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The Freewheel line with a couple of English friends.

It takes a lot of beer to keep the wine business running smoothly. Here in Redwood City, we are very fortunate to have a great English style ale producer right in our backyard: Freewheel Brewing Company. The staff of K&L are fictures at our local pub, and it is a rare moment when one of us isn't there having a pint and a bite of their excellent food. We are also lucky enough to be the first place to offer their bottled beer for sale. If you have never had it, the Freewheel Brewing "FSB" Freewheel Special Bitter, California (500ml) is the benchmark in fresh, balanced, smashable ale. We will do our best to keep some in stock for you, the customer too!

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Absinthe: No Longer Trendy, Still Very Essential (Home Bar, Part 4)

I can always remember my first few months here at K&L well because it was around the time that the US lifted its ban on absinthe, and the nation went crazy on what they thought was going to be the revival of a once-great elixir. There were reports of people camping out overnight at the Hangar One Distillery in Alameda in order to secure their place in line for the first batch of St. George, and I recall practically the entire staff here buying a bottle of the limited allocation when we received it (even the non-spirits drinkers). Absinthe was the hot ticket in the Bay Area. Fancy stainless steel pourers were being showcased along with slotted spoons in an attempt to market the romanticism behind the enjoyment of the spirit, made famous in numerous classic novels and movies. People were having absinthe parties lavishly prepared with designer sugar cubes and sterling silver four-spouted drippers in an attempt to recreate the legendary sessions of Van Gogh and other European artists said to have gone mad from intoxication. Absinthe was on top of every enthusiast’s shopping list and then all of a sudden: absinthe sales died.

What happened is still not 100% clear. There seem to be more than a few reasons behind the declining interest, one of which being the underwhelming experience that newcomers like myself had upon introduction. Having tasted guests on my own personal stash shortly after the boom, I found a general sense of disappointment among those who sampled it. It basically just tasted like hot alcohol and anise, and when watered down it tasted like watered-down alcohol and anise. The mythical legend of wormwood as a possible hallucinogen was quickly put to rest as untrue, which discouraged many thrill-seekers looking to indulge in a seemingly-legalized narcotic. Plus, it was outrageously expensive and no one wanted to drink very much of it in one sitting. For the people who were previously inexperienced, the much-hyped absinthe turned out to be a bit of a letdown. For those who had been previously disposed, the selection of quality absinthe upon re-launch was even more disappointing.

Not having known a thing about absinthe upon its rebirth, I visited an absinthe education-based website called the Wormwood Society and learned a few things from the experts. What stood out immediately was the lack of enthusiasm towards many of the products that were primarily available. It seems that more than a few of the first-born bottles were quickly (and shabbily, according to these guys) formulated and speedily released in order to capitalize on the movement. The distilleries that got involved with their “me-too” absinthe variations got it all wrong because, in their haste, they didn’t adhere to the original recipe and failed to capture the true nature of the beast. Some producers made terrible bottles with fancy labels to disguise the inferiority of their absinthe. Basically, because it was the hip thing to do, many people who shouldn’t have been making absinthe decided to and, in my opinion, they didn’t do a very good job of it.

However, as is usually the case, the best things come to those who wait. In this instance, it applies to both the producer and the consumer. The distillers who took their time and really attempted to faithfully reproduce the absinthe of pre-Prohibition America have given the faithful public some truly remarkable bottles. The shining example of this is the newly arrived Marteau Absinthe de la Belle Epoque ($79.99). It isn’t cheap, but neither is a fine Ardbeg single malt, and in both cases you’re getting the absolute highest, hand-crafted quality spirits. It is appropriately made by Gwydion Stone, the founder of the Wormwood Society and the leading expert of absinthe on this continent. Look at it this way though, most of the bad absinthe was $80 or more upon release and it wasn’t nearly as good. The Marteau is colored only with natural herbs and contains no artificial flavorings or other additives. It is distilled from 100% grape spirits, just as the very best historic brands were, and made with Artemisia Absinthium wormwood, anise seed, and fennel, the three principal ingredients of all superior, traditional absinthes. For once, the high price tag for an absinthe bottle matches the quality of the spirit within it.

