Death in the Afternoon

Photo courtesy of Kenn Wilson, some rights reserved.

Today is National Absinthe Day (in the US at least), and what better way to celebrate than with a quick post about one of literature’s great cocktails.  Ian Fleming may have given us the Vesper, but Ernest Hemingway went a few steps further down the road to decadence when he created Death in the Afternoon.

The cocktail, named after Hemingway’s book about the history and practice of bull-fighting, was created in 1935 for So Red the Nose, Or Breath in the Afternoona collection of new cocktail recipes proposed by famous authors of the time.  Hemingway’s instructions were as follows:

“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”

The great author was credited with the creation of a number of other cocktails, but it was Death in the Afternoon which was said to be his favourite after he developed a taste for the bohemian concoction whilst living in Paris.

Variants of the recipe also include the addition of sugar and bitters (we can’t stray too far from our original bittered sling after all, and what better decadent replacement for water than champagne?), lemon juice, or a garnishing rose petal.

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Absinthe

The traditional absinthe spoon with the less than traditional website address engraved thereon

Even before Baz Luhrmann introduced the myth of la fée verte to a new generation of filmgoers, absinthe had a reputation for decadence, creativity and the bohemian.  While in reality the anise-flavoured spirit is simply a highly-alcoholic drink which is now freely available in most parts of the world, the myths and suggestions that it is a depraved, highly addictive, psychoactive drug persist.

Absinthe was originally a Swiss invention, and we can see how easily it sits in the shop windows of the Geneva tourist traps alongside cuckoo clocks and chocolate to this day.  Ok, not really, but only because it was the bohemian scene of 1880s Paris that really brought the mysterious spirit to a wider audience.  Originally prescribed to French troops as an antimalarial in the 1840s, by 1860 an early happy hour – l’heur verte – was taking the bars of Paris by storm, and by 1880, a massive surge in production meant absinthe was available to all.

The bars, bistros, cabarets (and yes, the brothels) of Paris were alive with the smell of anise, and Hemingway, Baudelaire, Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde and Vincent Van Gogh were among those who passed their evenings to the sound of the slow drip of water as it permeated the sugar cube and brought about the magical louche.  This was not to last however, as the temperance movement that swept the western world around the time of WWI had the green fairy in its sights.  They (may have) screamed from the rooftops of red windmills across the city that:

Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.

Stories abounded of those driven mad by absinthe, the Swiss farmer who murdered his family and then himself, and the addicts – sodden epileptics, incoherent and bursting with murderous intent.

By 1914 absinthe was banned in France having already fallen foul of regulators in Switzerland (1910), the USA (1912) and much of the rest of Europe.

But Britain never banned absinthe, mainly because it never really had the same hold on London as it did Paris, and besides, London had seen it all before with Gin Lane and Beer Alley.  So when an enterprising (although not that sharp) importer realised this, absinthe saw a resurgence.

In 2000, La Fée became the first (legal) absinthe to be produced in Paris since the 1914 ban, and society conspicuously failed to collapse (although the 35 hour week was introduced the same year – coincidence? Mais non!).

Absinthe is traditionally prepared through the addition of sugar and iced water:

  1. Pour a measure of absinthe into a rocks glass.
  2. Place a cube of sugar on a slotted spoon, and rest this on the glass.
  3. Slowly pour four to six parts iced water over the sugar cube until it has dissolved.

Once the sugar has dissolved, the liquid will louche (turn milky green) and is ready to be consumed.

The ‘bohemian method’ of serving involves a slightly more theatrical approach:

  1. Pour a measure of absinthe into a rocks glass.
  2. Soak a sugar cube in the absinthe and then place it on a slotted spoon.  Rest this on the glass.
  3. Light the sugar cube and allow it to caramelize and drip into the glass.
  4. Pour iced water over the sugar cube until it has dissolved.

Absinthe also belongs in the traditional Absinthe Cocktail (effectively an absinthe Old Fashioned), the Absinthe Sour, the Sazerac and Ernest Hemingway’s infamous Death in the Afternoon.