In Absinthe Veritas

With the reintroduction of absinthe to the American market, there has been a veritable torrent of articles about absinthe. They pretty much all say the same thing, invariably mentioning Van Gogh’s ear and rattling on about the mystique and history. But it’s a rare article that actually talks about what absinthe is or what it tastes like.

As far as taste goes, you either like black jelly beans or you don’t. If you are one of those people that shudder at the thought of anise flavoring, you can stop right here. Absinthe is kind of a cross between the modern anise spirits of the Mediterranean like anisette, pastis, sambuca, ouzo, arak[1] and the more complex herbal formulas like Chartreuse and Benedictine.

Absinthe drip pre-louche

While anise is a dominant flavor in absinthe, it is so much more than a black jelly bean. Above all, absinthe is a blend. Anise seed, fennel seed and wormwood flowers and leaves are the ‘holy trinity’ of absinthe flavoring ingredients. Leaving out or under representing any of these three calls in to question whether the result is still absinthe. Wormwood brings the fresh wide open aroma of sagebrush and prairie. Fennel is slightly earthier than anise and adds depth to the blend. But after these three, there is a fair amount of variety.

St George Spirits (Alameda, CA) uses meadowsweet, lemon balm, hyssop, basil, tarragon, mint, stinging nettles, and other herbs in their St George Absinthe. Trillium[2], from Integrity Spirits (Portland, OR) branches out with eleuthero root, valerian, damiana. An inexpensive substitute for the green anise seed is star anise, which lends a somewhat sweeter black licorice candy flavor to some commercial absinthes. Some more traditional herbs are angelica, sweet flag, dittany, coriander, veronica, juniper, and nutmeg. As with other complex herbal blends like gin and vermouth, there are no limits to the expression of the blender’s art.

How It’s Made

The first step in making absinthe is to soak the botanicals in very high proof alcohol to dissolve the various flavor and volatile essences of the plant matter. Grape spirit, i.e. brandy, is the traditional base for this maceration. The predistillation product is intensely bitter and muddy to the taste. This tincture was sometimes called ‘steepsinthe’ and drank by those without stills during the ban. But re-distillation is a critical step to achieving a true absinthe. Distillation separates the more volatile floral, citrus and, to a lesser degree, spicy flavor elements from the original bitter and earthy brew. It is especially important to remove absinthin, the substance that makes wormwood so bitter. Gin distillations achieve a similar separation of desirable from undesirable flavors, though with a quite different selection of botanicals.

Absinthe drip after louche

Proper louching is the precipitation of anise oils (anethol) caused by the addition of water. These oils are completely soluble in the high proof absinthe but are forced out of solution when the alcoholic strength is reduced.

After distillation, the absinthe is clear in color and can be left that way as a blanche, but for a verte, another step is needed. Traditionally coloration is done by steeping lemon balm, petite wormwood, hyssop and/or other mild herbs in the distillate. Petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica or Roman wormwood), does not contain absinthins in any appreciable quantities and so can be used post-distillation. Since the color results from chlorophyll, it is not as stable as artificial color and can vary or break down over time. The bright peridot green of the fresh product fades to a yellow and then to brown, but there is little deterioration of flavor.

This only scratches the surface of the complex art of how a pure absinthe is traditionally made, and of course, not all absinthes are made this way. Some producers use artificial colors, flavors and other shortcuts. Sometimes the results are different enough tasting to be hard to even call absinthe. There are enough variables in the process, equipment and ingredients that it is another case where the proof is really in the glass, and my experience has been that the traditional methods are worth the extra effort and expense.

For a review of some of the current absinthes on the market, please see Absinthe Roundup Pt 1 over at Cocktail Nerd. Part one includes La Fee Parisienne, Lucid, and Apsinthion.

Further Reading

There are a plethora of green tinted webpages with more information:

http://www.feeverte.net/

http://www.wormwoodsociety.org/

http://www.artofdrink.com/absinthe/absinthe-00.php

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absinthe

http://www.foodreference.com/html/fabsinthe.html

http://realabsinthe.blogspot.com/2008/07/list-of-absinthes-approved-for-us.html

http://www.absinthe-review.net./index.html

Footnotes

[1] http://www.foodreference.com/html/artaraketc.html

[2] http://www.integrityspirits.com/trillium-absinthe.html

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