There’s no denying that absinthe is intimidating. It’s electric green, it’s super strong, and it comes with some serious baggage. But like a number of other spirits, absinthe has experienced a significant reputation makeover during the past decade. The spirit was even welcomed back to the United States in 2007 after a century of bogus claims that it made people hallucinate and would eventually drive them crazy. (If you’re still hung up on absinthe’s past, here’s why you should get over it.)
Absinthe is moving forward from its illicit past, and people are enjoying the emerald spirit in all kinds of classic and modern ways. But if you’re a newbie who wants to get to know the mysterious spirit, it can be difficult to choose a bottle for your home bar. So we enlisted the help of Will Elliott, bar director at Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, New York; here, he shares his choices for the three best absinthes for beginners.
Vieux Pontarlier ($60)
“Vieux Pontarlier is excellent on the level of staunch traditional absinthes,” says Elliott. That means, if you want a taste of what avid drinkers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were sipping in Paris bars, this is probably your best bet. It’s citrusy, herbal and remarkably complex with notes of fennel—a far cry from the licorice-flavored, neon green liquid you might be accustomed to seeing lit on fire in dive bars. Try this delicate spirit in a traditional Absinthe Drip or Absinthe Frappé to get the full effect of its flavor.
If you’re looking to dip your toes into the modern absinthe scene, Elliott recommends one of the two absinthes produced by Walton, New York, distillery Delaware Phoenix. “I really like to support Delaware Phoenix, which is upstate in the Catskills,” says Elliott. “[The distiller has] been around for about a decade, and she sources every ingredient that goes into her absinthe.” He describes the spirits as “heartfelt.” Though the two styles come out of the same distillery, they’re remarkably different. Meadow of Love—the more affordable bottling—is delicate and floral, while the Walton Water is viscous and heavier in anise flavor. Both provide a lovely base for Drips and Frappés, but you’ll also get a nice dose of flavor when you use them as a rinse for Sazeracs and Corpse Reviver No. 2s.
Science buffs have plenty to get excited about when it comes to spirits. One of the most intriguing practices as of late is bringing cocktail ingredients back from the dead, and this absinthe from Jade Liqueurs is perfect evidence of that. “Ted Breaux, who lobbied Congress to help bring absinthe back to America, specializes in resurrecting these old recipes,” says Elliott. “Breaux reverse engineers [the absinthe] and resurrects it—like Pernod’s recipe from 1901.” Though the 1901 absinthe is a fine example of what was imbibed before Prohibition, the more approachable Jade Nouvelle-Orléans is a great place for new absinthe drinkers to start. Infused with spices, botanicals and flowers, the spirit is slightly sweet and floral, with plenty of peppery goodness. Drink it any which way you please, and we’ll be surprised if this bottling doesn’t turn you into an absinthe lover for life.