A cocktail named after a non-fiction novel about Spanish bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon is also known as Hemingway Champagne. This beverage was Ernest Hemingway’s go-to, so attributed to him that he even contributed it once to a book featuring celebrity cocktails…in 1935.
How does one go from bullfighting to booze, when naming one’s own drink? He was fascinated by bullfighting, enamored with it. His writing on the subject went far more deep, however, than the swish of a cape or someone being prolifically gutted on the horn of a bull. Through Hemingway’s eyes, the act became an embodiment of several dichotomies and thus the novel a study of: Life, Death. Fear, and courage.
Consuming the beverage fittingly named after this work could be viewed thusly, as well. Depending on who makes it, of course.
The recipe from good old Ernest himself:
“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.”
It sounds like a good idea, in theory. To be honest, I’d never really thought about it until last night.
Last night, J and I were in the French Quarter to pay a visit to a very lovely little vampire-themed absinthe speakeasy that has recently opened up. It opens late, of course. So, to pass some time, we took a meander and eventually walked up to the Backspace Bar.
I was delighted to walk up to the Backspace Bar. Relatively new, in the grand scheme of things, I’d been wanting to pay it a visit since it opened up a year or so ago. See, Backspace is literature-themed. Aside from their regular wine and well offerings, their primary cocktail list consists solely of beverages either associated with writers, or with novels wherein certain drinks are mentioned. As a former English Literature student, and a writer in my own way, the idea of this place just reeked of perfection. What a drink list! One can pay homage to James Bond, or Truman Capote. Faulkner! Marlow! F. Scott Fitzgerald! Hemingway!
I couldn’t help but think I was meant to be right in that spot, right at that time. So we went in, and sidled up. Gazing up at the chalkboard menu behind the bar, J and I decided to both try out a Death in the Afternoon. There was something gratifying about grinning at the barkeep while saying, “Yeah, I’ll try a Hemingway.” I was geeking out, I truly was. We decided to order Ernest’s cocktail, even after the bartender said, “Oh GOD. It’s AWFUL.” Because, you know, HEMINGWAY. And, the bartender did not seem to be much of an absinthe fan, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Backspace makes Death in the Afternoon precisely as Hemingway dictated. Champagne glass, check. Absinthe, check. Bubbly, check. We paid up, and found ourselves some seats next to a fireplace ensconced with leather armchairs.
I loved the leather armchairs. I loved glancing around, and finding myself surrounded by antique typewriters. I loved the music, jazzy and quirky, some of it kind of Mirrormask-esque, some of it Tom Waits. I loved the whole vibe of the place.
What I did not love was Death in the Afternoon.
I am an absinthe fan. It’s a delightful drink, when served properly. I’m also fond of champagne. But together? The two fought and argued on my tongue in a riotous battle of licorice and bitterness. Feeling, however, that it was my writerly duty to finish what Hemingway gave me, I sipped my way through it while creating the new quest for myself of procuring, somehow, a typewriter of the exact make and model that Kerouac used to type out his scroll for the work table in our library. Formulating this mission got me through, and before I knew it the time had come to depart.
Don’t blame Backspace – they’re making what Hemingway dictated. I really found that place favorable, and will most gladly return. Their food menu looks promising, so I would like to try it. Except next time, I think I’ll go with an F. Scott Fitzgerald. A Gin Rickey is pretty reliable, suitable for summer and, given its association, likely fits me well.
As we made our way along dark narrow streets to our actual destination, I pondered over what I’d just consumed. “HOW did Hemingway drink that?! How did he drink THREE to FIVE of them of an afternoon?!” “WHY WHY WHY?!?!?!” It’s common knowledge that our fair genius was on a bent for self-destruction, but truly! It was so bad!
In doing a little research, I’ve noticed that various drinkmasters out there have modified the recipe, to include vermouth, or lemon juice, or other ingredients that cut the bitterness. I had the thought, as we stepped through the speakeasy’s façade, that perhaps using a Spumante instead of a Brut champagne may just do the trick. Blend a sweet in there, non? I may have to dive into a little potion-mixing, just to find out, some lazy afternoon.
Or, you could just treat the absinthe right, first. Then dump the champagne on her. The whole water and sugar-cube ritual of absinthe isn’t just for show. It’s SCIENCE, man. This stuff, green and clear, overwhelming and potent, when you first pour it, goes through this really neat chemical transformation when you add cold water and a l’il sugar. Emulsification creates a louche (or milkiness) and brings out some fantastic subtle flavors.
So we whiled some time in our favorite late-night hidey-hole and decided to try a Blue Fairy- named after the type of absinthe used, which appears blue instead of green. It was a joy to sip upon. Light, fruity, almost airy on the tongue. Oh joy! In chatting with the proprietress, then, we discovered that, oh, what?…
Her Blue Fairy was a blend of absinthe and champagne.
Well hot damn.
I was right. If you treat the absinthe correctly right from the start (as our mix-mistress can certainly do, she really knows her stuff), and THEN add the champagne, the mixture is truly a pleasure to behold.
What an interesting course of events to experience, from an epicurean perspective. To have the basic bad, and the artistic good. All in one evening, by pure happenstance.
I really wish I could give my old pal Hemingway the benefit of the doubt. Initially, last night, I was relieved, thinking, “Well, in his era, the understanding of how absinthe is handled was fairly common knowledge and thus he MUST have mixed it properly prior to adding the effervescence. Right? RIGHT?!”
Unfortunately, his quoted recipe leaves little for such positive thinking. One jigger of the green stuff, and dump champagne on it. That’s okay, Mr. H. I love you anyway.
Featured Image: Death in the Afternoon, at the Backspace Bar