Food & Spirits: A Poor Man’s “Death in the Afternoon”

It was Hemingway’s drink. Though variations have sprung up over the years, the original recipe was a simple one: champagne and absinthe. Last year, I bought a bottle of absinthe made by Lucid. This was a treat for myself after a good paycheck, and the bottle itself was $60. I was able to justify the purchase because no matter how you are drinking the stuff, only a little bit is used at a time and the bottle would last for years. Absinthe has gotten a bad wrap over the years as a spirit which can cause hallucination and insanity due to wormwood being used in the recipe. It was illegal in the United States for a century, the ban lifted a few years ago when it was finally determined that absinthe is no more dangerous than any other alcohol.

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Yes, that is a Gettysburg 150th Anniversary wine glass.

In fact, if you drink it the proper way (1 ounce mixed with four ounces of cold water and a sugar cube) the alcohol-by-volume is roughly the same as a glass of wine. By nature, its proof can range from 110-120, so yes, if you are chugging the stuff without dilution, you may indeed start to hallucinate and probably can kill yourself or damage your liver in the process. I imagine this is how artists like Van Gogh drank “The Green Fairy” all those years ago, providing much-needed inspiration for their paintings.

Where Ernest Hemingway is concerned is that he created one of this country’s most famous cocktails, “Death in the Afternoon”. He mixed champagne with the absinthe instead of water. Now, I don’t exactly have bottles of champagne lying around the house, but I still wanted to give this drink a shot since it had such a legendary creator. Instead of champagne, I substituted a sparkling white wine instead, opting for Joseph Handler Riesling (they also make an outstanding sweet German red). The end result was pretty good and I wonder how different it would have been from the original. Below is my brief recipe, which you can tweak to your liking.

1 ounce Absinthe (Lucid)

4 ounces Riesling (Joseph Handler)

lemon peel muddled for garnish

Several online sources said “Death in the Afternoon” can now be made with simple syrup and all kinds of citrus peels and additions. To me, this would damage the integrity of the drink, but I did opt for a small piece of lemon peel. It added a nice little hint of citrus to what is a very rich drink. Due to the ABV, I strongly advise you drink responsibly if you are having more than one. The flavor is a slightly odd one. The anise and some bitterness is there from the absinthe but then you get the sweetness and bubbly of the wine as the aftertaste. This may be one of those cocktails that needs a few tastings for your palate to warm up, but give it a try.

P.S: Now that absinthe is legal, there are several brands trying to capitalize on the popularity and mystique. I would only trust Lucid and Pernod’s to make an authentic product. There is another type of absinthe called “Absente”, the bottle of which is usually packaged in a beautiful box with a painting of Vincent Van Gogh. It also comes with a spoon for sifting the sugar cube. However, this is not absinthe, because it is labeled as liqueur, meaning sugar added. Real absinthe is a spirit, not a liqueur, and has no sugar added. You’ll notice that these products have a lower proof/ABV and are much cheaper (the $30-40 range). As the saying goes, “If it’s too good to be true, then it isn’t.” If you are paying under ~$55 for a bottle then chances are it is not the real thing.

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