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Mardi Gras is not about partying. I mean it definitely is, but it’s about more than that. Mardi Gras is about exuberance. Obviously, it’s a drinking holiday, but you shouldn’t just drink anything; celebrating Mardi Gras by grabbing a White Claw is like celebrating Christmas by decorating a fern. What are you going to do? Dress up in a vivid costume, do down and into the music and chaos of the streets, join the undulating colorful madness of the crowd, and in your right hand, a vodka soda? Please. Mardi Gras demands more. It demands exuberance.
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This is just one of the reasons why the Absinthe Suissesse is a perfect cocktail for Mardi Gras specifically, and for New Orleans in general. It is absinthe made exuberant. Most cocktails that call for absinthe use it almost apologetically, in drips and dashes, but not the Suissesse. The Absinthe Suissesse is a cocktail that starts with a champion’s pour of absinthe—the aggressive and polarizing anise-flavored liquor, strong enough to power a rocket and thought at one time to be so intense as to drive men insane—and invites you to drink it for breakfast.
The Absinthe Suissesse first emerges in 1900, at least nominally. Suissesse simply means “a Swiss woman,” and as best I can tell, a cocktail under something approaching that name first appears in 1900, misspelled, in “Cocktail” Boothby’s American Bartender. A “Suicesse: San Francisco Style,” he records, is made of absinthe, orgeat [almond syrup], soda, and ice. In Europe in 1904, a different writer with a better command of French also had a “Suissesse” cocktail, again with absinthe, but this time alongside a teaspoon of sugar, four drops of grenadine, soda and ice.
It continues on this way for a while, with everyone making up their own version, and it’s no different when it gets to New Orleans: In Stanley Clisby’s seminal 1938 Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ‘Em, the Absinthe Suissesse has dropped both the grenadine and the orgeat, and had gained dry vermouth, creme de menthe, and an egg white.
Eighty-five years of iterations like this, and the cocktail has more or less settled into a generally agreed-upon template. It’s unclear who first added the milk, but all signs point to Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans, which seems to have done so to evoke the Ramos Gin Fizz, and in any case made such a delicious version as to beat out all the others by sheer quality: An Absinthe Suissesse as we now understand it is at minimum absinthe, orgeat, egg white, cream, and ice, to which is usually (but not always) added creme de menthe and a dash or orange flower water.
The Absinthe Suissesse is a treat in every sense. It’s decadent but not overly sweet, creamy but not overly heavy, and despite the quantity and polarizing nature of the base ingredient, completely approachable. It is an utterly charming cocktail, surprisingly well balanced, with absinthe’s herbaceous licorice forming the core flavor and then the rest of the ingredients forming a supporting cast of mint, almonds, flowers, and cream. It is a way to have absinthe for breakfast, and to feel more dignified for doing so. Try one, next time the situation calls for a little exuberance.
1.5 oz. blanche absinthe
1 oz. cream (or 1.5 oz. half and half, or 2 oz. whole milk)
0.5 oz. creme de menthe
0.5 oz orgeat
1 dash orange flower water (optional)
1 egg white
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and shake without ice for 5 seconds to whip the egg. Add ice and shake hard 10 to 12 seconds, strain without ice into a large Martini, coupe, or wine glass, and garnish with some fresh mint, an orange peel, grated nutmeg, or nothing at all.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Absinthe: On one hand, I am aware that absinthe is the kind of thing that people buy a single bottle of and it sits on your home bar for a decade. On the other hand, absinthe, like gin, is a botanical spirit, and the fact that I used to manage an absinthe-themed cocktail bar is how I know that different absinthes in otherwise identical cocktails yield radically different results.
Because of this, I have two types of advice. For the average person, just use whatever absinthe you have, and it’ll be great here, I promise. On the other hand, if you feel like sourcing the best possible absinthe for this particular cocktail, I would point you to a clean, light blanche, like La Clandestine from Switzerland, Absinthia from California, or more dynamic (and, honestly, exceptional) Duplais Blanche, if you can find it.
Creme de Menthe: You’ll find a few reputable recipes that omit the creme de menthe, but most people include it, which adds an (obviously) minty note that vibrates at absinthe’s frequencies. It draws attention from the orgeat, though. Honesty it’s good either way, though without the creme de menthe the cocktail can want for a bit of depth, so I say use it.
Orgeat: Orgeat is an almond syrup, and as early as Boothby’s 1900 book, you find absinthe and orgeat frequently paired up, the low resonance of the almonds a fine foil to absinthe’s herbaceous fireworks. As for brands, there are so many big flavors here, the orgeat mostly serves as a background note, so really any brand you get will do what it’s here to do. Use whatever is most convenient.
Egg White: Egg whites don’t taste like anything, and you’d think maybe are unnecessary here, but make one without an egg white and it’s just somehow flatter, less buoyant, and worse. If you’re nervous about salmonella (the odds are against it, but hey, I’m not a doctor) feel free to use pasteurized eggs, but you want the egg white here for texture.
Milk or Cream: Cream is the gold standard for this kind of thing, though I usually default to half-and-half for cocktail work, which for me is the Goldilocks zone for richness and workability. It’s also still good with whole milk, you just have to use a little more.
Orange Flower Water: Orange flower water is usually considered a powerful ingredient but is dwarfed by absinthe and creme de menthe. If you’re omitting the creme de menthe, some orange flower water amplifies the more charming aspects of the orgeat and is much welcome, but if you’re using creme de menthe, I’d honestly just skip it.
Garnish: Even among current recipes from learned sources, garnishes are all over the map. Some people use nothing, which is totally fine. Others use fresh mint on top, and even shake with mint leaves as well, which if you’re using the creme de menthe, is delicious and straightforward. If you’re not using it, I’ve seen orange peels, which again accents the orgeat to a delicious extent. The strangest garnish I’ve seen is a grinding of fresh nutmeg—a bold aromatic choice, and one that somehow seems to shove the cocktail into dessert territory, even though it doesn’t add any sweetness.
I lay that out because I found them all to be delicious. Personally, after all my tests, I’ll garnish with fresh mint if I have it around, and nothing if I don’t, but feel free to choose your own adventure.
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