Last week, yours truly travelled back to Spain for a few days of R&R, so I thought I’d do some digging to see how the absinthe scene has progressed over the past several years. The fact that absinthe was never banned in Spain made me wonder if absinthe’s proliferation will be any different than in the U.S. Has it become much more popular? Has it had a ‘novelty purchase’ boom, like we did in 2007 and early 2008?
Unfortunately, it seems as though not much has changed. It’s still a rather uninteresting topic to most Spaniards I’ve spoken with, relegated to tourist traps, or hidden on the back bar. People just don’t seem to care. I guess that’s not too surprising, given that absinthe itself never really reached the popularity levels that it did in France, Switzerland and to a lesser extent, the U.S. Although the Spanish love all things anise, it seems like they have always preferred their own versions of ‘bebidas anisadas’ like Ojen and other anisettes.
But even with the relative calm in the absinthe scene, there are still good places where you can find decent brands for sale and tons and tons of antiques. That is, if you know where to look.
Two of the primary cities in Spain where you are most likely to find absinthes and absinthania for sale are Madrid and Barcelona, although there are smaller opportunities in almost any city or town. So let’s take a look at some of the best options in the two most popular cities:
Barcelona has embraced the ‘Bohemian’ side to absinthe. That is to say, it caters mainly to lower quality brands that are artificially colored and not really the best tasting. Most of the absinthe preparation you see will be geared towards tourists looking for the ersatz flame ritual. So, if you’re looking for an authentic absinthe, you might not have the best of luck. However, if you’re at a bar that serves decent absinthe, just make sure to tell them ‘sin fuego’ (without fire). Bar Marsella (Calle Sant Pau 65, very near the Cathedral) is probably the most popular spot in town to enjoy a sip of the green fairy. The New York Times even wrote an article about it.
The best retail location for absinthe in Barcelona is Cava De Los Faros, or their online store, Fine Spirits Corner. While they do carry quite a bit of fake and knock-off absinthe, they also carry some of the more popular and higher quality European offerings such as La Clandestine and the Jade line. Just remember, if it’s artificially colored, you probably want to stay away from it. We have an entry for Cava in the ‘Absinthe Around The World’ traveller’s guide to absinthe on our website.
Madrid’s absinthe scene is quite a bit more laid back than Barcelona, in that you won’t see much hype, nor much flame. Most popular clubs and cocktail bars in the older section of the city will carry a bottle or two, but the selection can range from decent to downright horrendous, depending on the establishment. Many bars in and around the Plaza de Santa Ana , including Guau Guau, carry fairly decent brands, as they cater to a more sophisticated cocktail crowd nowadays; many of the ‘Bar de Copas’ have reinvented themselves into ‘Bar de Cocteles’ over the past two years. *Note to all of you beer and cocktail afficionados: This plaza has some amazing drinking establishments. Something for everyone, including the only brewery within Madrid city limits, Naturbier. They actually have TAPS at each table!
The Chueca, Malasana, and Moncloa areas are teeming with high school and college kids, and tend to carry lower quality brands, although the nightlife in those areas isn’t to be missed. Just don’t go looking for good absinthe.
For retailers, your choice is fairly limited. The best I’ve found is right off of the Callao metro stop near Sol, Licores Mariano Madrueño. It’s a fairly small shop, but has the best selection of absinthe I’ve found in Madrid, which consists mainly of Spanish oil mixes, but they also have Mansinthe, which is a fairly highly regarded brand. They also have a fantastic selection of small batch gins and herbal liqueurs.
So, if you’re ever in search of the green fairy in Madrid or Barcelona, stop by the aforementioned places. And if you find somewhere new, please drop in on the Wormwood Society and tell us about it!