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:





Applejack – the Oldest American Spirit

Applejack. There’s kind of a backcountry mystique about it, probably rising out of the original way it was made as early as the 17th century in America. Farmers in northern climates would leave hard cider out in cold weather until ice formed. This was then removed, transforming and concentrating the cider into something with much more kick. Unfortunately, not only the ethanol and flavor, but all of the non-water components of the cider, such as methanol and congeners would be concentrated. Hangovers are caused by these compounds, and so this method is rarely used. But it didn’t require a still, and so anyone with a bunch of apples could make their own. Times, and equipment, have changed.

Pretty much the only applejack on the market today is made by Laird & Co. of New Jersey, and is 35% apple brandy mixed with 65% neutral grain spirits. For apple flavor, I much prefer their Straight Apple Brandy (100 proof) which is 100% apple based (20 lbs of apples per bottle!). Another good, though more expensive option, is the Clear Creek 8 year old Eau-de-Vie de Pomme, or their 2 year old Apple Brandy.

But enough about the spirit – let’s drink some!

One of the oldest recipes using applejack is the venerable Jack Rose. I ended up making 5 different recipes, and by the end I started to doubt the Torani pomegranate syrup I was using. The color often ended up a lurid magenta rather than a delicate rose and a harsh sugar edge crept in by the time the citrus was balanced. The best one to my taste was from Dale DeGroff’s new book ‘The Essential Cocktail’. In it he states that his recipe is reformulated to take the emphasis off of the grenadine since modern commercial grenadines are so poor.

Jack Rose

Jack Rose

  • 1 1/2 oz applejack
  • 3/4 oz simple syrup
  • 3/4 oz lemon juice (I used 1 oz Meyer lemon juice)
  • 1/4 oz real grenadine (Torani pomegranate syrup)

Shake with ice, strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with apple slice and cherry.

After the Jack Rose, my thoughts turned to the Widow’s Kiss, a fine calvados/applejack cocktail. A nice variation on that one is the Widow’s Touch from John Gertsen of Boston’s No 9 Park, using St Germain instead of Chartreuse. Another variation that I just had to try was using applejack in a Manhattan-like recipe.

The Big Apple (Applejack Manhattan or Marconi Wireless)

  • 1 1/2 oz applejack (Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy)
  • 3/4 oz sweet vermouth (Vya)
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters (orange bitters for the Marconi)

Stir with small ice, strain and garnish with a boozy cherry. (soaked in rye, bourbon, brandy or what have you).

This one turned out very similar to a whiskey Manhattan, in fact, enough so that it didn’t seem like a good use of applejack at all. Next up is a favorite of mine, a sidecar variant using applejack:

Applecart aka Kiddie Cart

  • 1 1/2 oz applejack
  • 1 oz triple sec
  • 1/2 oz lemon juice

Shake with ice, strain into chilled cocktail glass. Sugaring the rim is a nice touch.

Now, that’s a nice drink. With the 100 proof applejack and the 80 proof Citronge I used, this is a little hot, but the classic 3-2-1 sidecar formula still seems to work. One of the sweeter triple secs like Bols or a sugar rim could be used to tone it down, if desired.

My absolute favorite of all of the applejack cocktails I tried, however, and big hit with my tasters was the Applejack Old Fashioned from Misty Kalkofen of Green Street.

Applejack Old Fashioned

Applejack Old Fashioned

  • 2 oz applejack
  • 2 dashes Fee Brother’s Whiskey Barrel Aged Aromatic Bitters
  • 1 barspoon (or to taste) real maple syrup

Stir and serve in a rocks glass with a big ice chunk. Rim glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

This is really the best of the lot at showcasing the applejack. It’s basically a Plain Whiskey Cocktail with applejack and maple syrup instead of whiskey and sugar. I love how the maple really plays up the floral/fruity aspects of the applejack and the Barrel Aged bitters bring up the bottom with cinnamon and spice notes.

Thanks to Blair for re-supplying me with more of Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy when I ran out. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with this versatile spirit here – post your favorite applejack cocktail in the comments!

More reading: