Reasons to Travel Number Eight – Getting to like Absinthe

Reasons to Travel

Reasons to Travel

Number Eight

Getting to Like Absinthe & Challenging the Green Fairy

What do Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Rimbaud, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde have in common – aside from being very good at making us mere mortals feel pretty talentless?

The answer is simple: Absinthe. Also known as ‘the freakishly strong green stuff that drives you insane’, it was every artist’s drink of choice in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was fairly popular for a while, but then Rimbaud got shot by his lover, Van Gogh cut his own ear off and Hemingway stuck his favorite shotgun in his mouth. Fair to say, things got slightly out of hand, and the governments of most countries just decided to make it illegal. Incidentally, literature and art in general was never as good. Coincidence? I think not…

But fear not, because right here in Phnom Penh you might take over the torch of these great minds and you too write a masterpiece / paint the new Guernica. Or just have a good time, I can’t really promise anything about the masterpiece.

Open for a couple months now on street 51 is Absinthe bar, located opposite to the infamous Walkabout. As you probably guessed from the introduction, and, if you’re a fast thinker, from the slightly straightforward name of the establishment, Absinthe bar sells… Absinthe. Big surprise.

Now, you can find absinthe in a lot of places in Phnom Penh. For instance, Top Banana and the Mad Monkey both have good quality stuff, and even make cocktails out of it. What makes Absinthe bar special, however, is how you drink it. That is, the same way all the famous guys did.

Thibault Sargentini, the young owner of the place, will help you choose between no less than sixteen different absinthes (soon to be twenty), coming from Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland and the Czech Republic, and ranging from 45 to 85˚.

When you’ve made your pick (I would advise you to try them all, but then I don’t want to be held responsible when you start seeing green fairies flying around), he will show you how to drink it the right way, using devices such as the slow-drip absinthe fountain and the delicately crafted absinthe spoons.

Traditionally, the absinthe is served with a special slotted spoon resting on top of the glass, with a sugar cube placed on it. Then, there are several methods that Thibault will quickly teach you. Using the fountain – filled with ice water- you melt the sugar into your glass and fill with a bit of water. It makes it a wee bit easier to drink, since 85˚alcohol can be a bit rough on the throat. Moreover, the water helps accentuate the anise taste.

Another way to do it is to dip the sugar into the glass, and set it on fire on the spoon. Then, you drop the burning sugar into the absinthe and set the whole thing ablaze, before directly pouring a bit of ice water in it. Do I really need to say that it looks awesome?

If you want to go full bad-ass, you can dismiss the water entirely and down the flaming booze straight. A bit of warning, this is both stupid and disgusting, and nobody actually does it. I am merely pointing at a good way to burn your face off. That’s how Hemingway lost a bit of his legendary beard back in the Spanish Civil War. But again, what would you expect from a guy who regularly went drinking with James Joyce?

Aside from giving you instant street cred from drinking the same nectar as Pablo Picasso, the effects of absinthe are interesting in their own right. A bit more seriously, it is usually accepted that absinthe in fact doesn’t have hallucinogenic effects. Drinking it won’t lead you to cut your ear off or shoot your lover – still, go easy on it, you never know. What most artists have actually described from absinthe is a state of lucid drunkenness. There is of course a distinct feeling of inebriation, but at the same time your head is quite straight, and you don’t get tired. Then again, this does not mean you should be driving your motorbike back home after a few drinks…

The bar in itself is a great hang out, as it is located on the south part of street 51, less manic than the area surrounding Heart of Darkness and the like. Thibault renovated the entire place, with a classic pool table upstairs and a comfy terrace in front of the bar where you can escape the heat of the city.

Thibault’s journey before opening the bar looks like a proper Odysseus (and, thinking of it, Homer probably drank absinthe as well, or at least would have if he had lived in the 19th century). After losing his job in France in 2008 (‘the best thing that ever happened to him’), he decided not to bother looking for another one – because, you know, who needs one of those anyway – and packed a bag to Asia. After almost three years of wandering around, from Burma to Japan and from Russia to Indonesia, he finally landed in Cambodia.

On a night out in Kampot with a couple of friends, and after quite a few drinks, they started spit-balling random projects: among them, a TV show about expats to be shown in France, or a training program for golf caddies in Cambodia. One caught Thibault’s slightly drunken attention: a bar dedicated to serving a particular, original drink. Since tequila is sooo 2003, he decided to go with absinthe.

Smart move, as it has been building a crowd of regular customers, as well as attracting the eye of passing by tourists. So, instead of sticking to can beer or the way too overrated whiskey and coke, drop by the absinthe bar next time you’re on 51. Chances are, you’ll meet some decent people, and follow a proud tradition of great artists slowly destroying their brain with a mythical liquor.

Oh, and there’s a cute puppy called Raoul going around the place. I don’t know about you, but in my book, cute puppies are always worth a few extra points.

The Absinthe Bar, 216 street 51, open Tuesday to Sunday. 5pm – late.