It’s been almost three years since the United States legalized absinthe, the anise-flavored herbal spirit, after its unfortunate 100 year ban. It turns out that thujone, a toxic and still-tightly regulated substance in wormwood (artemisia absinthium) –the key absinthe ingredient in question—was never really present in absinthe in parts sufficient enough to be dangerous for human consumption. That debunked the myth that the spirit was the hallucinogenic muse behind all sorts of 19th century artists’ mayhem. But the mystique of the “green fairy” persists. A slew of establishments have re-launched absinthe along with the communal rituals and elegant imbibe-ware that go with it. Latest comer to the North American pack is Sarah B. at the Intercontinental Hotel in Montreal, a deep-green ode to two elusive spirits: Sarah Bernhardt, the “Queen of French tragedy,”and “La fee verte” the green fairy herself.
Wander into Sarah B. for a 5 to 7 p.m. ”L’Heure vert,” green hour, absinthe experience and you can socialize in the noisier throb and buzz of the bar proper, or, disappear with your friends into the cushy, velvet-draped confines of one of two “Green Fairy” alcoves at the back. Here, while you lounge on plush, circular sofas, servers will mix your choice of several absinthe cocktails, or, set up the traditional absinthe service: For this an auto-verseur—a vintage glass samovar filled with ice water and supported by a slender silver fairy statuette—is set up on a low table. Glasses filled with a small amount of absinthe are set around the verseur, each topped with the perforated, flat, absinthe “spoon” with sugar cube on top. The verseur spigots are opened to slowly trickle ice water into each glass, dissolving the sugar and mingling it into a cloudy light-green “louche” in the glasses. “Mixing absinthe with the sugar and ice water not only creates the louche effect,” says food and beverage manager Francis Huot, “it also releases more of the various herbal flavors and aromas–beyond the dominant anise– that are present in the spirit.”
Sarah B. sells five varieties of absinthe, which range in potency from 45 percent to 70 percent alcohol. The lowest-alcohol Versinthe—which is made with more than two dozen herbs—is the most accessible, says Huot, and is the best seller. It’s $35 for a party of four to communally experience the absinthe fountain.
Beyond the fountain, the most popular way to drink absinthe at Sarah B. is in the 1844 Margarita, $11, a mix of maple syrup, sour mix, the Versinthe, Cointreau and Sauza Gold Tequila, shaken and poured in a martini glass rimmed with white or brown sugar. Other absinthe cocktails, all priced between $10 and $11, include the Jacques Cartier Collins with Versinthe, Absolut Pears, Limoncello, house sour mix, soda; the Absinthe Frappe, Versinthe, Marie Brizard anisette, Angostura bitters, basil leaves and seasonal fruits; and, the Mojito A La Mode, Versinthe, Bacardi, house sour mix, strawberry puree, lemonade, basil and mint.
Although absinthe’s legality has taken some of the edge off its “forbidden fruit” allure, Huot says the spirit still has a somewhat illicit appeal that attracts new imbibers. “They try it first for that, and then, the flavour—which is very unique—something many develop a taste for and come back for.”