Where to get Absinthe in Honolulu
Yes, they’re louching absinthe in Honolulu. No, it’s not a hallucination.
The green fairy at L'Aperitif, inside La Mer at Halekulani.
Photo: Rae Huo
Where to get it
Lewers Lounge, at Halekulani,
Absinthe is not something you want to guzzle on an empty stomach. I remember starting field work for this story better than I remember finishing it, probably because absinthe has a way of erasing the mind.
This isn’t to say that wormwood (the infamous herb that gives absinthe its storied, psychedelic past and licorice flavor) is the reason for absinthe’s mind-erasing powers—alcohol levels in the average absinthe range from 120 to 150 proof. Drink anything that strong for a few days straight and you’ll trip out.
But barman and mixologist Kyle Reutner explains that the green lady is simply misunderstood. “Absinthe is a spirit, meant to be used like any other spirit. You can’t think of it as a drink any more than you think of whiskey as a drink.”
This is to say that absinthe is really enjoyed best as an aperitif, as one would enjoy a wine with hors doeuvres. There haven’t been any stories told lately of people van Gogh-ing their ears off, because nowadays, at the places you can find it, absinthe makes you take your time. You have to wait about seven to 10 minutes if it is poured properly. You can’t rush it. It’s a drink that controls its drinker.
Presently, and after a long period of outlaw, the slippery serpent is allowed back into the United States, more or less in its original, fin de siecle formula. There are several places in Honolulu that serve it: You can even find it tiki-fied (fun history fact: the 1933 Don the Beachcomber mai tai recipe actually calls for absinthe) or used to rinse the glass in a Sazerac.
Or, if you prefer, some serve the more traditional style of louching—diluting the absinthe by cold-water drip. You, too, can pretend you’re absinthe-addicted French poet Verlaine; you just have to go where the tourists go.
Tucked inside that golden molar in the mouth of Waikiki, the Trump Hotel’s Waiolu Ocean View Lounge has three drips on hand. One stands tall and opulent at the corner of the bar; it looks like a lamp from the Titanic with little water taps sticking out of it. Order either there or at a table and someone will bring it out to you, full of icy water, for full control over your dilution.
The setup looks like this: A glass of absinthe is placed under a spoon that’s holding a sugar cube. The spoon sits in a tray under a little faucet that you turn on to let the ice water trickle out and dissolve the sugar into the glass. Ten minutes later, or sooner if you just can’t wait and want to stick the spoon into your glass and stir, the absinthe is brighter, cloudier and ready for your sipping.
Waiolu also mixes it into a cocktail: Absinthe Suissess ($15). It’s creamy and milkshake-like, made with Le Tournament Vert and orgeat syrup, and garnished with mint and cucumber. It’s refreshing, if a little bitter, like medicine in your dessert.
“Out of everyone who orders absinthe, 90 percent are curious, but they’ll still drink it,” the bartender Kelly told me. “Most will say, ‘That’s good, now I’ll take a whiskey.’ But a few order it again.”
The drip waits for you at both bars within the Halekulani as well, but they handle the dilution for you. At Lewers, the bartender was surprised we even knew what the thing was. Lewers only serves Lucid ($20), and it takes about two-and-a-half jazz songs before it’s ready to drink. At the risk of sounding like an alcoholic, I’ll say that an absinthe buzz is somewhere between a heady champagne vertigo and the stable confidence of whiskey.
If actual champagne is what you want (and you’re wearing the clothes for it), head upstairs to La Mer, where the bar, L’Aperitif, would win first place in a Belle Epoque costume contest, thanks to touches such as moody lighting and an antique-looking broadsheet menu.
Along with the drip, it features a few absinthe cocktails, and I ordered the Verlaine: a Peychaud bitters-soaked sugar cube in a flute of champagne and a Grande Absente floater ($20).
You can drink it as the sugar dissolves. “It’s an evolving cocktail,” the bartender, Henry Kawaiaea, says. Which is sneaky, because it tastes best once you finish it, so you want another immediately. Apparently, lots of people, ranging from Japanese tourists to local customers, do.
Sometimes, though, all you need is a glass that’s been rinsed in absinthe to get the best experience, and the Sazerac or Corpse Reviver No. 2 ($10) over at the more relaxed Pint and Jigger is a good place to start. The Corpse Reviver is absinthe with a light hand—citrus forward and sweet. Made with equal parts gin, orange liqueur, Cocchi Americano and lemon juice and only a few drops of absinthe, Reutner shakes it and strains it into a coupette.
“It’s called a Corpse Reviver because it was a wake-me-up morning drink,” Reutner says. “Meant to revive your corpse after a hard night.” You can imagine a tousled, red-eyed Fitzgerald struggling to make himself one before sitting down to type. It was like drinking from a glass filled with an overcast day; a black cherry that showed up through the fog halfway into the drink made me feel I was looking a dead guy in the cloudy eye.
Absinthe’s lore, its scandalous past and bohemian association all compel us to slip into the green hour, to escape into a Paris of days gone by.
“You’re engaging all of the senses every time you serve it,” Reutner says. “It’s incredibly romantic. You can imagine sitting on some lanai in France, at some cafe, and everybody having it in front of them.”