I’m really getting into this absinthe thing. After my evening speaking to Ian Hutton I’ve continued my reading and my research, had the folks at the Wormwood Society compliment me (I didn’t get anything obviously wrong) and have started investigating the availability of certain abinthes to put together an international bottle-share. However, towards the beginning of that I had another evening of education at the hands of Jenny Gardener of Sip Or Mix, who currently looks after the Jade family of liqueurs & absinthes and La Maison Fontaine, a blanche that was launched last year. M’colleague Tim and I met up with her in basement bar 22 Below, who have a selection of absinthes and appropriate apparatus for their preparation, for a run through her spirits.
While we went through the range Jenny filled us in on some more bits of absinthe history that I didn’t know, fleshing out the tales of the ban with a bit of intrigue and politics. One of the big drivers to absinthe’s popularity was the phylloxera epidemic that hit French vineyards in the late 1860s. With the grape vines being eaten by this rather destructive bug both wine and brandy production ground to a relative halt leaving a gap in the market for other spirits, which led to the rise of Scotch whisky elsewhere overseas and absinthe in France. Absinthe’s arrival in the cities was preceded by its use by a rather surprising group – the French army. During the Algerian campaigns of the 1840s the spirit was used to dose water rations to guard against malaria and when the soldiers came home they brought with them a love of absinthe. Over the next couple of decades its popularity grew and by the time that phylloxera hit it was popular enough to start replacing brandy and wine as the supplies of grapey beverages failed. The absinthe producers were mainly using grape based spirit to make their absinthe, but they switched over to sugar beet, which makes good neutral spirit but fairly awful rum, and kept on distilling.
Post-phylloxera, absinthe was entrenched as a popular spirit and while The Temperance Movement was the face of the people against booze in general they were backed by rather strange bedfellows – the grape producers, winemakers and brandy distillers. Between them spurious scientific ‘evidence’ for the perils of absinthe was circulated and by the time of Jean Lanfray‘s murders enough doubt had been raised in the minds of the public that a ban was popular. In addition to this the French were at war again, this time the First World War, and absinthe was yet again on the medic’s menu. However, this time there wasn’t so much of a good public reception after the war, and absinthe was included in the bad press.
After the ban absinthe didn’t entirely disappear, with blanche becoming more popular due to the difficulty in identifying its nature from colour alone. Absinthe makers bought neutral spirit rather than making their own, macerated the ingredients and then redistilled it without the final colouring infusion stage, keeping it clear. This happened a lot in Switzerland, leading to ‘Suisse’ absinthe as a term becoming almost homogenous with blanche.
The ban has been breaking down over the last 10-20 years, with the 1990s seeing the introduction of a number of so-called Czech absinth(e)s. These are in the main neutral spirit flavoured with oils and macerated botanicals without redistillation, the so-called cold compound method also used for many cheaper gins, and in an effort to jazz it up the fire ritual of absinthe drinking was popularised. Setting fire to an absinthe soaked sugar cube before dumping into your glass of spirit and damping it with water won’t improve the flavour of a decent absinthe, but can hide the rough edges of a cheaper product.
After the turn of the millennium a New Orleans analytical scientist by the name of Ted Breaux started looking into absinthe. He uncovered some old bottles and via reverse engineering and studying old books on the spirit he started recreating pre-ban absinthe recipes. His research showed that contrary to a lot of the received wisdom about old absinthe the levels of thujone, the substance that was claimed to be the active hallucination causing ingredient of wormwood, were not as high as once thought. The came in at between 0.5mg and 48mg/l with an average of about 25mg/l, rather than the 100s that were often postulated, whereas the legal limit these days is between 10 and 35mg/l depending on country – all quite similar. Further research into thujone has shown that while its molecular structure is similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, it isn’t the same and doesn’t seem to have the effects often ascribed to it. Research continues into the makeup of absinthe and further compounds are being isolated as potential active ingredients, but most traditional absinthe makers are ignoring it.
Ted continued his recipe recreations and came up with the recipe for his first Jade absinthe in 2004. He also developed Lucid absinthe for Viridian Spirits and on March 5th 2007 they got approval to sell it in the USA, one of the first (if not the first) approval since the 1912 ban, and continued to expand his range with the Jade bottlings.
We tasted our way through the Jade range with Jenny and the next weekend I tasted them again at home, thanks to a set of samples sent to my by the excellent Stu Robson, who chose them independently as some of his favourite absinthes on the market today. Both tastings were done at a ratio of about 1 part absinthe to 3 parts water, poured slowly from a jug at 22 Below (as the fountain was broken) and with a pipette at home, dripping iced water over a sugar cube sat on an absinthe spoon above the glass. I used the equivalent of about 1 cube of sugar per 30ml of absinthe.
