A small room at The Whitney features the legendary green spirit — with a local twist
Photographs by cybelle codish
“The Whitney has long been an oasis from the hot trend of the moment,” says Dave Duey, general manager of the restaurant in the vintage mansion on Woodward Avenue. “We take a lot of pride in being classic and approachable, but I’ve always felt we were late to the party when it came to craft cocktails and the craft beer craze.”
Well, The Whitney is definitely not late when it comes to its newest addition: the Absinthe Room, a 17-seat spot that opened Oct. 1 adjacent to the third-floor Ghostbar.
It well may be in front of a craze, if the legendary green spirit — “La fee verte” or the green fairy — starts showing up on other cocktail tables around town. And if chartreuse can have a revival, why not absinthe?
There’s lots of history behind the controversial high-proof beverage. Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemingway immortalized it: Degas in his 1876 painting L’Absinthe, Picasso in his 1901 work, Woman Drinking Absinthe, and Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon, his 1932 book on bullfighting. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec also got in on the act, among other French artists.
Hemingway also devised a champagne and absinthe drink named “Death in the Afternoon,” along with these instructions: “Pour one jigger absinthe into a champagne glass. Add iced champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”
What makes sampling a Green Fairy something unusual is the ritual of preparing the drink. At the Absinthe Room, patrons are shown how to make their own, with the help of a slotted spoon and a green (what else?) cocktail glass.
First, a sugar cube is placed on the spoon. Absinthe is then poured over the top. Next, cold water is dripped through the spoon over the cube to distribute the water into the absinthe, which, by the way, is local, made at Two James distillery in Corktown. An alternate method is to light the sugar cube and then pour the water.
“Death in the Afternoon” — the other absinthe cocktail — is being served as well, and it inspired the Whitney to add a special Sunday breakfast. As an alternative to the much larger brunch served downstairs, guests can choose a champagne/absinthe blend to go along with the light offerings ($17 complete). In the evening, there’s a bar menu of such dishes as lamb lollipops and bacon-wrapped shrimp.
The Absinthe Room is open Wednesday through Saturday evenings and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays, when the light menu includes omelets, potatoes, fresh fruit, and warm baked scones along with “Death in the Afternoon.” In the evening, the room is romantically lit with candelabras and an ornate crystal chandelier as well as the flaming sugar cubes. And while the Sunday morning ambience is a little different, Hemingway would certainly approve of the beverage.
“I think this new experience is really just a part of the continuing return to the sophistication that our parents and grandparents embraced when they were cool and cutting edge,” Duey says.
The Whitney Restaurant, 4421 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-5700.
Tony Muzzi, The Whitney’s bar manager and assistant general manager, uses specific tools to make absinthe cocktails. Absinthe spoons are perforated so the liqueur can be poured over a sugar cube and into the glass. Absinthe glasses are specifically blown to include a reservoir that contains the correct amount of the spirit. Absinthe fountains are a showy way to prepare multiple drinks at once; they hold water that drips onto the absinthe spoon, breaking apart the sugar cube and ensuring an even pour. Patrons can use a fountain to determine the strength of their drink.
These accouterments aren’t necessary to prepare and enjoy these drinks at home. Standard glasses and silverware work. But an absinthe fountain adds a touch of flair that can’t be replicated. —Spencer White
Death in the afternoon
½ ounce absinthe
5 ounces champagne
Place an absinthe spoon on top of a champagne glass with the sugar cube on top. Pour absinthe over sugar cube, and light sugar cube on fire. Let it burn for 10-15 seconds, then pour champagne over sugar cube until flute is full. Turn spoon over and let sugar cube fall into the glass.
The Green Fairy
1 ounce absinthe
Water, to taste
Take an absinthe glass and put an absinthe spoon with a sugar cube over the top. Pour absinthe over and light sugar cube on fire. You control how much water is dripped onto the sugar cube; the liquid breaks it apart. Let it drip until the drink is as strong as you like. Turn the absinthe spoon over, and let the cube fall into the glass.