One spirit that I have severely lacked any knowledge of in the past is absinthe. I know that most of the stories about its mysterious ‘effects’ are rubbish and I’ve only really had two interactions with it: Firstly there’s my love of the Sazerac, which is turned from good into excellent by the absinthe washing of the glass to serve it in. Secondly there’s the bottle of blue and yellow food colouring heavy absinthe that I got when my mate Beth disappeared back to the USA, leaving her booze collection behind. Along with the (excellent) Herradura Añejo and Zubrowka there was also a bottle of absinthe, which I took to using to make pastis as if it was Pernod – splash of booze, bit of ice, topped up with water. In short – it messed me up. It’s not the plants or colourings that did that, just the horrendous levels of alcohol that I was sticking down my neck almost unknowingly.
However, one of the first things on my project list when I started at The Whisky Exchange was the updating of some of our non-whisky spirit descriptions, including writing an article about what absinthe was. I quickly knocked up something based on some internetty research but felt there was something missing. Despite what people seem to think we don’t actually get invited out to drinks PR events all that often, so when I heard of an absinthe one I begged my way into an invite – a tasting of Enigma Absinthe at Purl.
Enigma Absinthe is the brainchild of Ian Hutton, an analytical chemist who caught the absinthe bug through the same path that I am feeling lured along – equipment. One of the things that goes hand in hand with the spirit is its ‘correct preparation’, with a raft of glasses, spoons, fountains and drippers, from the modern remake to the expensive antique, and from simple devices to arcane contraptions. He and his wife Deirdre would regularly visit France to search the antique markets for more pieces for their collection and after a while (and one too many trips where the market stall holders would all confusedly ask why he was buying their entire stock) started selling some of the pieces through his site. This naturally led to absinthe importing on one side and study as an absinthe historian on the other. Bringing his chemistry background into play he wrote a paper about the apparent effects of Thujone (a chemical thought to be the ‘hallucinogenic’ element of the absinthe mix), debunking some of the myths, and through his site started working with some distillers to make some ‘proper’ absinthe.
The history of absinthe is checkered, with the main thing known about it by most people being that it was banned in the early 1900s in a large part of Europe, and shortly after the rest of the world. The ban stemmed from a rise in the Temperance movement and was catalysed by the murder in 1905 by Jean Lanfray of his wife and children, which caused outrage across Europe and led to petitions and laws banning the drink over the following years. It started out as a medicinal drink, as many distilled preparations did, made to be added to water by the drop to get the healing power of the herbs in the drink into the body. However, as its popularity grew it became a generally drunk beverage and the proportions of absinthe to water started increasing.
A definition of absinthe is quite difficult, especially in more recent years, but in general it is an anis flavoured drink additionally flavoured with fennel and wormwood, Artemisia Absinthium, from which it gets its name. With the modern revival of absinthe over the last couple of decades a number of different styles have appeared, including those with little wormwood as well as those made in very non-traditional methods. Traditionally absinthe would be made in a similar manner to gin – various botanical ingredients are macerated in neutral spirit (a 96% grape based spirit in the case of Ian’s absinthes, which is then diluted with water and redistilled (as many of the more bitter flavouring chemicals are more readily dissolvable in water this allows them to remain behind in the still while the alcohol vapour, complete with desired flavour compounds, is distilled out into the final product). However, again in a similar manner to gin, there are also now many absinthes made by adding various flavourings to neutral spirit, rather than adding the flavour through maceration and redistillation. Ian Hutton, and his company Liqueurs de France, don’t touch those absinthes, instead looking to the old distilleries in the area around Pontarlier, the French home of absinthe production, to find companies that could produce traditional absinthe.
The traditional recipes that Ian has looked for divide absinthe into two wide categories – Verte and Blanche, green and white. Blanche absinthe is a clear spirit while verte has the green colour that is more commonly expected from the drink, and ties in with one of its nicknames – La Feé Verte, the green fairy. The difference between the two is that after distillation the blanche is diluted as necessary to bottling strength, whereas as the verte has a further infusion stage: a tea-bag like contraption filled with further ingredients is immersed in the spirit and swished around to add extra flavours and also the colour. As the proto-absinthe is very high strength it doesn’t take long to leech out the colour and flavour and the recipes that Ian uses don’t generally call for more than a 10 minute ‘swish’, as longer makes the spirit much too bitter. The more modern absinthes will use food colourings to get the correct green colouring, as well as sugar to sweeten the drink, but Liqueurs de France in the main avoid that kind of thing.
On top of the blanche/verte divide there are a number of quality categories that were once used, which Ian has revived in the naming of some of the absinthes he brings. For example, his Enigma blanche is a ‘Suisse’ absinthe, ‘Swiss’. However, rather than this being an indication of origin or style it is actually simply a quality marker, the top of a range that went Ordinaire – Fine – Superieur – Suisse.
