5 Things I’ve Learned About…Absinthe

I did not make new friends in the distillery world this month.

Why not?  Because for the December 15, 2010 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine, I reviewed Absinthe.  (As usual, you can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.) Here’s what I learned about the Green Fairy:

1. Everyone wants to tell you how to drink it.  What do I mean, “I did not make new friends”?  The (lengthy) answer is this:  For the most part, absinthe is the only spirit designed NOT to be consumed in unadulterated form. It’s very high proof, and most distillers rightly expect you to dilute it with water. But many have extremely specific thoughts about how that water should be added, and how much water should be added. “Season to taste” is often discouraged.

However, instructions printed on bottle labels, and in marketing materials and elsewhere, often provide conflicting sets of instructions. “Add water. Add sugar. Don’t add sugar. Don’t set it on fire. Use this a 3-to-1 water to absinthe ratio. No, use a 5-to-1 ratio. Etc etc etc.”  So what’s a tippler to do?

One distiller even flatly refused to send a sample unless I did my tasting supervised by them, since “we’re not convinced you know how to properly taste absinthe.” (I passed on the sample.) My thoughts? If your product requires a tour guide and an interpreter, there might be something wrong.

After I got over my “quit telling me what to do” snit, I arrived at this conclusion:  If you’re given clear instructions, it’s best to follow them, which is what I did for the purposes of evaluation. After all, if you were judging pre-packaged macaroni & cheese, wouldn’t you follow the directions on the package for best results? And some of the products really are formulated specifically for a particular reconstitution “recipe.”  Unfortunately, not all of the instructions are clear.  In that scenario, I’m back to “season to taste.”

And heaven help you if your taste differs from the recommended “recipe.”  As a home cook, I was always taught that a recipe is merely a guideline, and that improvisation is always encouraged:  the best recipe is the one you like to eat.  I hear this from bartenders, too:  the best drink is the one made the way you like to drink it.  

2. One further wrinkle:  Most cocktail recipes including absinthe use it in undiluted form.  Yes, you’re diluting it with the other ingredients in the drink, but you’re not first adding five parts water and THEN mixing it with say, gin, orange juice and grenadine (Monkey Gland variation). So in addition to the diluted form, I insisted on sampling absinthe straight up in order to evaluate it as a potential cocktail ingredient. Absinthe distillers did NOT appreciate that, even though I felt it was an important consideration for bartenders and home cocktail enthusiasts.

3.  Louching is cool. It’s like an excuse to play with your food.

4. Many spirits have a very specific place designation:  i.e. Scotch comes from Scotland. Mezcal comes from Mexico. But absinthe comes from EVERYWHERE! Not just France, which is what I had assumed. Day 1 of tasting alone saw absinthes from Washington State (U.S.), Austria, Spain, and of course, France.

5. I was also surprised to see how much color can vary, from clear to yellow-green to pale sea-foam green to deep, mossy, murky forest green. Thank goodness Crayola prepared me well to describe absinthe colors! 

 P.S.:  (Yes, I’m aware the photo at left shows undiluted absinthe. Want to give me crap for that? You know where to find the Reply box…go ahead, knock yourself out… Or alternatively, be constructive & suggest an absinthe or absinthe cocktail you like!)

9 thoughts on “5 Things I’ve Learned About…Absinthe

  1. It’s funny how dogmatic the absinthe producers were about their products — I wonder how many consumers actually follow the rules, and how many understand them or respect them.

    Everything about absinthe seems to spark strong opinions: is it absinthe if it doesn’t have wormwood? Should the wormwood be merely a flavor, or should there be a small amount of thujone in it as well? Did the absinthe of old ever contain thujone?

    I’ve also read a lot of critical advice about which brands to buy, advice that often champions one brand and ridicules all others as phonies. Once I have $60-$70 to spare, I’ll dig up all that advice and try to follow it.

    I’m still using a bottle of Hill’s Absinth (a Czech brand) I bought in the UK about 10 years ago, back before any brand was legally sold in the US. I use it solely as a mixer for sazeracs, and it does that job nicely.

  2. I think it is hard to find a more passionate and contentious group as absinthe distillers except maybe absinthe fans.
    Personally, I use the water ratios and sweetening advice as a guideline and try to fine tune from there. Only set in stone rule is not to set fire to it.
    As to cocktails, it’s a lot like that other multi herbed ( in infinite variations it seems) spirit – gin. Some brands work really well in some cocktails adding nuance and flavor, others clash or overpower the same cocktail , and yes I drink and evaluate it straight up first to assess it’s characteristics as I would any other ingredient – even bitters.

