An enthusiastic advocate for bartending’s lesser-appreciated spirits, Chantal Tseng goes out of her way to demystify the likes of aquavit, sherry and absinthe with every drink she mixes at the Reading Room in Washington, D.C. “I love watching people try these things, wrap their head around something, and like it,” she says.
Several times a year, the Reading Room team will deviate from its typical literature-inspired lists, dedicating an entire evening to absinthe, a category burdened with enough hoary folklore to fill the Library of Congress. For these special nights, Tseng and colleague Dan Searing offer the traditional flowing fountain, spoon and sugar cube setup, along with a roster of absinthe-based cocktails. This gave Tseng a chance to stump for the Tremblement de Terre, otherwise known as the Earthquake, a potent absinthe cocktail with roots in France’s Belle Époque.
Tseng was working at D.C.’s historic Tabard Inn in 2007, the year absinthe was once again legalized for sale in the States after a nearly century-long ban. She immediately did what she does best: hit the books for inspiration. She happened upon the Earthquake—equal parts gin, whisky and absinthe, shaken and served in a cocktail glass—in the 1930’s Savoy Cocktail Book, and was instantly intrigued. (According to Savoy author Harry Craddock, the concoction deserves its tectonic moniker “because if there should happen to be an earthquake on when you are drinking it, it won’t matter.”)
Tseng began tinkering with the recipe and was pleased to find it had potential, despite its apparent jet-fuel potency. “It’s not as terrible as you think, and that’s part of the reason why the recipe works,” she says.
More than Craddock’s version, however, Tseng was taken with a simpler iteration commonly credited to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the influential French Post-Impressionist and early advocate of American cocktail culture. Absinthe was Toulouse-Lautrec’s primary crutch, both figuratively and literally. Stricken with congenital disabilities from birth, the artist was forced to walk with a cane, which he customized to hold a half-liter of his choice poison as well as a drinking glass, according to Phil Baker’s The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History. While he took it straight, he was wont to cut it with Cognac, too. “A notoriously heavy drinker,” writes Baker of the painter, “his preferred mixture was a lethal combination of absinthe and brandy known as an Earthquake.”
Originally an 50/50 mixture, Tseng has made her own modifications. “I don’t like it equal parts—it does get kind of sweet that way, even if you don’t add sugar to the absinthe,” she says. Tweaking the ratio to two-to-one, with a lemon twist, results in a crisper, drier drink that simultaneously highlights and tempers absinthe’s inherent licorice notes. Tseng is also fond of working in various sherries, vermouths, amari and sparkling wines into lengthened-riffs, further softening the high-proof edges.
Much tamer than how Toulouse-Lautrec took it, Tseng sees her edit of the Earthquake as a way to get the curious and skeptical engaged with the history and culture of absinthe. “It’s not as crazy as it sounds,” she says. “Well, with absinthe, it’s always a little crazy.”