The Glass in a Glass Method

Another little known alternative preparation ritual (fascinating and historically sanctioned) is the “glass-in-a-glass” method. Cumbersome in practice, but fascinating to watch, this involves placing the absinthe dose in a small stemmed glass inside a much larger glass, then slowly adding water until all the absinthe in the small glass has been displaced and has overflowed into the larger glass. This method was never widely used, but is historically authentic. Its use is documented in France in the 1840’s, and it’s also described in George Saintsbury’s legendary “Notes on a Cellar-book”, which although published in 1920 primarily records the drinking habits of the 1870’s and 1880’s. It seems likely that this method survived longer in the UK than it did in France.

From “Notes on a Cellar-book”, by George
Saintsbury. London, 1920:

However, I will not close this short chapter without saying something of the supposed wickedest of all the tribe – the ‘Green Muse’ – the Water of the Star Wormwood, whereof many men have died – the absinthia tetra, which are deemed to deserve the adjective in a worse sense than that which the greatest of Roman poets meant.

I suppose (though I cannot say that it ever did me any) that absinthe has done a good deal of harm. Its principle is too potent, not to say too poisonous, to be let loose indiscriminately and intensively in the human frame. It was, I think, as a rule made fearfully strong, and nobody but the kind of lunatic whom it was supposed to produce, and who may be thought to have been destined to lunacy, would drink it ‘neat.’ Of its being so drunk I once had a harmless but very comic experience. The late Bishop Creighton and I had contiguous lodgings, during the later part of our undergraduate life at Oxford, in one of the old houses east of University and now destroyed. We used them practically in common, employing one sitting-room to eat and the other to work in. On one occasion we had some men to dinner, and when the last went our good landlady, who had been hovering about on the landing in an agitated manner, rushed into the room crying, ‘O! gentlemen, is that stuff poison ?’

We naturally requested further light. It turned out that a glass of absinthe, which had been poured out but not used, had been taken downstairs, and that our excellent landlord, sagely observing, as his wife rather reproachfully said, ‘It must be good if the gentlemen drink it,’ had quaffed it without water, but as she said ‘as he would gin,’ and had naturally found it rather too much for him. We calmed her fears and recommended a plentiful draught of water, adding in the most delicate way in the world, a caution that it was not invariably necessary to drink liquor that was left over; and dismissed her. Also we endeavoured – for Creighton was like Thackeray’s Jones ‘a fellow of very nice feeling, who afterwards went into the Church,’ and I hope I was not less nice, though my destiny was more profane – not to laugh too much till she had closed the door.

A person who drinks absinthe neat deserves his fate whatever it may be. The flavour is concentrated to repulsiveness; the spirit burns ‘like a torch-light procession’; you must have a preternaturally strong or fatally accustomed head if that head does not ache after it.
Moreover, you lose all the ceremonial and etiquette which make the proper fashion of drinking it delightful to a man of taste. When you have stood the glass of liqueur in a tumbler as flat-bottomed as you can get, you should pour, or have poured for you, water gently into the absinthe itself, so that the mixture overflows from one vessel into the other. The way in which the deep emerald of the pure spirit clouds first into what would be the colour of a star-smaragd, if the Almighty had been pleased to complete the quartette of star-gems, and then into opal; the thinning out of the opal itself as the operation goes on; and when the liqueur glass contains nothing but pure water and the drink is ready, the extraordinary combination of refreshingness and comforting character in odour and flavour – all these complete a very agreeable experience.

Like other agreeable experiences it may no doubt be repeated too often. I never myself drank more than one absinthe in a day, and I have not drunk so much as one for some thirty years. But the Green Muse is bonne diablesse enough if you don’t abuse her; and when you land after rough handling by the ocean she picks you up as nothing else will.

Preparation of an absinthe using the ‘glass in a glass’ method.
The large glass dates from the 1850’s.