First in the range is the PF 1901, with the PF standing for Pernod Fils, the original absinthe brand. This was reverse engineered from a pre-ban bottle and I only tried it with Jenny as I’m saving my sample at home for a side by side tasting of a small amount of original pre-ban Pernod Fils that Mr Robson has given me. I owe him all the beers in the world… On the nose it was aniseedy – the actual seeds, rather than the sweet flavour we often associate with the term. It was also slightly green and grassy, a bit like the fluffy edges of the fennel plant. To taste it was initially bitter and green, the Wormwood coming through strongly, with musty wood and a sweetly anis finish.
Next up is VS 1898 (prefixed with ‘Berger’ in the USA, although due to an existing European trademark they can’t use the name over here), 65% and as with the others based on an old bottle – in this case the absinthe from the CF Berger distillery that closed due to the ban in 1910. As Suisse mainly refers to blanches these days the VS here stands for Verte Suisse – Green Swiss. The nose was very sweet and creamy, and the taste was very interesting – a burst of fruity boiled sweets, followed by bitter wormwood, marzipan, black liquorice and pungent tingling aniseed. With sugar it became really sweet, as you’d expect from an absinthe that started fairly sweet, with strong aniseed ball flavours and underlying bitterness. To taste it had sweet butter and cream, hints of spice and softened liquorice flavours. A nice and full on absinthe that really didn’t benefit from the sugar.
Third was Nouvelle Orleans, named for New Orleans where absinthe was popular before the US ban, thanks to the French links, and based on the work of the bartenders and distillers of the area before absinthe was banned in the USA. The fact that it’s also Ted’s stomping grounds may also have something to do with it. The nose was quite pungent, with spice and hints of smoke and rubber – almost swimming pool chlorine. To taste there was lots of herb and spice, with cinnamon and mint creams coming on strong. It finished long with musky wormood, cinnamon fireballs and a tannic end. Sugar took out some of the bitter wormwood, but otherwise left everything else pretty much the same, maybe enhancing the cinnamon a little bit towards sweet cinnamon toast. This was probably my favourite of the bunch, reminding me of the whisky-like spices that I often look for in brown spirits while providing a mint & anise contrast.
The last of the Jades was Espirit Edouard (aka ‘Eddie’), bottled at 72%. A recreation of early 20th century Edouard Pernod absinthe, distilled by one of the branches of Henri Louis Pernod’s family who branched out on their own before being reacquired by the family around the time of the French ban. On the nose this was massively creamy, with sweet liquorice from the anis and fennel, and wormwood led bitter green herbs. To taste the cream reappeared up front, followed by a sweet and grassy middle and finished with a lingering oily mouthfeel.
Jenny finished off our tasting with La Maison Fontaine. It is distilled in Pontarlier in the Emile Pernot distillery, which claims to be have been distilling absinthe since 1890 (although I suspect there was a bit of a gap in there for legal reasons) in their old absinthe still, the oldest working one in the world. It’s a blanche absinthe in the Swiss “it’s clear, so it can’t be absinthe!” style that was popular after the ban. Here’s Ted Breaux having a bit of a taste and a chat in front of Jenny’s camera:
As Ted says the Swiss style is for less strong absinthes and this one sits in that niche at a ‘mere’ 56% (and when he says “it tastes of absinthe” he’s not stating the obvious, he’s talking about Artemisia Absinthium – Wormwood). After my liking the Blanche de Fougerolles, aka Enigma Blanche, my first blanche absinthe, I had high hopes for Fontaine and wasn’t disappointed. On those nose it had spearmint, sweet butter and a rich egg custard. It was thick in the mouth with sweet cream, mint & anis, a touch of sweet pastry, butter, grain and floury spice. All in all a rather tasty proposition.
With more absinthes under my belt I’ve realised quite how little I know about the flavours and ingredients involved. As such I’ve started to gather various herbs from a number of hippy shops to try and expand my palate and vocabulary. Expect some more green fairy related posts in the future…
In related news, I’m working out the absinthe bottle share I mentioned at the beginning of this post at the moment. It’s basically splitting a number of absinthes between 14 to give us all 50ml samples to have a go at rather than having to buy a whole bottle of each. If you’re interested then either drop a comment under this post or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re on Google+ then there’s even a thread to say hello on.
Distilled verte absinthe, 68%. ~£65
Jade (Berger) VS 1898
Distilled verte absinthe, 65%. ~£65
Jade Nouvelle Orleans
Distilled verte absinthe, 68%. ~£65
Jade Esprit Edouard
Distilled verte absinthe, 72%. ~£70
La Maison Fontaine
Distilled blanche absinthe, 56%. ~£55