I wasn't able to make it to the recent absinthe tasting at LeNell's Ltd. liquor store in Red Hook, Brooklyn, but owner LeNell Smothers was kind enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions about the green fairy, the business of bars, and booze.
How would you describe the experience of drinking absinthe to someone who had never tried it?
Are you talking about the myth of hallucinating? That's bullshit. It's a high-proof alcohol, so you're getting more of a buzz, but it's not the same as taking a hallucinogenic drug.
Do you subscribe to the traditional method of drinking absinthe, with the spoon, the sugar, and the dripping of cold water?
It depends. Sometimes I just drink absinthe straight, without adding water. Personally it's all about the taste.
Do you think the absinthe available in America today is different than the famous French absinthe of the 1890s?
There were a variety of absinthes available back in the day, when the writers and artists were hanging out in Paris drinking it. Quality varied, just like in any category of spirit, so you can't really say if this absinthe is the same or different.
What do you think about current trend in New York toward posh, speakeasy-type bars? Are they too gimmicky or are they reintroducing drinkers to long-forgotten, classic cocktails?
Every bar is gimmicky. Everyone has some sort of shtick. I don't think it's a bad thing. Is it gimmicky to have a phone booth that you walk through? Of course it is. Is it gimmicky to have chandeliers hanging and a big fat wooden door? Of course it is. Is it gimmicky to have girls dancing on a bar? Of course it is.
Well, where do you like to drink?
I drink all over the place. I've been seen many a night at Death & Co. and PDT and often both, back to back. If you're doing swank, those are great bars for classic cocktails. Pegu, Milk & Honey, Little Branch. But I think it's also important to be able to enjoy yourself at a beer-and-shot bar as well, and I've had plenty of fun nights in those places, too. There's a time and place for all kinds of bars. My bar business plan is the classic cocktail but a little more honky-tonk.
Last year you began selling your own brand of whiskey, Red Hook Rye. What prompted you to introduce it in your store? Is rye your favorite spirit?
Rye was America's first whiskey, before bourbon, so it's a nod to that heritage. George Washington made rye, for example. Rye is also my preferred ingredient in classic cocktails like Manhattans. Also, no one was doing that kind of bottling—cask-strength, and nonchill-filtered at the premium level. Barrel number three is lined up and will make its debut around November.
You make it a point to highlight women and minorities in the wine and spirit business. Do you think that the landscape is changing or is it still primarily a male-dominated field?
It's still definitely a white maledominated industry.
Do you see more movement in certain areas? Women winemakers, say, as opposed to women distillers?
There are definitely more women winemakers than women distillers. You can probably count the women distillers on one hand. It's slowly changing, but hard liquor has always been considered more manly than ladylike.
If you could invite any three people over for a cocktail, who would they be and what would you serve?
Oh, you'll have to give me more time to think about that. Immediately I started to think about the three hottest men I just met! Mmm, three men and cocktails. I guess I would invite Dirty Helen and Texas Guinan. Hmm, who else? We have to have a man in there. We've got two women. Two hell-raising women and me. I don't know, man-wise, who I would throw in there. Dirty Helen ran a pretty kick-ass bar during Prohibition. She inspired me in many, many ways. She was a kick-ass business owner. Texas was also known here in New York for running speakeasies—many speakeasies. When one was shut down, she'd open another one right up somewhere else, and was known to be a big-time party girl.
So what would you serve?
Well, with Dirty Helen, it would have to be Old Fitzgerald. She didn't have cocktails in her bar, although in her biography, she did mention having a Sazerac on a night out during her youth. So maybe I could revisit that with her, or a Gin Fizz.
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