The ritual of preparing a glass of absinthe with a fountain (ornate glass and metal objects used to dispense water, not alcohol) dates back to the Belle Epoque. It is a spirit that’s always been linked with decadence and creativity, with its influence immortalised in the art and literature of famous absinthe drinkers such as Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Toulouse Lautrec, and Vincent Van Gogh.
Myths of blindness, hallucinogenic properties, poisonous, and even links to madness, and absinthe’s ‘wicked’ reputation eventually led to a nearly century-long ban in many countries worldwide. However, the UK never got around to banning the spirit, which has allowed absinthe to leave its illustrious mark on many of the great classic cocktails to come out of London. The iconic Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) uses absinthe in over 100 recipes, and the Cafe Royal Cocktail Book (1937) calls for it in nearly 40 more.
Modern science finally caught up and disproved 19th-century rumours and myths. Today, absinthe inspires a new generation of inquisitive imbibers and mixologists in London, with some of the city’s most awarded bars experimenting with different serving styles to showcase Absinthe’s versatility in cocktails.
Absinthe has always been an essential part of cocktail making. It has been celebrated for nearly two centuries for its ability to amplify other spirits’ nuances when mixed in cocktails. Bartenders traditionally used absinthe as you would cocktail bitters, adding a few dashes as seasoning to lift the flavours of a recipe.
Today, bartenders fully embrace absinthe and allow it to shine as a base spirit in cocktails. It is so versatile and works incredibly well with such an array of other flavours. Discover Absinthe’s brilliantly bittersweet and bold flavour at one of these London bars.
Helgi’s – 177 Mare Street, London E8 3RH
London’s favourite occult rock bar best channels the spirit of occultist, writer (perhaps spy) and absinthe drinker Aleister Crowley. Sacred incense permeates the dark, psychedelic bar lit by conjuring candles and blacklights. Manifesting the ethos of hard booze and heavy rock, a night at Helgi’s is not for the faint of heart, making it the perfect venue for absinthe rituals.
The traditional fountain or one of their delicious cocktails can summon the spirit’s delectable powers. Afterwards, visit their shop, The Moon Temple, for all your witchcraft and magic needs.
The Thin White Duke – 22B Great Windmill Street, London W1D 7LD
The Thin White Duke brings absinthe back to the creative corners of Soho. Head to this David Bowie-inspired cocktail bar for their absinthe hour and indulge in their wonderfully curated list of cocktails. Find yourself feeling inspired by the green fairy. Channel the spirit of Ziggy in one of their beautifully designed recording studios in the venue’s basement.
Green Bar at Hotel Café Royal – Hotel Café Royal, 10 Air St, London W1B 5AB
There is no more traditional setting in London to sipping on a glass of absinthe than the Green Bar at Hotel Café Royal. Opened in 1865, the Café Royal soon became a meeting place in the heart of London for bohemian intellects and bon viveurs to assemble with a glass of absinthe in hand as they discussed the world around them.
Oscar Wilde, a frequent bar patron, is said to have drunk so much absinthe here one evening that he mistook a stack of chairs for a field of tulips. Today, visitors can enjoy an Absinthe at the Bar prepared the traditional way with a beautiful art nouveau fountain that echoes the decadence of the venue’s decor.
Nightjar – 129 City Road, London EC1V 1JB
Nightjar’s intimate setting and live jazz music recall an elegant glamour of long ago. The bar is renowned for its award-winning cocktails with a flair for presentation. But direct your gaze to their impressive drinks cupboard filled with vintage spirits and an impressive array of absinthes.
Their selection includes examples from worldwide and absinthe distilled right here in Britain. All are served with the traditional fountain, and it’s easy to imagine you’ve been transported to the days of speakeasies.
The Last Tuesday Society – 11 Mare Street, London E8 4RP
The Absinthe Parlour at The Last Tuesday Society is the perfect setting to succumb to your curiosity for the mysterious spirit – and all things weird and wonderful, for that matter.
Pioneering the way for the spirit’s revival with a programme of absinthe talks, tastings and workshops, The Absinthe Parlour’s menu offers a selection of serving styles that appeal to the absinthe drinkers of today. While you can still opt for the traditional absinthe fountain, why not shake things up with their menu of absinthe highballs and signature absinthe serves?
Every cocktail on the menu incorporates absinthe in varying measures to showcase the spirit’s versatility beyond the fountain. Not ready to jump straight into the hard stuff? Try their very indulgent Chocolate Absinthe Liqueur. They also host London’s only Absinthe Hour with special offers every weekday until 6 pm.
Allison Crawbuck and Rhys Everett are co-founders of The Absinthe Parlour at The Last Tuesday Society in East London.