|The Absinthe Ritual II
The "Glass in a Glass" method.
Recent research has uncovered another little-known method of preparing an absinthe - the so-called "Glass in a Glass"
method. Cumbersome in practice, but fascinating to watch, this involves placing the absinthe dose in a small stemmed
glass inside a much larger glass, then slowly adding water until all the absinthe in the small glass has been displaced and
has overflowed into the larger glass. This method was never widely used, but is historically authentic. Its use is
documented in France in the 1840's, and it's also referenced in George Saintsbury's legendary "Notes on a Cellar-book",
which although published in 1920 primarily records the drinking habits of the 1870's and 1880's. It seems likely that this
method survived longer in the UK than it did in France.
From the 1870's book shown above (scans courtesy Collection Peter Schaf):
En ce temps-là, - il y a quarante ans, - on ne faisait pas son absinthe comme aujourd'hui.Le docteur Pichet prenait d'abord un
grand verre dans lequel il posait un petit verre à pied plein de l'attrayante liqueur; puis, saisissant la carafe entre le pouce et
l'index, il laissait tomber l'eau fraîche, goutte à goutte, sur l'absinthe, qui perdait de son ton vif, se troublait, débordait,
s'épaississait et arrivait enfin à cette nuance si fort appréciée par les amants de la Muse Verte. Il avait de légers mouvements
du poignet, en tout semblables à ceux d'un maître d'armes qui tâte le fer d'un adversaire. Cette délicate opération terminée, le
docteur retirait le petit verre, qui ne contenait plus que de l'eau pure, et me présentait la précieuse infusion en s'écriant :
At this time - forty years ago - one did not make one’s absinthe as today. Doctor Pichet took initially a large glass into
which he placed a small stemmed glass full of the beautiful liquor; then, seizing the carafe between his thumb and index
finger, he dripped fresh water, drop by drop, on the absinthe, which lost its sharp tone, was disturbed, overflowed,
thickened and arrived finally at that nuance so much appreciated by the lovers of the Green Muse. He used light
movements of the wrist, very similar to those of a fencing master who touches the blade of an adversary. This delicate
operation finished, the doctor withdrew the small glass, which did not now contain anything more than pure water, and
presented the precious infusion to me while exclaiming: Drink that!
From "Notes on a Cellar-book", by George Saintsbury. London, 1920.
However, I will not close this short chapter without saying something of the
supposed wickedest of all the tribe - the 'Green Muse' - the Water of the Star
Wormwood, whereof many men have died - the absinthia tetra, which are deemed to
deserve the adjective in a worse sense than that which the greatest of Roman poets
I suppose (though I cannot say that it ever did me any) that absinthe has done a
good deal of harm. Its principle is too potent, not to say too poisonous, to be let loose
indiscriminately and intensively in the human frame. It was, I think, as a rule made
fearfully strong, and nobody but the kind of lunatic whom it was supposed to
produce, and who may be thought to have been destined to lunacy, would drink it
'neat.' Of its being so drunk I once had a harmless but very comic experience. The
late Bishop Creighton and I had contiguous lodgings, during the later part of our
undergraduate life at Oxford, in one of the old houses east of University and now
destroyed. We used them practically in common, employing one sitting-room to eat
and the other to work in. On one occasion we had had some men to dinner, and
when the last went our good landlady, who had been hovering about on the landing
in an agitated manner, rushed into the room crying, 'O! gentlemen, is that stuff
We naturally requested further light. It turned out that a glass of absinthe, which had been poured out but not used, had been
taken downstairs, and that our excellent landlord, sagely observing, as his wife rather reproachfully said, 'It must be good if the
gentlemen drink it,' had quaffed it without water, but as she said 'as he would gin,' and had naturally found it rather too much for
him. We calmed her fears and recommended a plentiful draught of water, adding in the most delicate way in the world, a
caution that it was not invariably necessary to drink liquor that was left over; and dismissed her. Also we endeavoured - for
Creighton was like Thackeray's Jones 'a fellow of very nice feeling, who afterwards went into the Church,' and I hope I was not
less nice, though my destiny was more profane - not to laugh too much till she had closed the door.
A person who drinks absinthe neat deserves his fate whatever it may be. The flavour is concentrated to repulsiveness; the spirit
burns 'like a torch-light procession'; you must have a preternaturally strong or fatally accustomed head if that head does not
ache after it.
Moreover, you lose all the ceremonial and etiquette which make the proper fashion of drinking it delightful to a man of taste.
When you have stood the glass of liqueur in a tumbler as flat-bottomed as you can get, you should pour, or have poured for
you, water gently into the absinthe itself, so that the mixture overflows from one vessel into the other. The way in which the
deep emerald of the pure spirit clouds first into what would be the colour of a star-smaragd, if the Almighty had been
pleased to complete the quartette of star-gems, and then into opal; the thinning out of the opal itself as the operation goes
on; and when the liqueur glass contains nothing but pure water and the drink is ready, the extraordinary combination of
refreshingness and comforting character in odour and flavour - all these complete a very agreeable experience. Like other
agreeable experiences it may no doubt be repeated too often. I never myself drank more than one absinthe in a day, and I have
not drunk so much as one for some thirty years. But the Green Muse is bonne diablesse enough if you don't abuse her; and
when you land after rough handling by the ocean she picks you up as nothing else will.
Preparation of an absinthe using the 'glass in a glass' method.
The large glass dates from the 1850's.
Click on the images to enlarge.
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