, absinthe was first created in the Val-de-Travers region.
It’s a clear spirit, which was unexpected for me – I’ve always had absinthe with a greenish tinge – but also supremely smooth. The way the botanicals play off each other reminds me more of a sophisticated Chartreuse or Lillet than what we’ve come to think of as absinthe in North America. To test out the limits of the drink, we sampled a couple of absinthe cocktails from the bar, but we both preferred it the traditional way.
If you haven’t had it before, absinthe is a an anise flavoured spirit that is derived from botanicals. Historically these have included wormwood, a botanical that is in fact a neurotoxin and has been banned in some countries (and therefore absinthe has had a bit of a speckled history) but governments are coming around and it’s no longer banned in B.C. although there are also several non-authentic (i.e.: non-wormwood) varieties on the market.
To add to the confusion, absinthe is often classified as a liqueur, even though sugar is not added until serving (therefore rendering it a spirit by definition).
To serve it, sugar needs to be added. It will often be served in a special fountain with taps on the side. A glass of absinthe will be placed under each, with a slotted spoon and a cube of sugar on top. When the taps are opened, the water drips through the sugar cube, sweetening the spirit. Alternatively, if you don’t have a fountain, you can still place sugar on the slotted spoon and drip water from a glass (with a spoon). Once the absinthe is diluted and sweetened, it will be ready to drink and the character of the absinthe will come out.
If you haven’t had proper absinthe, you absolutely must find an opportunity to do so. Find the good stuff and make sure it’s prepared properly. At the time of this writing, La Clandestine was not available in B.C. so we had to bring some back but you can now find it in specialty liquor stores.
Photos used with permission from the Intercontinental Hotel.