Driftwood's New Absinthe-Heavy Drink Menu Is The Stuff Of Legends.
Among liquors, absinthe may be the most steeped in lore. It’s been banned, dubbed as hallucinogenic (Moulin Rouge, anyone?) and written about almost sexually by Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
So, it’s safe to say, absinthe has quite the ubiquitous street cred.
And yet, it may be one of the least popular liquors ordered at bars — yes, behind even that cotton candy flavored vodka that you foolishly drank one time in college.
So, when Michael Martensen — the same guy who fashioned Smyth and Cedar Social into two of the better drinking establishment in Dallas and later walked out on them — created a drink menu at Driftwood in Bishop Arts which consisted mostly of absinthe and pastis,more than a few eyebrows — and empty glasses — were raised.
If you're not familiar with absinthe and pastis beyond urban legend, that’s to be expected. The liquor is a special one — its fermentation process includes wormwood and anise and produces a distinct licorice flavor or varying strength. Its flavor is quite the polarizing force. Most people know right off the bat whether they love or hate it.
Within absinthe there are two classes — white (or blanc) and green (verte). The white is what Martensen recommends for the entry-level absinthe drinker. A little lighter on the licorice flavor and less sharp, the novitiate’s palate is more readily accepting of the notes. The green is the classic absinthe. The stuff of legends.
It’s a rare thing for a drink menu to be almost entirely based around a single liquor. Having 18 different bottles of absinthe and pastis on the ready, Martensen boasts that Driftwood may have one of the largest selections in Texas.
So, then, the blaring question is, why absinthe?
In Texas, it seems a whiskey or bourbon menu would be extremely accessible and popular. But Driftwood isn't a steakhouse or a southern comfort food stop — the menu is comprised of all sorts of fresh, sea dwelling creatures. And one in particular — the oysters — pair perfectly with the green alcohol.
“It just seemed to make sense with who we were as a restaurant — seafood with French/Italian inspiration,” Martensen says. “I think it’s time for all of us to start focusing on things. I find there is a lot of mediocrity out there — everyone wants to appease everybody. Everything is average. If we say we want to do this and you focus on it and become very good at it, then you become known for being good at it. That was the direction I wanted to take this bar.”
Also, the mystique of it draws patrons in as well. “People think of the Green Fairy and lighting it on fire and cutting off ears,” Martensen says. “It’s got this romantic, scary thing going on with it. Which is great, I think it’s part of the show.”
With this abnormal focus, the Driftwood staff had quite a lot of berth to explore different adaptations of absinthe.
The most popular, Martensen says, is the tradition drip service. The principle of drip service is to dilute the absinthe while also strengthening the flavor in a controlled way. Straight absinthe is one of the more potent liquors out there — it ranges between 120 and 140 proof usually—and as such is almost always served diluted in water.
The drip service uses a spouted container filled with ice water. Absinthe is pours into a glass and then has a small strainer placed over the mouth of the glass. A cube of sugar is then place on top of the strainer. Water drops slowly down from the spout onto the sugar cube, dissolving it slowly and causing the water and sugar to enter the absinthe simultaneously. In this way, the absinthe is diluted and sweetened in one go. As more and more water combines with the absinthe, the mixture begins to louche — the French name for the process of the liquor become more opaque.
The method is precise and visually rewarding as well as being the perfect introduction to absinthe. In addition to the drip service, Driftwood’s bar staff also devised a set of cocktails. This method, too, is a reward within itself.
“It takes maybe 30 seconds to get a cocktail, but it’s like a courtship,” Martensen says. “You’re watching it, you’re hanging out and all of a sudden it’s taken over to you. It’s a very romantic experience to have. It’s unique.”
The cocktails remain quite accessible to undeveloped palates. The recipes are simple, using the absinthe as a bitters base while adding sugar and citrus zest for flavor development. “At the end of the day what we’re doing is we’re making them Old Fashioneds,” Martensen admits.
But, truly, it all comes down to the experience. Seeing the drip service right in front of you, downing $1 oysters with an absinthe chaser, it’s all sort of exotic. “The idea is that people come in and get some oysters,” Mortensen says. “And once the people have the pairing of absinthe and oysters it’s like game over. It’s amazing.”
We share the sentiment.