The Savoy (Chicago): Insane about absinthe, mixologist Deirdre Darling develops a beverage program that showcases this legendary, licorce-flavored spirit

The Savoy is serious about absinthe, offering 40 different labels of the botantical spirit and serving it according to the classic French method.  Photo by Alex Janowski

They’re crazy for absinthe over at The Savoy.

The new Wicker Park eatery and lounge has centered its beverage program around this storied spirit, which was long believed to drive its imbibers insane.

Mixologist Deirdre Darling, who put together The Savoy’s well-stocked absinthe library and cocktail list, promises the botanical-based beverage won’t make you go nuts.

She is, however, highly confident that guests will go nuts for absinthe.

Mixologist Deirdre Darling prefers a 1:4 absinthe-to-water ratio when pouring the storied liquor.  Photo by Alex Janowski

So confident, in fact, that she urged owner Ricky Moore to stock 40 different labels of the licorice-flavored liquor.  Darling decided “if we’re going to do absinthe, let’s do absinthe and get all in this.”

So the mixologist crafted a lively menu of absinthe-laced vintage and modern cocktails.  And she introduced classic absinthe service — where water is slowly dripped or poured over this peridot- green (and sometimes clear) spirit.  As its herbal essences are released, the distilled drink will louche, or cloud up.  Suggested absinthe-to-water ratios vary, but are commonly 1:3, 1:4 or 1:5.  Darling prefers a 1:4.

“Absinthe in general is all about the ritual.  It’s all about the show,” Darling says.  She therefore has a collection of absinthe fountains, balanciers (dripping contraptions) and special hand-blown glasses at her disposal.  And for those who take sugar with their absinthe, there are slotted spoons that rest on the aforementioned glasses, and are topped with a single lump that dissolves as the water drips.

“The sugar cube is always optional,” Darling says.  “It’s the same as asking someone if they take sugar in their coffee.”

Absinthe was first produced in Switzerland during the late 18th century, and it became insanely popular in France, where it was enjoyed by the likes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Charles Baudelaire.  It also found fans in the U.S. (particularly in New Orleans) and other countries.

Anise, fennel (above) and wormwood are the central components of absinthe, although other natural ingredients — fruit peels, hibiscus, juniper — are now commonly added.  Photo by Candace Hartley

Always distilled from a trinity of ingredients — anise, fennel and wormwood — absinthe’s distinctive licorice taste comes from the anise.  Fennel adds savoriness, and wormwood gives it a barky, bitter edge, Darling says.

(Modern distillers now play with other natural ingredients that tweak the spirit’s flavor.  “I’m tasting more lemon peel, more orange peel.  Juniper is making its way into some of them,” Darling says.)

Threatened by absinthe’s popularity, both the temperance movement and the wine industry made the drink the unfair target of a massive smear campaign.  They claimed that the compound thujone, which is found in wormwood, had horrific effects on the mind.  Science would ultimately prove that the trace amounts of thujone in absinthe were harmless.

Still, “they created a lot of propaganda:  ‘It will make you go crazy’; ‘It will make you kill your wife, your children and your neighbor,’” Darling says.

By the early 20th century, absinthe was banned in Switzerland, France, the U.S. and several other countries.

“In the United States it was gone,” Darling says.  The Swiss worked around the ban and continued to distill it.  To avoid detection, they made the drink clear, instead of its signature green color — which comes from the botanicals used in its production.

Darling used The Savoy Cocktail Book for inspiration; it was penned by legendary bartender Harry Craddock, an absinthe enthusiast who worked at London’s famed Savoy hotel.  Photo by Alex Janowski

“You only knew it was absinthe when water was added, and it became this cloudy, milky blue color,” Darling says.

Most bans remained in effect until the early 2000s, when countries finally started officially lifting their restrictions.

Britain was one country that never banned absinthe.  And Harry Craddock, the famed American barkeep at London’s Savoy Hotel, was an absinthe enthusiast.

Originally published in 1930, Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book contains hundreds of his recipes, and Darling relied heavily on the book for inspiration when creating her classic cocktails (all $12).

Darling’s signature Death Stamp is a nod to Craddock’s Absinthe Cocktail.  Here she mixes Bitter Truth pink gin, Imbue bittersweet, absinthe and grapefruit bitters.

Her list of modern cocktails (all $12) “is just me keeping up with my contemporaries,” Darling says.  “They’re meant to be really fun pre-dinner, during-dinner or after-dinner drinks.”

The Savoy’s modern cocktails also feature absinthe, which Darling uses sparingly.  Photo by Alex Janowski

So sippers will find concoctions such as the colorful Dixie Drugstore (Old New Orleans Cajun Spice Rum, absinthe, oat orgeat and bitter lemon) or the 21st Century (Hanger One Kaffir Lime, Pacifique absinthe, lemon, tarragon).

In both her vintage and modern cocktails, Darling uses the absinthe as a flavor enhancer rather than a main ingredient.  “The botanicals [in absinthe] round out the botanicals in the other spirits,” she says.  So Darling may employ an absinthe-filled atomizer to spray a cocktail glass, or merely add a drop or two to a drink.

“It’s complementing what’s going on,” she says.  “Honestly, it’s like salt and pepper.”

The Savoy
1408 North Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, Illinois  60622

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