Las Vegas Green Fairy Tales: The Absinthe Bar at Sage, CityCenter
Of all inevitable places to have an Absinthe Bar, it's Las Vegas. And there it was, at the Sage Restaurant in Aria, part of the CityCenter enclave of exceptional architecture, retail, dining, and now, Absinthe. With that said, Sage is not the only place in Las Vegas to drink Absinthe -- Liquidity at Luxor, and the bars at Wynn have it also, but Sage's Absinthe service has a wide variety of type, education and drinking experience.. You leave there really knowing about the evolution and mystery of this unusual liqueur.
Absinthe's history is tied to heightened creativity, murder, dementia, and criminality. For 95 years, it was illegal to bring it into the United States. Absinthe is a 140-proof green liqueur made from fennel, anise, and the exceptionally bitter leaves of Artemisia Absinthium. That last ingredient, also known as wormwood, gives the drink its name, as well as its complex, sinister, yet creative reputation. Wormwood has in it an ingredient -- Thujone-- considered for years to be hallucinogenic. For a century, Absinthe was demonized and outlawed, based on the belief that it leads to Absinthism - a disease that supposedly caused epilepsy, dementia, hallucinations, and murder.
Absinthe Glow became a commonly used term, as, when mixed with sugar and water, Absinthe turns from a deep green to a milky opal, shot through with green flashes, as the flavor chemicals react with the mixer to form what is known as louche. Many artists claimed that a green Absinthe Fairy rose from the Absinthe and the louche, and came to help loosen their creative impulses.
By the early 20th century, as Absinthe was becoming popular in America, the drink was becoming unpopular in Europe, because of its Thujone content. The anti-Absinthe fervor apexed in 1905, when Swiss farmer shot his pregnant wife and two daughters after drinking two glasses. By the end of World War I, the Green Fairy became the Green Menace, and was made illegal everywhere in western Europe except Spain. No reputable distillery still made it. BUT, that did not mean it was not made, or could not be acquired.
What happened next appeared to be typical of substances that became popular, then were removed from public access. Like Prohibition in America in the 1920s, Absinthe was made illegal, just about everywhere. But, if a thirsty person wanted it, it could be acquired. And, over time, as with many prohibited substances, the underground market slowly surfaced, and eventually in 2007, the Absinthe prohibition ended.
Now, here we are in 2010, in the Absinthe Bar at Sage Restaurant, at Aria in CityCenter, Las Vegas. Tempus Fugit!
" There are many types of Absinthe we serve here," commented Tobias Peach in a recent interview. He is Manager of Aria, and of the Absinthe Bar at Sage. "Our varieties include Pernod 68, Grand Absente,Le Tourment Vert,and Lucid from France, St. George Vert from the United States, Mansinthe and Kubler from Switzerland, and Obsello from Spain. The shots range from about $20 to over $100.00 a shot . Also, we do have a special Absinthe that you must ask for -- we are hesitant to bring in out because it is so rare -- and its actually $335.00 a shot. We have to raise the price after each shot is consumed, because there is no more of it at present. But, not surprisingly, and probably because it is Las Vegas, price does not seem to be a major concern to many Absinthe drinkers. Our only caveat is we do have a three shot limit for all Absinthes here at Sage."
This warning was underscored by my experience at the Absinthe Bar about 3 weeks ago, where Brian, the Maitre'd said to us, " You have to remember that if you start feeling dizzy with the Absinthe, well, I have EMT ( Emergency Medical Tech) experience. And we have de-fibrillators here also." That bit of information certainly jarred us all back to reality!
"But then," he continued, " there are many ways, that Absinthe can be sampled. One of the more interesting ways was brought to us by an actual customer, a man from Sochi, in Russia -- where the next Winter Olympics will be held. He showed us something new, and said it was the way Absinthe was sampled in Sochi: he mixed orange juice, Angostura bitters, and Absinthe in a snifter, lit it on fire, the immediately poured the concoction, still on fire, out of the snifter into another glass" . Immediately afterward, he put the original snifter down on a linen towel, trapping the vapors. After that, the customers took straws to the breathe in the trapped vapors, and then took shorts of Absinthe. 'This is the Sochi way' he said, proudly."
But, of course, many Absinthe purists would reject that type of wild Russian fire ritual. The classic French preparation is much simpler and far less dangerous. The classic French Absinthe ritual involves placing a sugar cube on a flat perforated spoon, which rests on the glass containing a measure of Absinthe. Iced water is then very slowly dripped on to the sugar cube, which gradually dissolves and drips, along with the water, into the Absinthe, causing the green liquor to louche into an opalescent white, as the essential oils move out of the alcoholic solution. Usually three to four parts water are added to one part of 65% Absinthe.
As a dedicated Luxist journalist, it was necessary that I try both ways -- the Sochi way and the classic French. With the former, and as I don't smoke, I had a hard time inhaling those vapors. But, as someone who had never tasted Absinthe, I did not have a hard time tasting either way. I took a sip of one of the more expensive ones, not the $335 shot -- and found it to have a very herbal, smoky flavor with a mild licorice finish. To my mind, it also had no obvious taste of alcohol at all, which I would imagine is why it could be so, let us say, subtly affecting. As regarding Absinthe's effects? Well, I was not motivated to finish Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan, or start writing any Shakesperian or Petrarchan sonnets to old boyfriends.
But, I was reminded of what Oscar Wilde observed to his friend Ada Leverson about Absinthe: "After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world." When questioned further, the story went, Wilde launched into a serious, lucid/ drunk discussion of the relationship between metaphysics and the Victorian top hat. This allowed me to have a greater awareness that the Absinthe three shot limit at Sage was a wise caveat indeed.