One of the only things I brought back from Prague was a bottle of one of my favourite tipples from duty free in Ruzyne airport. I really love absinthe but rarely drink any since few places offer it. Having heard talk of using sugar cubes and naked flames in the preperation of the drink I thought I’d look into it in more depth before I had a go at mixing my own…
Czech or Bohemian absinth (apart from losing the “e”) contains little or no anise or any of the other flavours you find in other European blends and tastes almost overwhelmingly of pure alcohol (probably due to the fact that it’s 70% proof) and put me in mind of a treacherous home-made cherry brandy I was given by the owners of a guest house where I stayed in Transylvania. A visit to Wikipedia confirmed that my absinth was indeed closer in nature to that infamous brandy than genuine absinthe as in most cases Czech absinth is actually just high proof alcohol or vodka with artificial colours. Certainly it proved almost entirely undrinkable neat.
Even with good quality absinthe adding water and a little sugar is an important part of preparing the drink as the sugar removes a little of the bitterness from the anise and the water (as with whisky) helps to bring out many other flavours that have been smothered by the strength of the alcohol. Mine is not good quality absinthe and so the water and the sugar wouldn’t improve the drink but they might just help to make it drinkable and I could make doubly sure of this by setting fire to it.
Not possessing something as practical as an absinthe spoon I had to make do with a large stainless steel kitchen spoon with the necessary slots and balancing it on an adjacent tumbler. The absinth goes into the glass; the spoon is positioned with a sugar cube in the centre. I measured out the absinth (carefully as I can’t really find a use for alcohol poisoning at the present) and set an equal measure of water (as the ratio needs to be 1:1) alongside it. I poured the absinth over the sugar cube which subsequently drained straight into the glass. I then took great glee in setting alight the absinth-drenched sugar cube before tipping it into the glass causing the whole thing to glow with that blue flame you only get with very strong liquor. Adding the water then puts out the flame and the spoon can be used to breakdown the sugar cube and stir the drink. I’ve tried this a few times and the water doesn’t always smother the flame but blowing it out works just fine and the stirring part should only be attempted with an actual absinth spoon and not a huge hand-trowel normally used for taking veg out of very hot water. You’ll know it’s worked when a lot of the alcohol has burned away and after starting with a ferocious and largely toxic liquid you end up with a palatable drink tasting similar to Ouzo. Not the absinthe I remember but something that tastes OK and goes well with the last of my dubious Czech Marlboro Lights.
Not that anyone will go out of their way to get hold of Czech absinth, but I ought to point out that you should only set light to stuff to in controlled conditions. And do remember to blow out the flame before you raise the glass to your lips.