Downtown's Meat & Potatoes is new on the scene, having opened on Penn Avenue this June. But the "gastropub" has already established itself with an innovative mix of cocktails -- thanks in no small part to an ingredient you don't find in the average Pittsburgh corner bar: absinthe.
Absinthe is a botanical spirit distilled with anise, fennel and wormwood. Created in Switzerland in the 1790s, it gained notoriety during the Belle Epoque era in France. The high-potency spirit -- it can be over 140 proof -- is best known for its emerald hue … and its alleged psychedelic properties.
In fact, there's nothing to those rumors. "Those who purchase absinthe in the hopes of having a drug-like experience will always be sorely disappointed," says Brian Robinson, of the absinthe advocacy association The Wormwood Society. Absinthe has been legal for years, though poorly written regulations created the perception that the beverage was contraband. It wasn't until 2007 that the federal government clarified that it was legal for sale.
Yet "people are afraid of it still," Meat & Potatoes bartender Mike Mills says. "They ask if it's real absinthe. Yes, it's real."
Drinkers have nothing to fear from absinthe, although it is not to be consumed straight. "Drinking a well-made, properly prepared absinthe is like taking you back in time," Robinson promises. "A good glass of absinthe will make you feel like you're walking through an alpine meadow."
To demonstrate, Mills serves an absinthe in the classic French style: 1.5 ounces of absinthe, a sugar cube elevated above the absinthe and 3 ounces of ice water slowly dripped over the sugar. As the water drips, the sugar dissolves, turning the absinthe cloudy and creating a swirl which enthusiasts call "the Green Fairy." The sugar and water mellow the absinthe's burn and bitterness, highlighting the botanical flavors.
Meat & Potatoes currently offers three brands of absinthe, including Philadelphia-distilled Vieux Carre. But that's just the start, says co-owner and absinthe enthusiast, Tolga Sevdik: "We're going to add more."