We were at Purl that night to learn about Ian’s own absinthe brand – Enigma. The absinthe was originally one of a number of different recipes that he was importing, named Fougerolles Blanche and Verte, but has now decided to rebrand it and market it as the Liqueur de France flagship product. It is made in the Paul Devoille distillery in Fougerolles on the Swiss border, one of the towns that production spread to when nearby Pontarlier started filling up. The recipes for both blanche and verte come from one of the absinthe distiller’s guides that Ian has picked up over the years, potentially dating back to the late 19th century. Both are bottled strong – the blanche at 74% and the verte at 72% – to try and avoid denaturing in the flavours and colour. This is not as important in the blanche, as the flavours will stay preserved at a lower ABV, but the chlorophyll that colours the verte will start to denature over time if the spirit is below 68%. Many pre-ban absinthes have gradually lost potency, or were bottled at a lower ABV, and as such have started to brown over the years, a colour the French refer to as feuille morte – dead leaf. Rather than macerating the entire bundle of ingredients the distillery does make one concession to more modern methods and distills each individual botanical on its own. blending together the distillates after the fact to create the various absinthe recipes that they produce.
Tasting the absinthe is not quite as straight forward as many other spirits – it’s very high strength and the flavour is incredibly concentrated. It’s not designed to be drunk neat and thus working out how it ‘should’ be drunk is part of the challenge. Ian recommended that we try it in about a 3-1 ratio water-absinthe, which he described being good as a digestif, quite powerful and strong still, with 4-1 and 5-1 working better as aperitifs and stand-alone drinks depending on how strong you like your booze. Adding water is one of the places where the apparatus starts appearing and while I will wiffle about absinthe gear in a future post (I may have obtained some…) on the night we had a simple system – a large water fountain with taps that allowed adding iced water by slow drip or steady stream as required.
Similar to many anis drinks absinthe clouds when water is added – known as The Louche. This is due to the dilution of the spirit causing various fatty acids to drop out of the solution, turning the drink opaque. The louche is something very much looked for in absinthe and if water is added slowly (or with one of the various awesome toys I’ve seen recently on youtube) you can get beautiful effects as clouds drop through your drink as the water hits the surface. I’ve been advised to add water slowly, as this somehow makes the drink ‘better’, but in general I feel it’s part of the ritual associated with the making of the drink – something that I’m quite happy with, loving the creation of most drinks almost as much as the drinking.
Second to the water is the choice whether to add sugar or not. As Ian’s absinthe is not artificially sweetened, as many commercial absinthes are these days, they will happily take sugar, but the choice is down to the drinker. The traditional way of adding sugar to your absinthe, ignoring more modern inventions involving fire, is to place a sugar cube on a slotted spoon over the absinthe and drip your water over the sugar cube, allowing it to slowly dissolve and drip into the drink.
In the end we went with a simple brace of tasting methods for the two absinthes were were tasting – 3-1 ration water-absinthe, both with and without one sugar cube.
First up was the Enigma Verte, at 72%. I started by nosing the spirit neat and it was full of green plants and herbs, with grass, parsley and leafy herbs, as well as pepper and spice. Diluted to 3-1 without sugar it was very savoury with spiced grass, lots of pepper and a lingering anis flavour. Nice but a bit too grassy for my liking – it was like lying face down in a Flymo bin while sucking an aniseed ball. With the sugar cube it totally changed, the grassiness was dialled back considerably allowing the aniseed flavour to come through (like a really good posh sweet shop aniseed ball) as well as a vegetal fennel character and more leafy herbs. I much preferred the verte with a sugar cube and having received a small bottle to take home, demolished it over the following week in that fashion.
Next was the Engima Blanche, at 74%. Again I nosed it neat and was rewarded with a fantastic smell – new spirit and butter, light aniseed, nutmeg, and fennel. It was almost Christmassy in character with a strange greenness and spiciness to it that took me ages to pin down – coriander leaf and ground seeds. It smelled fantastic and although water toned down the nose, with it becoming more focused around the anis/fennel combination with buttered bread and sticky sweet pastry, it held up well. The taste was bitter up front, giving me my first proper taste of wormwood – I asked Ian what wormwood tasted like and he merely pointed me at the blanche. It is quite a distinctive and indescribable flavour – I’ll have a go in my next absinthe post. Sugar removed some complexity, although it also removed bitterness leaving the blanche with a rich buttery cream start, softened wormwood and a background of sweet spice. This was my favourite of the two, either with or without sugar, and one that I suspect I may have to acquire a bottle of around Christmas time.
An excellent introduction to absinthe and one that was very well timed – earlier on in the day I received an absinthe glass and dripper in the post from most excellent booze and chocolate king Stu Robson, who decided to try and help me along my way towards absinthe epiphany by hooking me up with some samples and home louching gear. I see much potential for danger in my future, more due to being crushed by a collection of spoons, brouilleurs and balanciers than due to the alcohol, although I expect a fuzzy head or two over the next few weeks.
Many thanks to Kate and Jude to inviting us along and sorting out a second private tasting session due to us turning up late. Thanks are also very much due to Ian for hanging around to talk absinthe and Deirdre for keeping us company while we waited for the first tasting, the one that we missed, to finish. A third bit of thanks goes to the guys at Purl for generally existing and answering our “Ooh, what’s that? And that? What about that?” questions while we sat at the bar.
Enigma Verte de Fougerolles
Absinthe Verte, 72%. ~£40 per bottle
Enigma Blanche de Fougerolles
Absinthe Blanche, 74%. ~£40 per bottle