Absinthe has a reputation that means it can be a difficult sell. However, Croque Monsieur, a new bar in Camden, wants to help change this. We spoke to its bar manager Jenny Griffiths about how bespoke cocktails, education and silly hats can help.
Have you ever considered going to a bar to enjoy absinthe? You might have been put off by tall tales of astronomical ABVs, potential blindness and harrowing hallucinations. Such myths, legends and soft science have certainly misled people in the past. Gradually, however, absinthe’s reputation is being restored by creative craft producers, educated consumers and bars like Camden’s Croque Monsieur.
Downstairs from the world’s only vampire-themed pizzeria, Lost Boys Pizza (it’s a wild start, but stick with me here), Croque Monsieur opened in December 2018 aiming to spearhead the absinthe revival in the capital. Despite the name, there are no ham and cheese toasties, before any of you ask.
“It’s a spirit that has a lot of misconceptions. We wanted to show people why these aren’t true and give a proper insight into such a misunderstood spirit”, bar manager Jenny Griffiths explains, “Absinthe is absolutely delicious and we wanted to share that with our corner of London!”
Croque Monsieur is equipped with absinthe fountains on each table, funky hats, church pews as seating, Art Deco prints on the wall and a newly-launched cocktail menu, transforming a restaurant basement into a bohemian drinking den. For Griffiths, it was too good an opportunity to miss.
“When Pete and Alex (founders of Lost Boys Pizza) mentioned they’d had plans to open a tiny absinthe/dive bar. My eyes lit up and I knew I had to be in,” Griffiths explained. “I’ve been working as the brand ambassador for Chartreuse for two years in the UK, and I actually got into drinking this by being suggested it by a fellow absinthe fan. Chartreuse and absinthe have similar flavour profiles, and anything herbal and punchy has always been my true love.”
Even those passionate about absinthe will admit it’s a risky spirit to back, however. There’s still work to be done separating truth from pseudoscience and propaganda. “If you want to see the lengths the people who banned absinthe went to, Google absinthe and guinea pigs,” Griffiths remarks, alluding to an 1864 experiment in which guinea pigs were most definitely harmed in the making of (another reason to dislike those who fought absinthe).
The lore around thujone, a chemical compound in absinthe, is one of the reasons why it was successfully demonised. But the truth is absinthe contains such a tiny amount of this compound that it’s about as frightening as Kylie Minogue singing The Sound of Music to you while dressed as The Green Fairy. Griffiths summaries, “As with all alcohol, of course, you should drink it in moderation and responsibly, but absinthe will not drive you crazy.”
The task for Griffiths then is to use her passion and position help educate and change perceptions. However, she has no interest in providing dry history lessons. “You go to Croque Monsieur to be educated and have fun,” Griffiths exclaims. “We at Croque Monsieur are here first and foremost to educate everyone who comes through the door. I’ve always been a bit of a booze nerd myself, so being able to share the knowledge I have is great. But we also want people to have fun, which is why the music is always set to party bangers and we encourage everyone to take their pick from our array of silly hats. For me going to a bar should be about learning but fun should always be at the forefront!”
It’s difficult to deliver a dry lecture while your guests are wearing cowboy hats listening to Prince’s 1999 as a waiter brings them black charcoal pizza from a vampire-themed restaurant that was named after a 1987 American horror comedy film. Seriously. What more can ask for from a bar?
Well, how about a tailored guest experience? One method Griffiths employs at Croque Monsieur to demystify absinthe is a masterclass in which unlimited hot snacks and three drinks of either of absinthe or a cocktail are provided while you learn about the spirit (though you had me at unlimited hot snacks).
“This experience offers our guests a full masterclass on all things absinthe, from its vast history to the different liquids we offer and how to serve them,” Griffiths says. “We serve all of our absinthes louched with iced water at your table, where your fairy [as she calls her staff members] shows you the precise amount of water to add, explains the chemical reactions you see happening and answers any questions that may pop into your head.”
Then there’s the cocktail menu: designed to make absinthe approachable, it aims to ensure that no matter what your experience is with the spirit, there will be a drink to suit your palette. “The menu is divided into three distinct parts; ‘Beginner’, ‘Intermediate’ and ‘Advanced’. All of the drinks contain absinthe in some shape or form (duh!) but this allows our guests to choose how much absinthe flavour they want in their drink,” Griffiths explains. “Beginner drinks simply have a spritz or two of absinthe above the glass, intermediate contains around 10ml absinthe per drink and are a little boozier. The advanced drinks use absinthe as the base (around 25ml) and are for our guests who are already into the flavour.”
The menu includes some unique fruity numbers such as the Sneaky Vimto (my favourite cocktail name of all time) and punchy offerings such as Death in the Afternoon, a potent combination of absinthe and Champagne, as well as some reworked classics like the Chocolate Old Fashioned (a personal highlight) and the Grasshopper, which is Griffiths’ stand-out on the menu.
“For me disco drinks have always been a guilty pleasure I’ve embraced, so our Grasshopper #245 is my proudest drink creation to date” she explains. “We use a split base of Combier L’Entêté Absinthe Supérieure and Green Chartreuse, mix it with a chocolate and absinthe liqueur, Giffard menthe pastille and shake it up with vegan dairy. It’s creamy and delicious, with the right hits of chocolate and mint you expect from a grasshopper without the heaviness some dairy can have.”
For those new to absinthe, Griffith recommends the Parisienne Spritz, made with a splash of Combier L’Entêté Absinthe Supérieure, gentian liqueur, citrus, cucumber bitters and tonic. “It’s light and refreshing and a great aperitif”.
Griffiths and co. have certainly made a good case for a dedicated absinthe bar. “There are hundreds of whisky bars and gin palaces in the UK and we love what they do, but we wanted to show some love to something a bit different,” says Griffiths. There’s surely always a market for that in the world of booze.
To help you on your absinthe journey, we’ve rounded up a smashing selection of some of the absinthes we adore, including a recommendation from Griffiths. Or you could always enjoy this wonderful Absinthe Tasting Set!
“Maison Fontaine Blanche is a great place to start for any absinthe novice. The Blanche doesn’t have a secondary maceration of herbs after distillation (this is what gives naturally coloured absinthes their green colour) so it is a bit lighter and milder, with loads of cacao and sweet peppermint,” says Griffith. Tried next to the Maison Fontaine Verte it is also wonderful, this is a great way to explain to people the difference a few hours of maceration can make to the final flavour of an absinthe.
Sebor Absinth is a Czech take on the historic spirit and one that has proved incredibly popular. Made by blending 13 herbs to a century-old Swiss recipe, this is a rich, mellow and spicy absinthe that was bottled at a reasonable 55% ABV.
The Californian distillery St. George Spirits has made all manner of delicious booze, so it’s not surprising to find out that great absinthe was in its wheelhouse. Created with ingredients such as star anise, fennel, lemon balm, hyssop and stinging nettles, this was actually the first legal American absinthe to be released after the ban was lifted in 2007!
Popular among punters and award shows alike, La Fée Blanche Absinthe is a wonderfully sweet, herbal, old-fashioned white absinthe that was based on an old French recipe from the 1800s. Produced in conjunction with the French Absinthe Museum, its white colour is a reference to the days of bootlegging when green spirit could be spotted a mile off.
Ok, so Cornwall might not cross your mind initially when you think of absinthe, but this expression from Pocketful of Stones might just change all of that for you. Made from wormwood and additional botanicals from the local area, this bottling was named from a legendary mermaid of yore…