Spirited Away: Absinthe vs Tequila
Just as no one drinks spirits to take things slowly, I won’t write about them without seemingly jumping into the deep end from time to time. And hey, when it comes to the dark, murky waters of hard liqueur what could be considered less forgiving than the two colossi of liquid regret, Absinthe and Tequila?
They bite back as soon as they meet your lips, they sting going down like a line of hornets and one of them can, allegedly, conjure hallucinogenic side effects. Spoiler alert but no, it can’t; though it’s still fun to picture absinthe as the muse of great minds like Vincent van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway and Aleister Crowley.
Unlike other Spirited Away articles I’m simply too green (apologies for the pun) to stack multiple examples of these spirits side by side as even during my most hedonistic days I could barely stomach either absinthe or tequila. That’s not to say it was from lack of trying, in fact it was quite the opposite; I believe my liver, much like a short fused nightclub bouncer, has forever pegged these spirits as ‘undesirables’.
Either way, I shall elect sole champions to wave the banners of these drinks, both being moderately priced and fairly potent, and compare how well they work as a casual drink, when paired with a dish and, most importantly for this article, how to soften the blow that comes with consuming either of them.
First up we’ll chase the green fairy. Taking crude origins as a wormwood based elixir in ancient Greece though beginning its legacy as a beverage in Switzerland and France in the early 19th century, absinthe has been through highs and lows in popularity. The highest point could have been in the latter half of the 19th century, when French troops returning from war brought their taste for the ‘malaria vaccine’ back with them and spread the love of the drink so much that 5pm was almost universally recognised as ‘L’heure Verte’, or the ‘Green Hour’. The lowest, naturally, was during its almost century long ban, initiated by various winemaker’s associations after they accused the drink of causing everything from epilepsy to insanity, to name just a few of the evils it supposedly inflicted.
La Fee Parisienne is essentially the go-to when it comes to absinthe, though to be honest I’m not sure I’d ever want to encounter anyone who had a ‘go-to absinthe’, as although it’s a little dear it treads the line between hallmark absinthe alcohol content and a one way trip to the morgue, resting at a gut damaging, yet not rotting, 68%. Plus every bottle comes with its own stainless steel spoon for the classic French ritual, and who can say no to a tiny little free spoon? That’s right, no one.
Now comes the question of how one would extract the venom from a viper without being bitten. The aforementioned ritual of placing a sugar cube on the spoon and allowing ice water to drip through does indeed make the medicine go down smoother, but there’s an opulent cocktail crafted by Hemingway himself that’s as strong as it is delicious. Aptly named ‘Death in the Afternoon’, the cocktail is simply, but sublimely, one part absinthe and a flute of champagne, with ice and a few squeezes of lemon juice to balance the whole thing out. A cheaper, slightly more tantalising option would be my own variant, ‘Revival in the Afternoon’, which replaces the champagne with a brut prosecco and the traces of lemon juice switched out for a liberal splash of either lychee or passionfruit juice. As this concoction is rich as one might expect a champagne based drink to be it only stands that an equally luscious dish would partner with it, and that would be an accurate accusation. Scallops, pan seared with a touch of garlic oil and thick slices of chorizo. Normally an exquisite palate pleaser on its own, the strong taste of chorizo neutralises a lot of the absinthe’s kick while the scallops simply match the champagne like diamonds and gold.
But that’s enough of absinthe, as even talking about it making me feel light headed, so let’s move onto the more moderate option of tequila (which in itself outlines how potent and destructive absinthe can be). Much like champagne, tequila cannot be called tequila unless it’s been produced in the state of Jalisco, otherwise it’s generally known as mezcal. Produced exclusively from blue agave plants, solely retrieved by harvesters known as jimadores, creating tequila is a complex process that includes fermenting the natural sugars found within the plant. It’s these natural sugars, oddly, that can be turned into agave syrup, which greatly sweetens any tequila based cocktail (trust me, it brings out the best of the plant and sooths a lot of the burn).
Speaking of cocktails there’s a lost recipe for a now nameless cocktail I tried many moons ago that I’d love to share, yet sadly it seems to have disappeared from the pages of history. Seemingly passed down by generations, much like the knowledge of the jimadores, this delectable cocktail made me really taste tequila for the first time, but since I can’t recreate it I’ll simply go with a safe bet of the Tequila Sunrise. This is best made with my tequila representing titan, Jose Cuervo Especial Gold, a mid-range bottle of golden tequila with an alcohol content of around 40%. This may seem mild after having La Fee Parisienne on the mind but comparing these two spirits on proof alone is an unfair fight before the gloves are even on.
Aesthetically appealing and damn good to boot, a Tequila Sunrise is a good 1:3 ratio of tequila and orange juice, poured over ice and left untouched, with a few dashes of grenadine for the ‘sunrise’ effect as the heavier liquid sinks to the bottom. It’s sharp, it’s sweet and enough of them will have you singing ‘Tequila Sunrise’ relentlessly until you vomit. As one might expect, this El Salvador orientated concoction is best savoured with something tantalisingly Mexican. My two cents would chime in with some sizzling chicken fajitas as they aren’t overtly spicy (something as acidic as a Tequila Sunrise wouldn’t really help cool things down) and the combination of fruity and tangy tastes from the drink and the dish makes for a blissful experience.
Deciding which of these two drinks comes out on top here isn’t easy, as I can’t shake off my darkened memories of both these spirits. Both are strong, there’s no doubt of that, but the absinthe easily outweighs the tequila in that right. We don’t just drink to get inebriated though; after all, it’s not the destination but the journey that matters. I can’t think of anywhere this applies more than when drinking, which may sound bizarre but think about it. If you’re out with friends at bar, how much fun would you all have if you all became triple visioned, incoherent messes within the first five minutes? Not much, I’d wager. There’s also the food pairings, the flexibility of the drink and the ease of access to the spirit to consider, which frankly tequila excels at. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that I’d personally declare tequila to be the good choice, or at the very least, the lesser of two evils.
Think I judged poorly? Or do you have any exquisite cocktail recipes or food pairings for either of these spirits? Why not tell us about them in the comments section below, or via Facebook or twitter! And be sure to check out the rest of the gourmet goodness on the Gourmet Society blog!
By Tom Simpkins