  3. It’s rare that you get to compare absinthes side-by-side. The hand-crafted ones are expensive and I’ve never had more than 3 varieties on hand at one time. (Right now it’s zero. *sniff* But Xmas approaches.) So I’m jealous, Kara. I haven’t done a good tasting since the Absinthe-palooza that was Tales of the Cocktail 2009 (2010 was relatively absinthe-poor).

    And yes, absinthe fans can be a passionate bunch. On the one hand, there are those who appreciate hand-crafted artisanal absinthes flavored and colored naturally by the distillation and maceration of whole herbs who view thujone levels as a non-issue. On the other hand, there are fans seeking to associate themselves with the Gothic/rock star/artiste mystique the absinthe which myth (and marketing) created. To them, the thujone level is equated with how much they might “trip” and don’t really care whether their absinthe is made naturally or is simply high-proof vodka with wormwood oil and artificial colors added.

    And then there are in-betweeners who were attracted by the mystique and now are learning about the crafting. What will stop them from learning is if they don’t like the taste, and American tastes, at least, lean away from the anise-heavy flavor profile definitive of almost all absinthes.

    While the connoisseurs care little of thujone, they do care about complexity of flavor and aroma, the different layers of aroma released as water is added, and lastly, the louche itself. It’s not that different from wine or scotch enthusiasts comparing notes on color, nose and flavor profiles except that you have another element, the louche, to evaluate. Since the louche is a function of the essential oils released by the herbs and seeds macerated in the alcohol before distillation, it can give educated eyes a clue as to what flavors it will have and how much water it can take.

    The big problem in all of this is that there are no set standards defining absinthe like there are say, of Bourbon. Bourbon must be made of 51% corn and aged at least two years. There are more regulations, but those two help set a baseline for what someone can expect if they buy a bottle labeled “Bourbon.”

    Unfortunately, whether it’s made from the finest organically grown herbs in Val-de-Travers and distilled with the purest of grape alcohols or industrial ethanol flavored with wormwood and mint oil and colored with blue and green food coloring, it can be called “absinthe” and the same price charged for the second product as the first.

    The issue, then, is really one of education and research on the part of the consumer. If you’re at a bar, and see say, a bottle of Le Torment Verte (flavored alcohol) and a bottle of St. George (made with whole herbs), do a side-by-side test. That’s a great way to start. Search around the web for sites like WormwoodSociety.org to read member reviews of available absinthes. You’ll get a good idea of what you might want to try next if you pay attention and dodge the trolls.

    Last thing: no, don’t set it on fire. It serves no purpose other than to make pretty blue flames. Which is cool, but still serves no purpose for drinking. Sugar? Optional. How to add water? Add it slow to an absinthe that’s new to you. As soon as it stops louching is a good point to check how it tastes. You may want to add more, or a little less the next time. It really varies from brand to brand. Once I have an idea how much water a particular brand can take, I usually just dump water in the glass to that point given the same measure of absinthe. That’s sacrilege to some, but that’s the way I do it.

  4. http://wormwoodsociety.org/ looks like a great resource! I had no idea absinthe connoisseurship had reached that level. And the site has a remarkably large section on classic and modern absinthe cocktails, too.

    And I sympathize with the problem of tasting more than one at once. Isn’t that the problem with all great and expensive liquor? Looking forward to Astor Wine & Spirits’ holiday gifts bazaar here in NYC for just that reason: lots of tastings.

    • Check out T.A. Breaux’s segment on the History Channel’s Modern Marvels’ distilling episode. He takes you through the process of making a batch of his Jade Nouvelle-Orleans absinthe start to finish. It’s my favorite so far, but at about $125 a bottle a rare treat. But I like having video proof of what he does to make it. The entire segment is on YouTube.

  5. Pingback: An Absinthe Discussion |

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  7. Haha! I can feel what you went through – I went to the Absinthe Festival in Boveresse two months ago, and I’m quite new to the whole absinthe thing. I can only say, being stuck with both absinthe distillers and fans in one tiny village for a whole weekend – drives you nuts! However, they are all lovely people, and like Chris said, you won’t find a more passionate group than the absinthe society, which is something very beautiful in a way. You didn’t mention how you liked the actual taste of absinthe?

    • Thanks! and I definitely agree – absinthe makers are a passionate group, but I do appreciate that passion. In the end, I found that I like the taste of absinthe, though in moderation. It’s not something I can drink all the time.

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