I remember back in the 90s how thrilled I felt when absinthe was re-authorised for manufacture. My knowledge of ‘la fee verte’ had to that point been limited to artist’s biographies and the 1960 film “Oscar Wilde”, (which if I recall rightly has the lovable Robert Morley ending his days in Paris, steeped in a green-sodden if poetical haze). But now, finally, I could get to try it for myself; a little bit of history in a glass.
My first taste delivered all the glamour and danger I could have wished for. The specially crafted glass and spoon, the curiosity of the other punters at the bar and the flaming ritual provided the glamour – the near setting alight of the counter when the dowsing went awry, the danger.
After that first experiment I lost a little interest, mainly as the element of decadence which should imbue absinthe was still lacking. Without a backdrop of syphilitic and demented artists, poets and prostitutes, all gathering to partake in the green hour (apparently this is what 5 pm was known as in Paris, so popular was the drink), I soon found absinthe was not a ticket to nineteenth century Bohemia but nothing more or less than a green spirit in a glass.
Recently though, my interest was rekindled when I discovered the folk at Callooh Callay are doing their best to bring a little such decadence to East London with the introduction of their very own green hour. I’m quite fond of this Alice in Wonderland inspired hang-out so felt I had to check the evening out.
On our arrival, a waitress escorted us through the wardrobe-encased doorway to the pop-arty back bar. This portal is one of the bar’s more magical touches, so who cares if wardrobes leading to other worlds is more Narnian than Wonderland? We were then led up a staircase hidden behind a curtain and into the Jub Jub bar.
And a nice enough bar it is too with a more grown-up feel than the ground floor. On this occasion, tables were set with absinthe fountains, glasses and spoons – all the accoutrements for serving absinthe in true Parisian fashion. The owner, Richard, was circulating from table to table, ready to share his knowledge and enthusiasm not to mention a slug from the bottle in his hand.
While demonstrating the correct way to pour an absinthe drip, he tells us that it is the chemical thujone in the wormwood which was thought to cause the hallucinogenic effect – though we know now any such effects were purely from over-indulging in strong spirit. I am also informed my earlier sugar burning rituals are eastern european in origin and probably did nothing but burn off the alcohol.
It’s all very civilised and interesting and luckily this doesn’t entirely erase the slight frisson of decadence created from drinking absinthe at the early hour of 6.30, not to mention our illicit-feeling entrance. I also like the camaraderie of sharing a fountain with strangers and, given the location, it’s quite likely there may even be an artist or two present though I don’t think there are any prostitutes. This may result in a somewhat sanitized version of the Belle Epoque but who wants syphilis anyway?
Also on offer were a selection of reasonably priced absinthe-based cocktails. We try out the Anise n Nephew (Pernod absinthe, Wray and Nephew rum, pineapple juice, lime, Velvet Falernum) and a Haze Fizz (Pernod Absinthe, Beefeater Gin, lavender bitters, lemon juice, sugar, egg white, soda). The former was full of flavour without being too clashing but I found the Haze not only weak but it was hard to detect either the lavender or the anise.
We then popped downstairs for a quick snifter in the daylight preparatory to heading off to dinner. The downstairs drinks menu is quirky to say the least, currently mimicking a tube map with the different lines representing different drinks styles. On this occasion I plumped for an Old Kev (Bacardi Superior, Yellow Chartreuse, raspberries, lemon, egg white, Peychaud bitters). Slightly unbalanced, the Chartreuse lent a grassy note and I quite enjoyed how the different flavours hit so clearly at different points of the mouth. A jumpy kind of drink but interesting nonetheless.
I’ve found before that the mixing here can lack finesse but the lovely staff, lively atmosphere (it’s often rammed at the weekend) and all-round creativity on display generally make up for that. Perfectly mixed drinks can be found at many soulless hotel bars in the West End but if a more irreverent even frabjous experience is what you’re after, then jump down the rabbit-hole that is Callooh Callay.
(The next Green hour is on 13th July)