Here’s a recent tasting I did:
As you can see from the photos, we didn’t quite have the sexy presentation like you might find in an absinthe bar; a special, slotted spoon for the sugar and an attractive water dispenser to appreciate the impact of each drop on the color and opalescence of the absinthe, but I plan to report on that next month when I visit Barcelona (thanks for the tip, Trin). For an animated version of what I’m talking about, click here www.versinthe.com
I’ve briefly touched on absinthe before. So, why all the fuss over this once-banned spirit?
For one, the principle flavoring ingredient, Artemesia absinthium or Grand Wormwood, contains thujone, considered a carcinogen and/or a hallucinogen at very high concentrations. Secondly, its high alcohol content was often mishandled. Producers have always recommended diluting absinthe with water, but this advice was often ignored. Third, absinthe’s historically been made with cheap base alcohol and even cheaper dyes, some of which were toxic. To top it off, the anti-alcohol groups were exerting pressure to have it banned and that’s just what happened in 1912 in the United States.
We have the French to thank for absinthe’s return to the market. Turns out that while France had banned the sale of absinthe, it had never bothered to ban its production – they were ready to go with product once the ban was lifted. This little tidbit combined with the work of George Rowley (of La Fée Absinthe Parisienne), who convinced the EU that absinthe has less than 10 ppm of thujone has allowed us once again to dance with the green fairy.
Sure, Pernod may have similar anise notes, but as our instructor noted, it’s simply a “training bra” for real absinthe.
For standardization purposes, all of the absinthes we tried were diluted 5 parts water to 1 part absinthe, even when producers may have recommended a different ratio. We also didn’t use any sugar. Here’s what we tried:
- Vieux Carré Absinthe Supérieure, Pennsylvania, 120˚ – this is the first one to come from the East Coast and it’s from the same folks who brought us Bluecoat gin. It was overdiluted (they recommend 3:1), but I got anise and carrot notes.
- St. George Absinthe Vert, California, 120˚ – most absinthes are made with a grain neutral spirit base (often sugar beets), but these guys use a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – it could be the power of suggestion, but it did seem to have a creamier mouthfeel than some of the others. Olive green in color with notes of hyssop, basil and pine.
- Kubler Swiss Absinthe Superieur, Switzerland, 106˚ – the only white one in the bunch (how Swiss!). This producer doesn’t add any additional spices following distillation; an anomaly in this group. Spicy and earthy, with cardamom as a standout.
- Mata Hari Absinthe Bohemian, Austria, 120˚ – they claim no added color and their spirit was a beautiful mother-of-pearl that smelled like cinnamon chewing gum.
- Le Tourment Vert, France, 100˚ – you’ll notice the lower proof on this one and the company says they created this absinthe for making cocktails. Don’t you want higher proof spirits for cocktails to help the inevitable dilution? It’s freakish (yet beautiful) teal color has been getting flack, too, so they may change it back to the green family. I got Listerine, pine, pepper and juniper notes.
- La Fée Absinthe Parisienne, France, 136˚- the first one in France, this absinthe was emerald green and earthier as opposed to spicy, with lots of anise on the finish.
- La Muse Vert Absinthe Traditionnelle, France, 136˚ – this producer claims to be the only one using fresh cut grand wormwood – it happens to grow on their property. They also use a black bottle to protect their spirit from light. It was mellow and floral, with chamomile and dandelion notes and a bitter finish (in a good way).
- Pernod Aus Plantes d’Absinthe Superieur, France, 136˚ – light lime in color, this absinthe struck a nice balance between earth and spice. The sugar they added was noticeable, but pleasant.
- Grande Absente Absinthe Originale, France, 138˚ – the sweetest of the lot, their herbs hail from the Alps. It tasted of blackjack chewing gum with a bite on the finish.
- Versinthe, France, 90˚ – jade in color and boasting over 20 plants and herbs, this was light and elegant with notes of fennel.
You may have noticed that we didn’t taste in order of alcoholic strength. The instructor wanted to highlight the different regional styles, so we tasted the Americans (very different from one another and the others), then the Swiss (so clean!), followed by the Austrian (Bohemian!) and finished with the French (several claiming the “original recipe” – go figure).