Maiden’s Blush

By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson

1.5 oz Leopold’s Gin
0.75 oz Lemon Juice
0.5 oz Simple Syrup
0.25 oz Kübler Absinthe
4 Fresh Raspberries

In a mixing glass, muddle the raspberries with the simple syrup.
Add remaining ingredients and shake with ice.
Place a julep strainer or mesh strainer over a coupe to catch any large raspberry pieces.
Strain into the coupe.
Garnish with a lemon wheel.

* * *

“If I had slightly longer legs, I would never have been a painter.”
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

February 16, 1895.  The night began auspiciously.  Guests – who constituted the crème de la crème of French literary and artistic society – sauntered into the lavish home of Alexandre Natanson, one of the founders of the avante-garde magazine La Revue Blanche.  As they entered the main drawing room, the revelers encountered a long mahogany counter in the style of an English bar.  Behind the bar, a squat dwarf of a man, his head shaved for the occasion, stood solemnly, dressed in a white jacket and stars-and-stripes waistcoat.  The man mixed drinks with skill and flamboyance; by the end of the evening, 2,000 cocktails had been shaken, stirred, or layered – and almost the entire company of guests had passed out from the concoctions.  The next day, the Paris gossip columns buzzed about the “orgy”.  If you haven’t guessed, the “squat dwarf” behind the bar was the enfant terrible of the fin de siècle art world, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Today, we salute Toulouse-Lautrec, not the painterly artist but the mixological one.  Our friend Deana over at LostPastRemembered opened our eyes to Lautrec’s passion for food and drink, so today, while Deana explores Lautrec’s more gastronomic talents (Pigeon with Olives, anyone?), we at 12 Bottle Bar will chronicle his more bibulous ones.  Lautrec’s love of drink is legendary and tragic.  He is something of a poster child for the tortured artist – family inbreeding caused his dwarfism and may have also left him genetically predisposed to alcoholism.  After years of over-indulgence, he died in 1901, ravaged by paralysis and paranoia.  The booze did nothing to destroy his creativity though.  He left behind 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 368 prints and posters, and 5,048 drawings (thank you, Wikipedia).

Lautrec’s work is a brilliant chronicle of fin de siècle Parisian nightlife from the dissolute brothels of Montmarte to the provocative Can-Can dancers to the local café culture.  In a country intensely devoted to wine, Lautrec was one of the few Parisians of note who embraced American cocktails.  Born in 1864, Lautrec entered the world just as cocktail culture was getting into full swing. In 1862, Jerry Thomas had just published the first edition of his “Bar-Tender’s Manual”.  By 1868, the first American bar had opened in London, a city that Anglophile Lautrec frequented as a young artist and friend of Oscar Wilde.  In Paris, the artist patronized English-style bars like the Irish and American Bar on Rue Royale and Café Weber next door.  He was particularly taken with the expertise of Ralph, the Irish and American’s half-Chinese, half-Native American bartender, who shows up in a handful of Lautrec’s pieces, as well as with the “Rainbow Cups” (pousse-cafés) at Weber.

Ralph tending bar

Lautrec was known for forcing drinks – of questionable origin and strength — on his friends.  Thus, the Natanson party was a night to be savored.  As a close associate of Natanson, Lautrec had been given carte blanche to organize the party, down to designing the invitation, which boasted a night of “American and other drinks”. With three hundred guests at Lautrec’s disposal, the artist saw the event as a perfect showcase for his whims – along with fantastical drinks, he was also a wizard with strange and wonderful cocktail snacks.  Emphasizing Lautrec’s commitment to the evening, a sign on the bar read “Don’t speak to the man at the wheel”.  The amateur bartender even had a 6’5” assistant in Maxime Dethomas, who was chosen most likely for comic effect.

The invitation

For better or worse, Lautrec never did anything in moderation.  As chronicled in “Toulouse-Lautrec’s Table”, the bar offerings were “mild and sparkling at first (then) increasingly robust and alcoholic… lethal concoctions followed, setting a few unwary throats on fire”.  Shots were followed by “delicately flavored pink cocktails”. There were even “solid” cocktails like oysters with cayenne pepper and sardines in gin flambé with port.  By the end of the night, most of the guests had collapsed in the arms of the “housemaids and English governesses who acted as nurses for the evening.”  Ironically, Lautrec, an inveterate dipsomaniac who died from his alcoholism, did not touch a single drop that night.

The Natanson party was just one example of Lautrec’s eagerness to push the social envelope.  At his local haunts, he was known to take the dregs of the evening’s drinks, pour them all into a glass, and swig them down, encouraging his friends to follow suit.  He has been credited with the invention of several drinks, although the documentation is vague at best.  The Tremblement de Terre (earthquake, in French) is a ridiculously potent mix of three parts Cognac to three parts Absinthe.  Because there is no water involved, the Absinthe doesn’t “louche”( turn cloudy), but stays green.  However, according to Jad Adams in “Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle”, the idea of combining brandy and absinthe existed long before Lautrec came upon it. In 1860, Henri Balesta spoke of how chronic Absinthe addicts would combine the Green Fairy with Cognac or Rum .

Lautrec is also said to have created a beast called the Maiden’s Blush.  His version — Absinthe, mandarin, bitters, red wine, and Champagne – was probably assembled after one of those nights at the bar tossing everything in a spare glass.  In the interest of drinkability, we have turned to the version recorded in 1896’s “Bariana: Recueil pratique de toutes boissons Americaines et Anglaiseswritten by Louis Fouquet, the barman at Paris’s Criterion Hotel.

Our adaptation of Fouquet’s Maiden’s Blush cuts back on the Absinthe, which can be overpowering in the wrong amount.  While Lautrec might have favored a more Absinthe–heavy mix, we feel that the .25 ounce extends the flavor of the raspberries without taking over the drink. We also recommend double straining the drink to catch any large raspberry bits or seeds.  The best way to describe the character of this drink is to liken it to a Good ‘n Plenty (the drink version of which combines equal parts of Chambord and the licorice-flavored liqueur Sambuca) with the sour note from the lemon.  It really is quite lovely and undeniably pink.  We like to think that Lautrec would have liked this drink, a more gentle and genteel combination of flavors that would do far less harm to the human constitution.

For more from Lautrec’s table – things both adventurous and delicious – be sure to visit LostPastRemembered.  And while you’re cooking up the tasty things Deana has chronicled, there’s plenty of time to enjoy a few Maiden’s Blushes, especially if you have Can-Can girls lingering around.

Esoterica: The little creature in the photo is a “lemon pig”.  Lautrec liked to make them and display them on his bar.

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8 Responses to “Maiden’s Blush”

  1. Franko
    March 25, 2011 at 11:58 am #

    what a fascinating post. i’ll add this as a tragic postscript, from earlier this week:

    “Fire at Elysees Montmartre in Paris”:
    http://bit.ly/hjbUYv

    • March 25, 2011 at 12:12 pm #

      Thanks, Franko. It’s tragic what happened to Elysses, but at least has survived for 200 years — even through Haussmann’s remodel of the city.

  2. March 25, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    What can I say… awesome!!! Really a great story of drinks and Lautrec’s love of them. It was a great read and learned a lot. Funny, I always thought of Lautrec as a sad little alcoholic … now , well I think he had a lot of fun in his short life with many friends who cared for him. I do wish I could have gone to that Natanson party!

  3. March 28, 2011 at 5:36 am #

    Truly excellent post! I loved reading the history and can’t wait to attempt this recipe. Do you happen to know why Lautrec included the silhouettes of a kangaroo and elephant on his party invitation?

    • March 28, 2011 at 2:23 pm #

      The elephant is a variation of Lautrec’s signature. Within, you can see his typical circle “brand”, and I’m assuming the elephant might have symbolized his connection with the Moulin Rouge, which sported a larger than life version in its garden. The best I could find on a kangaroo connection is the boxing kangaroo that was a feature at the Folies Bergère, another place Lautrec frequented. If you find a large scale version of the invitation, the kangaroo does appear to have gloves on. Perhaps they are “you might know me from the Folies Bergère or the Moulin Rouge.”

      Glad you liked the post.

      • March 28, 2011 at 6:35 pm #

        As signatures go, that is hard to top. Thanks for digging up this additional history. (Manet’s painting of the bar at the Folies Bergère is one of my favorites.) The Maiden’s Blush cocktail, in front of me now, is exceptional! Also works well with Hendrick’s gin and Leopold Bros. green absinthe subbed in.

        • March 28, 2011 at 6:49 pm #

          Usually, Hendrick’s is a tricky one, but the absinthe should marry nicely with it. So glad you tried the drink — and liked it!

          Sent from my iPhone

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