Even before ringing the doorbell of the unassuming terrace house, one can only assume there is something illicitly exciting happening inside – there’s the muted hum of conversation, flickering lights and shadowed silhouettes through curtained windows.
Upon entering the parlour, Parisian wooden chairs and antique water fountains on tables crowd the room and 19th Century-style lampposts bookend the bar. A scent akin to licorice marinates in every corner (absinthe’s main ingredient, aniseed). This is the Absinthe Salon, a boutique bar in Sydney’s bohemian Surry Hills.
“This is how millions of French people drank absinthe in the heady days of the Moulin Rouge. This is what they were doing so it’s a shame it was lost for so long,” says Absinthe Salon co-owner Gaye Valttila, who opened the bar with business partner Joop van Heusden in November 2009.
As expatriates in Holland, Valttila and van Heusden found love for high-quality absinthe. Once prohibition in Europe lifted in 2001 (and in Australia shortly after), they saw an opportunity to introduce the product back home.
“We didn’t even have a liquor license at that stage,” says Valttila. “We just bought a pallet of absence, brought it back with us and then bought our license.”
The idea was to import and distribute high-quality absinthe through an online retail face. While the product in Australia’s drinking culture was virtually non-existent, the business managed to draw a loyal customer base and carve a niche in the market. However, they soon realised the public needed more instruction in the lost art of drinking absinthe.
“A lot of people don’t know what to do with it,” she says. “They shoot it, they set it on fire, they don’t like the taste.”
After five years selling online, Valttila and van Heusden executed the next step in their plan. “Our final goal was to eventually open a salon where people could experience the whole ritual and taste all the different profiles of absinthe … Absinthe, in essence, is a niche market and we wanted to recreate something that was small and intimate and, at the same time, artistically cultural.”
Within the first year, the Salon has experienced an influx of interest. Valttila says the uniqueness of the venue is a definite drawcard.
“Every table – and there are only nine as we have a 30-person capacity – has a replica antique water fountain and our customers prepare their own absinthe with our guidance after we have also helped them choose a suitable one. It is more of a social experience.”
However, some patrons need more education than others. On one occasion, van Heusden scolded a patron for sculling an absinthe, with a light smack on the hand with a serving sieve, a heavily-accented ‘no’ and a reminder that absinthe was for sipping unless a burnt throat from the strong spirits was desired.
Maintaining the mystique
Part of the attraction of the Absinthe Salon lies in the clandestine history of its sole product. “Everyone didn’t really know it was legal,” says Valtilla. “French people today still think it’s banned … the prohibition and the scapegoating worked on them so well they still think it’s banned nearly 10 years later.”
She believes the history and mystique surrounding absinthe has worked in their favour, piquing many visitors’ interest – something which they have taken advantage of.
“You can’t see from the front that there’s a salon here,” she says. “We wanted to keep those illicit undertones going because there’s something very different about absinthe, something very mystical.”
There are many intrigues surrounding absinthe. For one, why was it banned? Valtilla says it’s down to the wormwood, one of the herbs in absinthe and one that’s restricted, as it was once believed to cause insanity. (In the 19th Century, absinthe drinkers fell ill, thanks not to the wormwood but the heavy metals filtering into cheaply-made absinthe.)
“It’s a very outdated legislation,” she explains. Thujone, the central component of wormwood and the suspected catalyst of psychoactive effects, can actually be found in many common unrestricted ingredients. “There’s actually more thujone in common sage; you can get more of a thujone hit from sage than you can from wormwood.”
And, does it make you hallucinate?
“It doesn’t; you’re not going to see little green fairies jumping around.”
Valtille assures, though, that absinthe does induce an effect unlike other alcohol, says, due in part to its complex herbal nature (not to mention alcohol by volume ranges from 45 to 75 per cent). Absinthe is so strong that the Salon enforces a three-drink maximum per patron, yet most stop at two by choice.
“It’s an elevated type of buzz, it’s not a dumping alcohol,” she says. “Absinthe does put your mind in a very lucid phase so that’s why the artists and poets used to drink it. They’d be continually creating and drinking absinthe. They’d stay on that level of creativity.”
Even the terrace is steeped in history – formerly home to a law firm and, more recently, an Apple store, the original 19th century inhabitants used the premises as a grocery store. The back room was used as a stable for the delivery horses. The original exposed brick wall is still intact behind the bar.
A cult following
Now, in the 21st century, the Absinthe Salon is growing a cult following.
“We do not advertise so everything travels word-of-mouth and via social networking,” she says. “Our customers range from corporates, bankers, advertising people, artists, poets, bohemians, seniors’ book clubs, dark alternative set … just everyone you could imagine.” One patron, an Irish tourist, said he’d heard of the Salon from raving fans in Dublin.
“Every weekend is about a third return visitors and every time they come back they bring new visitors.”
As for the future, the pair plans to franchise the store and, even though in its early days, they have already received requests.
“It’s not going to be a Doughnut King with an Absinthe Salon in every suburb. Maybe two, maximum, in the big cities,” she says. The first is slated for Melbourne, followed by Wellington.