If you are interested in absinthe for sipping and reliving the “Green Fairy” experience (cue Gary Oldman and Wynonna Ryder in Coppola’s version of Dracula), then the Marteau is being hailed by many experts as the only true version on the domestic market. However, what has been recently killed as a trendy sipper has been a huge boost to the world of classic cocktails. Many recipes from the early 1900s call for absinthe as an ingredient and, until 2007, it wasn’t possible to create a faithful reproduction. I’ve come to find that absinthe is a principle ingredient in many of my new favorite drinks. For the purpose of mixology, the second batch of the St. George Spirits Absinthe Verte ($79.99) is very well equipped to handle the job. While considered too intense in flavor by some drinkers, its powerful anise notes and sharp herbal qualities are just what I need to spice up my current favorite cocktail, the Corpse Reviver No. 2.

Corpse Reviver No. 2

1/4 gin
1/4 Lillet
1/4 orange liqueur
1/4 lemon juice

A dash of absinthe

Shake over ice and strain.

Again, don’t fret over the price tag. If you buy it once, you likely won’t have to replenish it for a long time. All you need are a few drops at a time and it really makes a difference. Is it $80 worth of a difference, you ask? The answer is a strong affirmative. The addition of absinthe to a cocktail seems to breathe an incredible amount of life into drinks that would normally seem rather mild. If you need proof, go to Heaven’s Dog on Mission Street in San Francisco and order their trademark Pan American Clipper cocktail. A tasty combo of calvados, grenadine, lime juice and absinthe, if it doesn’t knock your socks off, then you don’t like to drink.

Taking time for contemplation, rather than rushing something to the shelves, has also allowed some producers to decide if they want to travel the traditional route into the absinthe market. Some super-craft distillers have come up with interesting and delicious takes on what absinthe should be. None has been more impressive to me than the Germain Robin Absinthe Superieure (375 ml $35.99). While the base spirit for absinthe is traditionally brandy distilled from grape-based wine, Crispin Cain returned to the Ukiah-based alembic still, where he learned to make the renowned Germain Robin brandy line-up (arguably the best brandy produced in the US, if not the world), and used it to distill an apple-honey mead instead. He threw in the traditional wormwood, but also included rose geranium and a few other aromatic devices and distilled it to an untraditionally low 90 proof— far less than the 120 proof most absinthe sees. The result is a softer, more mildly-drinking spirit that still packs a ton of flavor. While most absinthe is greenish, the Germain Robin is almost watery clear. Not being a traditionalist, I’m not bothered by that, but the spirit does cloud up like a true absinthe should when water is added. Best of all, it comes in a half bottle, so if you’re looking for the most economical choice for your home bar, this is it. So far I haven’t found very many places carrying it, so I’m happy to be leading the charge.

There are international choices as well for absinthe that are available on the domestic market, though they do not score too terribly with traditionalists. The Obsello Absinthe ($44.99) from Spain, while not the best of the best, does more than an adequate job of spicing up a cocktail and clocks in at a relatively affordable price for a full 750ml bottle. To conclude the fourth entry in the home bar series, I must stress the importance of an absinthe bottle to your domestic drinking habits. I have presented you with four viable options that would make a great addition to your home collection. I’ll end with a few more recipes to entice you further.

Piccadilly Cocktail

2/3 gin
1/3 vermouth blanc (Dolin is the best)
Dash of grenadine (again I hope to have Small Hand Foods soon)
Dash of absinthe

Shake over ice and strain.

Phoebe Snow Cocktail

1/2 Osocalis brandy
1/2 Dubonnet Rouge
Dash of absinthe

Shake over ice and strain.

Nick’s Own Cocktail

1/2 Osocalis Brandy
1/2 sweet vermouth (again, Dolin)
Dash of absinthe
Dash of Angosturra bitters

Shake over ice and strain.

David Driscoll

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