Everything about absinthe, from its storied past, to its cloudy green color, to its strong licorice taste, seems mysterious and exotic.
The spirit - sometimes mistaken for a liqueur although the sugar is added after distillation - was vilified in the early 1900s and banned in the U.S. in 1912. However, it's legal to buy and serve now - there even are American distilleries. Absinthe can be up to 136 percent proof, or about 70 percent alcohol by volume, so it's easy to drink too much, especially when diluted with water dripped over sugar to create a sweet anise flavor.
After mass production drove down the price so everyone could afford to indulge, sometimes with psychedelic effects, the drink was blamed around the Western world for wild hallucinations and fits of rage that resulted in violence. But Zagat-rated Robert's Steakhouse, at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, is presenting the cloudy green spirit as an upscale, classic adult drink that reflects its sophisticated theme.
"Absinthe has this mystique, an allure, that's more than just a drink category on a menu" says Kelly Skillen, director of operations for Robert's Steakhouse, where there is indeed a section on the menu for absinthe cocktails. "But all the stories of hallucinations and psychotic behavior apparently were much exaggerated. You talk about the 1800s and the truth is, we don't know what they were putting in (the bottles). Absinthe gets a lot of attention because of the wormwood, but you're not going to get addicted and hallucinate."
Skillen has made a career of providing "an uncommon experience" in entertainment. Robert's Atlantic City is the first standalone restaurant she's run outside a Scores New York gentlemen's club. And she's excited about the challenge of incorporating that VIP experience into the restaurant where "the focus is squarely on food, with no adult entertainment to draw on," so it had better be top-shelf all the way.
Skillen says the opulence associated with Trump Taj Mahal is in line with Roberts Steakhouse's style of dark, luxurious furniture and sleek decorative fireplace in the lounge. And offering a variety of classic absinthe cocktails just completes that nostalgic, decadent ambience.
"Trump Taj Mahal has a long history and reputation for decadence, it was where the high rollers came," Skillen says of the host property. "We definitely can do something worthy here."
Absinthe's strong flavor makes it a good match for peppercorn steaks and gorgonzola-topped salads, Skillen says, while some of the lighter cocktails, such as Death in the Afternoon or Corpse Reviver pair well with seafood or chicken.
The 'medicinal spirit" was given to French troops to combat malaria and they spread the acquired taste when they returned home. By the 1860s, the French version of happy hour was called "the green hour" for the popular drink.
The French would serve absinthe in a little coupe glass - fashioned with a wider bubble around the bottom for measuring the spirit - with a slotted spoon, water and sugar cubes. Each guest would mix the drink according to his or her taste, diluting it with the water (the modern invention of ice works even better, drawing out the green color as the absinthe is cooled by the ice and water) and sugar. This classic preparation became known as an Absinthe drip and inspired a watercooler-like contraption with taps, around which absinthe drinkers could socialize with cool people like Sid Soloff, bartender by trade, mixologist by hobby.
Formally attired in black and white, Sid Soloff is the quintessential old-fashioned barkeep who enjoys getting to know his guests over an Absinthe drip and chat about the "green fairy." But he also can accommodate those who prefer the excitement of lighting an absinthe-soaked ice cube on fire to caramelize it.
Soloff claims he "grew up in bars and restaurants" that his father owned or worked in and decided to make a career of fine service. Soloff isn't a big drinker, but he likes to play with taste combinations to please his guests. He can mix you up a signature cocktail if you just tell him your favorite alcohol and mixers, then let him add his own twist to it.
But when it comes to classic preparations for absinthe and cocktails such as the old-fashioned New Orleans drink Sazerac - absinthe with sugar, rye and bitters - he knows when not to fix what isn't broken.
While he says repeatedly there is no wrong way to mix cocktails, Soloff points out the worst thing you can do is add too much of a good thing, such as pungent absinthe or bitters. There is no way to overdo it on the bourbon or rye part, he says.
"There's no twist, these are the classic cocktails that people like Edgar Allen Poe and Ernest Hemingway and Picasso were drinking," says Soloff. "They used it to enhance their creativity and sense of euphoria."
Despite its dire name, Death in the Afternoon - a sort of absinthe mimosa with champagne, Aperol and lemon juice - is a fun and frisky drink for a summer afternoon. The original directions to "drink 3 to 5 of these slowly" may have played some part in garnering its name, Soloff jokes. But as with all things rich and delicious, a little moderation is all that's needed, he points out.
Should you mistakenly "overdose" on this spirit used by the ancient Egyptians to treat cramps and rheumatism, simply mix up a Corpse Reviver - absinthe, gin, Cointreau, Lillet and lemon juice - and party on.
Contact Felicia Compian:
Located inside Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort
1000 Boardwalk, Atlantic City
Hours: Open 5-10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays