The occidental tourist

Lest we jaded post-moderners think we have a cultural monopoly on cringe-worthy marketing, it’s always worth taking a glance back at those tacky bastards who have come before. See below for an example of one such scheme inspired by the undignified willingness to lower standards for the sake of making more money. It may be tempting to think of this as a postcard from the edge (and the artwork is indeed beautifully surreal), but in fact it is a genuine article from the early 20th century which represents an entire category of “absinthe-like” products intended to mollify absinthe critics and consumers in equal measure. This particular venture failed to gain popularity, but the success of products such as anisette and various anise-flavored products in the 1910s and beyond is proof of the efficacy such willingness to compromise combined with a deluge of marketing can have.

The text at the top of this postcard translates to: “Absinthe-Chinoise. Patent pending at the Faculté.” The text at the bottom translates to: “Absinthe-Chinoise. Replicate the advantages of absinthe but without the inconveniences.”

ABSINTHE CHINOISE – postcard

Is absinthe gluten-free?

Gluten-free diet regimens have become very popular over the past few years. As with many dieting trends, this may end up being a short-lived fad, but as the partner of someone who maintains a strict gluten-free diet by medical necessity and not by choice, I can tell you that knowing the gluten content of consumables will remain crucial for many people for the rest of their lives.

So, when it comes to our favorite aperitif, is absinthe considered to be a sweet green fairy, or a mean green scourge for folks living with Celiac disease? Simply put, is absinthe gluten-free? In a word: YES! *

That asterisk is all too familiar to baseball fans perusing player stats, and is not the definitive answer someone living with Celiac disease will be hoping to read, but the good news is that traditional absinthe made according to the authentic recipe profiles will be perfectly fine. Those absinthes consist of a distilled neutral base alcohol containing a variety of herbs and other botanicals which have been macerated in it, none of which contain gluten, so gluten-sensitive folks may indeed be given the green light to enjoy absinthe.

But let’s back up for a moment. What exactly is gluten, and why should we care? Gluten is the catch-all name for the protein complexes, specifically, prolamins and glutelins, which are found in wheat, rye, and barley (with similar complexes being found in oats as well). These protein complexes are toxic to the digestive tract of many folks; it is estimated that 5% to 10% of the population (about 3 million people in the USA) has some sensitivity to gluten, but that 97% of those folks have not been diagnosed. For some, it amounts to a sensitivity to gluten which causes some mild discomfort after consumption, but for others who have Celiac disease, it can cause damage to the small intestine which gets progressively worse (and even life-threatening) over time.

As such, it’s important for these individuals to avoid consuming anything which contains these glutens. When it comes to alcoholic beverages, this means most beers are automatically taken off their menu (after all, it wasn’t considered “liquid bread” by the ancients for nothing). However, several gluten-free beer options have become available in recent years, as brewers have experimented with using such grains as rice and sorghum to replace the traditional barley and wheat.

The subject of distilled liquor (including absinthe) is a little bit more complex. All distilled liquors are considered by the ADA and Celiac.com to be safe for those with gluten intolerances, because the distillation process removes the gluten protein complexes from the finished liquor, rendering it gluten-free. This applies even to liquor made from gluten-laden grains such as wheat and rye.

However, not everyone agrees on that being 100% true, citing their own personal experiences with grain-based distilled alcohol (see the comments section in that same link). Whether those effects are psychosomatic or possibly the result of an imperfect distillation is difficult to say, but those who are sensitive to gluten on any level should use their own judgment when it comes to grain-based alcohols. (On a personal aside, my partner and I shared several glasses of wheat whiskey over the course of a few months, and she suffered no ill effects from it.) That being said, there is no concern at all with distilled absinthe which uses a wine/brandy/grape-based neutral alcohol instead of a grain-based alcohol, so if you’re being particularly cautious, choosing one of those absinthes is the way to go.

So how is it that absinthe or any grain-based alcohol could be gluten-free via distillation, only to then become contaminated with gluten after the distillation process? For one thing, the production of absinthe doesn’t end after distillation, with the exception of blanches (white absinthe). The coloring step which gives green absinthe its distinctive color occurs after distillation, and consists of soaking a variety of herbs in the distilled liquor. As long as that combination of herbs doesn’t contain any wheat, barley, rye and/or oats, then there is little cause for concern. However, if a distillery which produces absinthe also produces its own grain-based neutral alcohol (which is rarer than you might think), then they must exercise caution and make sure that the distilled liquor from a finished batch does not come into contact with the raw grain and/or the fermented mash derived from that grain, and that any shared equipment (from paddles used to stir batches, to muslin bags used to soak botanicals in the still) is thorougly cleaned in between uses. Lastly, when absinthe is prepared at home, you may use sweeteners such as sugar, simple syrup, and agave nectar without fear of gluten-contamination, but avoid using brown rice syrup, as many of these contain barley malt enzyme.

Please note that while liquors and liqueurs are considered to be safe for those with gluten intolerance, that does not apply to all liquor-centric products nor mixed drinks. In addition to beer, wine coolers and some ciders containing gluten via barley, some pre-made drink mixes (particularly Bloody Mary mixes) also may contain barley malt and/or hydrolyzed wheat protein. You can always ask your server or bartender about potential gluten-content of these products, but remember that not everyone knows or understands which ingredients contain gluten, so consider playing it safe by not ordering certain drinks when you are enjoying a night out.

Nightshade Apothecary Absinthe by Free Spirit

God bless the Bazinet

Please pardon the long absence, those handful of you who may monitor this little corner of the internet from time to time. Life happens to the best of us, and to me as well. Some of it is good, some of it not so much, and most of it is not noteworthy.

One exception to that latter part is a recent experience I had with some antique booze. I had the good fortune to sample a glass of H. Bazinet absinthe (circa 1895) last month, and I must say that it may well have been the most complex preban absinthe I’ve ever experienced. This was especially evident given that I sampled it together next to a glass of Pernod Fils 1910, which instead of being dense or complex, is as streamlined and elegant absinthe as one could ever hope for. Both liquors were exquisite, but in remarkably different ways, and given the relative obscurity of the Bazinet in comparison to Pernod Fils, I was pleasantly surprised me at how enjoyable it was.

To start with, the color of the Bazinet 1895 had aged to a rich gold color, with less brown than the typical “dead leaf” shade which some prebans age into, and no pink or peach tones which Pernod Fils often moves toward over decades of aging. The aroma was of leather and sweet tobacco, with which it shares some commonality with preban Edouard Pernod. The Bazinet in particular has the aroma of an old library, with the smell of finished
leather bindings and aged paper being among the strongest impressions. In addition, there was a warm spiciness to it as well, thanks to a foundation of good wormwood and fine fennel and coriander as well.

The sample of Bazinet I had did not louche significantly, which may or may not be due partially to 100 years of aging in the bottle. I’m inclined to think that isn’t the case, though, as the only other recently-discovered bottle of Bazinet of which I am aware had been sampled by several members of the FeeVerte.net forum, and it was reviewed very unfavorably, with the adjective “woody” being used by more than one of them as a negative
descriptor. The fact that the aroma and flavor profile were so finely-tuned and balanced in my sample convinces me that the manner of storage for this bottle (from the well-tended cellar of The Mohican Hotel, which was originally owned by Frank Munsey) allowed for near perfect preservation, and that it could very well be that this particular marque did not place an emphasis on a thick louche. Interestingly, a relatively weak louche did not prevent it from being a very robust liquor; to the contrary, the flavor and mouthfeel stood up very well to
additional watering, even up to a 5:1 ratio of absinthe to water, which is very impressive.

All in all, the H. Bazinet is an exceptional preban absinthe which was deservedly one of the more popular marques of the belle epoque (apparently winning a bronze medal in Paris in 1889). I can only hope that bottles continue to pop up on occasion in the future; when they do, you can be sure that I’ll be there for another glass.

pre-banabsinthe002-resized

Neutral no more: Switzerland goes for the green

It has been reported today that the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland has been granted PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI labels, which include the terms “absinthe,” “Fee verte,” and “la bleue.” Given that food labels used in Switzerland are now recognized by the European Union (and vice-versa), what this means is that traditionally-distilled absinthe sold in the EU and Switzerland may only bear the actual name of “absinthe” if they were made in the Val-de-Travers region, depending on how this action progresses and is interpreted/enforced in the future. The original statement may be found here.

Of particular insult is this particular quote: “Absinthe, Fée verte and La Bleue evoke an ‘eau-de-vie’ traditionally associated with the Val-de-Travers region which has built the reputation of this product.”

No. For starters, anyone with even a passing knowledge of absinthe, the French city of Pontarlier is far and away the most famous geographical area associated with absinthe. Was it invented there? No. Was its reputation built there? Most definitely, and without question. Anyone who attempts to argue otherwise is embarrassing themselves and probably has something to sell.

The Val-de-Travers may rightly take credit for being the birthplace of absinthe. But just as almost every famous person in the world was born in one place and built their reputation somewhere else, so too with absinthe. Pontarlier was the capital city of absinthe, and French distillation and consumption of absinthe in the 19th and early 20th century far outpaced that of Switzerland. In addition, the “Swiss style” of absinthe is that of the clear (blanche), and production of green (verte) absinthe was very low, so to lay claim to the colloquial term of Fée verte is reprehensible. What’s more is that it’s shocking, considering how full of national pride both Switzerland and France are known for. There is a case to be made for the Val-de-Travers to establish a PDO for “la bleue,” but the fact that they would lay claim to a term which is historically proven to have made its name in France is astonishing.

Of course, absinthe, aka the Fée verte, isn’t the only thing which is green, and it would appear that the potential revenue to be gained from a resurgence of absinthe is a factor in this pursuit of a PDO. Granted, the need to establish a formal definition of absinthe in order to protect the category from the faux-absinthe products pouring out of the Czech Republic is there, but that’s where the focus should have started and stopped. Genuine absinthe is not exclusive to a region – it’s exclusive to a list of ingredients and method of manufacture. In addition to Switzerland and France, absinthe of the 19th century was also made in countries as far away as the United States and Argentina (yes, THAT Argentina). For that matter, absinthe was made in Spain and continued to be made in Spain for over FIFTY YEARS after Switzerland made it illegal, and even then Spain didn’t ban the liquor – it simply fell out of favor for a time. If one country has to be given a Protected Designation of Origin, then let it be Spain, who actually protected real absinthe long after it’s birth-nation kicked it to the curb.

Real absinthe has since been made in the afore-mentioned countries here in modern times, and has branched out to others like Germany and Austria, the Netherlands and South Africa. It will still be real absinthe regardless of what this PDO says, but it would be much more responsible and honest for the Val-de-Travers folk to acknowledge it. Establishing and protecting the definition of absinthe here in modern times while encouraging and applauding its continued manufacture around the world would be something that the Val-de-Travers and all of Switzerland could take some real national pride in.

The only bottle of Butterfly Absinthe (distilled in Boston, MA, USA) known to survive. Circa 1907. Found on Oxygenee.com

Absinthe blending kit from Liqueurs de France

If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a mad scientist if liquor libations, but are sane enough to acknowledge you lack the chemistry skills to back up those nefarious ambitions, then consider the absinthe blending kit Liquers de France brought to market this month. For a mere £75.70 plus shipping, you can equip yourself with six vials of herbs distilled in 120 proof alcohol, including the belle of the ball, artemesia absinthium, as well as her two sisters, green anise and sweet fennel. These three alone (in addition to a blended distillate of commonly used coloring herbs, which is also included in the form of an “Esprit Vert”) would be enough to concoct a pontarlier-style absinthe ala Pernod Fils, but you also receive distillates of coriander and hyssop. If you’re feeling even more ambitious, there are three other distillates available separately, included star anise (badiane), angelica, and genepi.

My mysterious lady-love S—- and I have been playing with these for the past month, and it’s been quite a face-puckering learning experience to be able to smell and taste these distillates individually (and at full strength) for the first time. For anyone who is serious about learning to differentiate between flavors and aromas while tasting and scoring absinthe, this kit is a treasure, because the organoleptic properties of herbs before distillation are oftentimes quite different than afterward. While you might be able to find a few of these herbs in an essential oils store or alternative medicine shop, to my knowledge, this is the first commercially-offered set of absinthe-specific herbs distilled in appropriately high-proof alcohol.

While the educational value of this set was the real point of interest for me, it is sold as a blending kit, which of course begs the question: Does the sum of its parts result in a good absinthe? For my first experiment to attempt to
answer that question, I decided not to pull any punches and went straight for the toughest gauntlet I could throw down, which was a taste-test comparison with two of my favorite absinthes. As it turned out, this distillate kit had exactly the herbs needed to produce a Montpelier-style absinthe (based on a 19th-century recipe documented in both the Duplais and Bedel distillation manuals), and I happened to have on hand absinthes from two different distillers which used the exact same Montpelier recipe – Pacifique, and an unnamed Montpelier-style absinthe. While the exact composition of the Esprit Vert included with the kit was a trade secret, I have it on good authority from folks involved in its production that it is a fairly traditional blend of coloring herbs used in classic absinthes, so this was a rare opportunity for a fairly accurate horizontal taste test.

First of all, I mixed up a batch of Montpelier-style absinthe using the kit distillates. [For anyone reading who may be interested in duplicating this recipe, please bear in mind that there is a typo on the absinthe recipe insert
included by Liquers de France, resulting in the amount of coriander listed being four times the actual amount! Scratch that "400" out on the sheet and replace it with a "100" before you start mixing.] After I had mixed all of the
individual herb distillates in the correct amount, I added the Esprit Vert. Given that this proprietery blend was already the peridot-green color of a good absinthe verte before being combined with anything else, I was not surprised to see that the resultant mixture was a very pale golden-green. The Pacifique was lighter in color than the unnamed absinthe, but the gap between those and the LdF blended absinthe was even wider and more noticeable. There are two primary reasons why a coloring mixture would be too light:  either there weren’t enough herbs used for the amount of alcohol they were macerate in, or the herbs were not allowed enough time to macerate in the alcohol. Given that quality herbs are very costly, herbs are very costly, which is the primary reason why a good absinthe is much more expensive than a good liquor of almost any other sort, I’m guessing that the former reason is applicable here.

However, while the color was disappointingly faint, this blended absinthe made from the LdF kit louched to a pleasant opaqueness when it came time to add water. This was surprising to me because I did not add any star anise (badiane) to the blend, which is one traditional “trick” which distillers both then and now sometimes use to boost the louche action and thickness, usually to the detriment of the taste. When I sampled the final mixture later, though, I did detect what seemed to be some star anise in the flavor, so I think it must indeed be one of the herbs in the Esprit Vert. [Update: The folks at Devoille who made these distillates came back and said that there is no star anise in the Esprit Vert. I still feel that I'm tasting star anise, but perhaps the tangy sweetness is coming from angelica instead.]

If star anise is present, restraint was shown in the amount used, and the louche was robust in the way that a Belle Epoque absinthe ought to be without skewing the flavor too much. That being said, I would prefer that star anise not be present in the Esprit Vert, since particular recipes (such as the Montpelier one) do not include it. Possibly as a result of the different coloring herbs and/or a difference of aging (for which the LdF absinthe had none), the Pacifique and the unnamed Montpelier-style absinthe had much in common, while the LdF blended Montpelier shared only a few similarities.

All in all, I’m very pleased with this kit, both in terms of the educational value, as well as the fun of being able to mix up my own absinthe with pleasant results. In the future, I’d like to see a richer version of the Esprit Vert included with the kit, and it would be excellent if they made available distillates of other herbs frequently used in absinthe, particularly lemon balm (melissa), pontica, and veronica. As it stands, this initial kit offers plenty of options to experiment with in the chemistry lab of your own kitchen, and you don’t even need to fire up a Bunsen burner. Since we all know that flame has no business being around finished absinthe anyway, that is a definite plus.

Unnamed Montpelier-style, LdF blended Montpelier-style, Pacifique

Getting carded for absinthe

Given current prices of a decent verte or blanche here in the 21st century, it’s easy to develop a notion that absinthe was consumed exclusively by wealthy citizens who could afford high-end luxuries, stirring their costly green elixir in an expensive crystal glass with a silver spoon. While it’s true that there was a period in France (primarily during the mid-1800s) during which absinthe was the almost-exclusive purvey of ex-soldiers with healthy pensions, and wealthy bourgeoisie folks with a lot of francs to burn, the drink was within reach for all but the poorest members of society by the 1880s.

For the average working man, enjoying an absinthe didn’t necessitate clopping down to the finest cafe on the boulevard in a horse-drawn carriage and stepping out with a fancy walking-stick and wearing a cape (although, admittedly, that would have been my preferred entrance way back when); our local working-class hero could simply walk down to one of thousands of local cafes, fire up a pipe or a cigarette, and whet his appetite with a glass of the house brand absinthe while chatting with friends and locals the way he always did. To amuse themselves and to gamble away a few louis, there was an ever-growing assortment of bistro games becoming available all the time, but nothing could top the popularity of a good old-fashioned card game.

And to talk about ideal product placement: imagine having a captive audience of four or five people seated at a table for an hour or two, and having them continually staring down at your brand name while they entertained themselves, considering whether to raise the bet, draw another card, or punch Pierre in the face for winning the past three hands in a row.

Tapis de cartes, or “card carpets” such as the one pictured below, were an effective means of advertising, and were likely to have a longer lifespan than posters and flyers, although serving as a placemat in a bar does take its toll. Even the post-absinthe card carpets from the 1920s and 1930s advertising pastis and the like are fairly rare; finding a genuine absinthe-branded card mat from the pre-ban period is even more difficult to do. It’s nice to see that they still work their magic, though, as I can’t help but feel myself getting a little thirsty for a tasty verte just by looking at it.

Premier Fils tapis de carte, c. 1900

Sex and absinthe in the dream world

If dreams are truly a looking glass into one’s subconscious as some have suggested, then I suppose this post about one of mine will provide an eyeful for everyone. For those few readers who know me outside of this electronic ether we call the internet, neither the broad strokes nor the fine details of this narrative will come as a surprise, although I certainly hope everyone finds them to at least be entertaining.

As we all know, dream worlds are not bound by the same sense of logic and flow of chronological time as our waking world, so when I tell you that my sleeping vision began in the 1880s, or in the 1930s, or perhaps neither and both, I have to trust that you’ll understand my meaning.

On this night in the dream world, I found myself in the company of a very rich man, not unlike a certain Jay Gatsby in some respects. We were in his penthouse apartment, and he was showing me a sandstone Zapata figurine resting in a tabletop glass display case. Bear in mind that in my waking moments I have no more idea of what a “Zapata figurine” is than you do, but when he said that it had been fashioned in the 1920s by a Cuban resistance fighter who was famous for carving these figurines (although he himself had bought it while in New Zealand), I understood him perfectly. Oddly, the figurine (in the shape of a lion or chupacabra at rest) had the enactment and repeal dates of the U.S. Prohibition of alcohol carved into its base in very tiny characters. I made this observation to my wealthy friend, pointing out that the presence of these dates placed the date of creation to 1933 or after, and not in the 1920s as he had suggested. He seemed haughtily annoyed with me.

After this brief discussion of figural art there was a small gap of time, and then I became aware that there were four of us laying in a very large bed four-poster bed decked out with a gaudy red bedspread. The decor of the room suggested “turn-of-the-century” whorehouse, give or take a couple of decades, with dark wood paneling, splashes of red and an overabundance of lace present throughout.

The foursome included myself, my wealthy acquaintance, and two women who were completely naked. One of the women was the Rita Sue “stripper-mom” character from  the HBO series Carnivale (a show which, incidentally, featured an absinthe-swilling character named Professor Lodz). She was performing oral sex on the other woman, whose face I couldn’t place. My rich friend and I were both casually laying next to them and watching. The woman who was on the receiving end experienced an orgasm, and both women were quite contented with the ultimate conclusion.

Sometime after this escapade and another small gap of time, a pauper friend of the wealthy gentleman’s showed up. “Oh, he’s drinking that cheap stuff again,” whispered my companion. I looked in the corner of the room, and there was a glass jug with a capacity of at least 4 liters and featuring dark orange advertising letters which read The Olde Absinthe House. Apparently, this was a container full of their house brand of absinthe.

The glass jug was housed in a copper carrier not unlike a shallow basket or a baking pan with chain handles. The bottom of this carrier was about two inches high, and five or six thin copper chains connected to it and met at the top of the jug to form a handle for carrying. The low banded bottom had upside-down writing on it which read simply as: “copper.” Don’t blame me if dreams aren’t always laden with inscrutable metaphor.

The liquid inside was almost forest green in color. When I asked the pauper if I could have a taste of it before I went back to the future (suddenly becoming aware, at least to a small degree, of the fact that this was not my reality), he said yes. So I found a pint glass to pour a dose of the absinthe into, and a rocks glass of water to drip into the pint glass. As soon as I began pouring the into the pint glass, smoky fog like that from very cold condensation, or what you would see in a B-movie about a mad scientist, began roiling from the glass but soon dissipated.

When I began to louche the absinthe with the water, it started out as a thick, almost milky louche, with stormy clouds and thick tendrils swirling in the drink. The dose was able to take a lot of water, and the pint glass was 3/4 full before the louche was finished. I finally took a sip, and found the drink to be lemony, with very little anise and a heavy taste of medium-quality wormwood. At that moment, I understood why my rich companion said it was cheap stuff, and yet I was happy simply to have sampled it before having to return to my own world.

The taste of the absinthe lingered for some time in my mouth, but when I woke up, I realized that I hadn’t detected any aroma from it in my dream; I don’t know if that’s because there wasn’t much of a scent, or if my sense of smell is not active when I dream. I’ve been told that the fact that I dream in color (or at least that I remember the color) is somewhat rare, so I’ll be content simply with that.

[On a side note, Emiliano Zapata died in April of 1919, some six months before Prohibition took effect in the United States. As such, it would have been difficult for him to have accomplished many carvings in the 1920s, even if he had had an artistic bent. Also, in the waking world he was Mexican, not Cuban.]

While you consider possible interpretations of my dream and silently judge me, please enjoy an illustrated version of a poem by Paul Verlaine (a notorious absinthe drinker) called “Pensionnaires” (which translates to “Boarders” or “Residents”). Originally published in 1867 under a pseudonym, it is one of series of six poems in a cycle about Sapphic love called Les Amies, or The Girlfriends, and seems somewhat fitting for this post with regard to its ties to the world of absinthe and sexuality. Here is a (rough) translation of the text itself:

Residents

One was fifteen, the other sixteen;
Both slept in the same room.
It was an oppressive September night:
Frail, blue eyes, redness of strawberry.
Each one has left, to get comfortable,
Her fine shirt in fresh scent of amber.
The youngest extends her arms and arches,
And her sister, her hands on her breasts, kissed,
Then falls to her knees, then became fierce
And tumultuous and crazy, and her mouth
Dives under the golden blonde in the gray shades;
And the child during that time, identifies
Cute on her fingers waltzes promised
And pink, smiles with innocence.

Bonnard’s visual interpretation of Verlaine’s poem Pensionnaires, circa 1900

Absinthe reviews: the numerology of la fée verte

Age may be just a number, but scoring absinthe goes far beyond the digits scrawled on a sheet of paper which is slightly wet at the corner because you’ve been sitting your glass down there instead of on the coaster you neglected to bring over to the table. An absinthe score can often reveal as much about the drinker as the drink itself, while simultaneously issuing a firm judgment from the bench without revealing any mitigating circumstances which may have applied. Actual written reviews allow for complete control over how to present impressions, thoughts, and feelings about the drink, as well as control over the tone of voice and inflections used to convey that information; reviewers can even include anecdotes and background information which has little or nothing to do with the absinthe itself, all to the point of establishing a certain mood or setting in which to present their more concrete determinations. In short, a review is a subjective take on what value that particular absinthe holds for the reviewer; in contrast, a score is an objective determination of what value that absinthe should hold for everyone else (insofar as any human individual can be objective).

I’m not an expert on the subject of absinthe, but I’ve had the good fortune of being able to drink quite a few different ones over the past three years, and I believe that knowledge base may be of some use to some people who are considering a purchase in the near future. While I’ve taken notes on almost everything I’ve ever sampled, and even published a number of reviews online, that would be a lot of unnecessarily detailed information to force someone to wade through before dropping a pair of Benjamins on a couple of bottles of good absinthe. Consider the numbers below to be the Cliff’s notes version, minus the notes.

I’ll continue to add new scores to this list as I sample more absinthes. Perhaps at some later date, I’ll also add in three or seven descriptors to provide a little extra insight and detail (and yes, it has to be three or seven; not only are they prime numbers, but they are magic ones as well, and I’ve got to justify that title up there somehow, gentle reader). For now, though, the numbers below represent the final score (which is given first), and then in parenthesis I have given the score for each of the two categories that I wrote about previously in this post – namely, Appearance and Aroma, as well as Flavor and Finish.

Stock market figures be damned, here are the numbers that matter:

Score

  • 10 (5/5) Edouard Pernod [pre-ban circa 1905]
  • 10 (5/5) Pernod Tarragona [non-ban circa 1956]
  • 10 (5/5) Brevans H.R. Giger
  • 10 (5/5) La Capricieuse
  • 10 (5/5) Walton Waters
  • 9 (4/5) Pernod Fils [preban circa 1910]
  • 9 (4/5) Doubs Mystique
  • 9 (5/4) Jade Edouard
  • 9 (4/5) La Clandestine
  • 9 (5/4) Meadow of Love
  • 9 (4/5) Pacifique
  • 9 (4/5) Ridge Blanche
  • 9 (4/5) Ridge Verte
  • 9 (4/5) Sapphire la bleue
  • 8 (4/4) Belle Amie
  • 8 (4/4) Berthe de Joux
  • 8 (3/5) Blues Cat
  • 8 (4/4) Duplais blanche
  • 8 (4/4) Essai 5 Blanche “Brut d’Alambic”
  • 8 (4/4) Leopold Bros.
  • 7 (4/3) Duplais verte
  • 7 (4/3) Vieux Pontarlier
  • 7 (3/4) Eichelberger 68 Limitee
  • 7 (4/3) Kübler [European version]
  • 7 (3/4) LDF Absinthe Suisse La Verte (PAS AUTHORISEE par le VdT)
  • 7 (3/4) Mansinthe
  • 6 (3/3) La Valote
  • 6 (3/3) Obsello
  • 6 (3/3) Père François
  • 6 (3/3) Vieux Carre
  • 5 (3/2) Lucid
  • 5 (3/2) Un Emile 45 [reformulated 2011 version]
  • 4(3/1) Trillium
  • 4 (3/1) Pernod aux extraits de plantes d’absinthe [modern Pernod]
  • 3 (2/1) St. George
  • 2 (2/0) La Charlotte

Absinthe Premier Fils promotional dice. Photo by Marc Thuillier.

Three killer “B”s (Or, Belle Amie, Blues Cat, and Absinthe Brevans H.R. Giger)

As mentioned in a previous post, the latest absinthe from Delaware Phoenix (which is reportedly a one-off batch, and won’t be replicated) is called Blues Cat, and it was made available in limited quantities last month. I was fortunate enough to snag a bottle from the kind folks at Catskill Cellars (whom I unabashedly endorse for their prompt shipping, excellent service, and tasteful selection of absinthe), and before too long a sloshed stork made its way here to reluctantly leave it on my doorstep.

Upon its arrival, I first noted the aesthetic similarities between this expression and the other two mainstays of the D.P. line, namely the Walton Waters and Meadow of love. The same bell-like bottle shape was used, along with its own color-coded wax cork (gold, in the case of the Blues Cat). Likewise, as is the case with the all of the D.P. absinthes, Cheryl Lins uses clear glass bottles instead of those of green, brown, or amber. Clear glass is an uncommon choice in the world of absinthe because the liquor is photosensitive, and the famous green-hued tones of a verte can quickly turn dull and brown after prolonged exposure to light. I’ve seen color change noticeably after only one day, and that doesn’t even take into account how it may have changed while shelved at the distillery or vendor’s warehouse. While the flavor is not impacted in any perceptible way, many absintheurs relish keeping their naturally-colored green fairy as green as it can be (artificial coloring is the sign of an inferior absinthe), so most of the folks I know who enjoy the D.P. absinthes will immediately store theirs in a cabinet (as do I) or place it in a UV-blocking bag or carrier of some sort. That is, unless they’re color-blind; in which case, to hell with the color altogether.

Soon after its debut, folks on various online sites became sampling and assessing the Blues Cat, and I noticed that a number of people were using  the word “peridot” in reference to the color. This surprised me because, although mine shipped the same week it was bottled and first made available, and I quickly noted the color before putting it in the closet, there wasn’t any hint of olive-green to be found. Instead, the liquid was dark yellow with a slight brown tinge, or perhaps “autumn gold” if you’re prone to flights of fancy superlatives. I’ll confess that taking such flights is one of my personal idiosyncrasies (and not a weakness, you damn philistines!)

Ahem. In any case, absintheurs who frequent online forums tend to get tetchy if you criticize something that they like, and even more so if you impugn their manner of assessing it. While I was doing neither when I wondered aloud how a fair number of reviewers were seeing peridot when I was seeing yellow with almost no green to speak of, their responses highlighted a couple of issues which contributed to the discrepancy. The most significant of these was in defining the word “peridot,” which is one of the most overused color adjectives in the absinthe world. (No one wants to say “it’s green” in every review, and since “tourmaline” sounds more like a rejected Chuck Berry song title than a color, “peridot” became the new black, so to speak.)

Wiki sums peridot up as follows: “Peridot is one of the few gemstones that occur in only one color, an olive green. The intensity and tint of the green, however, depends on how much iron is contained in the crystal structure, so the color of individual peridot gems can vary from yellow- to olive- to brownish-green.” It sounds simple enough, especially for we Americans who live in a culture of hyphenates; in this case, start with green, put a relevant hyphenated modifier in front of it, and you’re done. However, while more than one person linked to various photos of peridot gemstones online, and while I’m an internet junkie to roughly the same debilitating degree as the rest of our distracted modern first-world society, one of the areas in which computers do not excel is in the accurate display of color (even less so now that CRT monitors have been relegated to the scrap heap in favor of LCD screens, which are thinner and lighter but also generally suck in comparison). If you want to see the accurate representation of a color, particularly one which takes its name from a gemstone, then I recommend getting yourself to a jewelry store (“I’m just looking”), an artist’s color wheel, or better yet, a Pantone color book; with the Pantone book, you not only have an extremely comprehensive and accurate display of too many different shades of colors to count at your fingertips, but you have it bound in an extremely thick and heavy tool of bludgeoning to use as a weapon against anyone who disagrees with you about any damn thing.

Ultimately, I realized I was spending far too much time splitting hairs with fellow drinkers, so I decided to just have some absinthe. Please note that this line of thinking is almost always the wisest course to follow.

As a lark, and because I had too many bottles jammed into my absinthe cabinet to easily reach the ones in the back, I performed a little visual experiment to kill off a couple of nearly empty bottles. It just so happened that I had one dose (about 1.25 ounces, an approximation due to some variance between the hand-blown glasses) of both Belle Amie and Absinthe Brevans H.R. Giger left, and having a vague recollection of the extreme color differential between those two vertes, I decided to go for the hat trick and pour a dose of Blues Cat in between them. The results are below. Please note my caveat above and don’t think for a second that the colors you see on your screen are accurate in comparison to viewing them in real life with your own eyes; not only do you have the monitor display issue to think about, but you also have to contend with the fact that I’m a terrible photographer. Seriously, I used a brownish fake-formica background for this shot like I was taking a picture for the 1978 Sears catalog with my Kodak Brownie; it’s like I was trying too hard to not try at all, after my initial try at trying. In my defense, alcohol may have been a factor.

Anyway, I got some natural light angled in through the window, and what you’re seeing actually isn’t far off from the truth of things as I saw it. The Belle Amie on the far left is what I would consider to be a nearly textbook accurate representation of peridot; someone else described Blues Cat as being a “pale yellow peridot,” which I wouldn’t argue with now that the color changed a little bit since I first received the bottle; and lastly, there’s the Giger on the far right, which calls to mind its phonetic twin and the measuring of radioactivity – not in a negative “ohmygod, I’m gonna die!” sort of way, but more along the lines of, “this is the solution to the energy needs of a future utopian society.” Just be sure not to louche it with Ice-nine.

Speaking of louches, you can see those in the bottom photograph below. There’s even a video of this little experiment if you’re interested, complete with me mumbling to myself. All of these absinthes were louched at a water:absinthe ratio of 4:1 (without any sugar added), with the level of the Blues Cat being higher due to variations of the hand-blown glasses being used. Despite the fact that none of these three looked remotely similar, I’m happy to report that they all tasted very good, which ultimately leads to my most important observation of all for the evening: properly made absinthe is delicious, regardless of the color.

Belle Amie (left), Blues Cat (center), Absinthe Brevans H.R. Giger (right

Absinthe from the “Gateway to the Mediteranean”

As one or two of you may have noted in the comments section of one of my previous blog posts, I recently purchased a sealed bottle of vintage Pernod Fils Tarragona. While the Tarragona operation in Spain was originally started by the Edouard Pernod distillery around 1910 in order to escape the Swiss and (soon to come) French ban on absinthe, the operation was absorbed by the larger Pernod group sometime around 1938. At this time, the recipe appears to have changed from that of the spicier Edouard Pernod, to the more floral and somewhat “feminine” Pernod Fils recipe, and continued on in that vein until 1960, when a new master distiller and new recipe resulted in a drink which more closely resembled pastis.

This liter bottle was in excellent condition, and dates to the mid-1950s, when Spain was beginning to improve its economy and international relations under Franco’s new policies, Elvis began swiveling his hips so scandalously even as Frank Sinatra was hitting his vocal peak, and a whole lot of Americans decided they liked Ike for President. You might think that the touchstones of American history during the 1950s would have little relevance to this bottle of absinthe produced in Spain using the old Pernod Fils recipe (or near enough to it), but if you take a closer look at the picture below, you’ll see an inset featuring the unusual blue sticker on the bottle which reads: “U.S. Navy Mess.”

Now, exactly how does a Spanish bottle of absinthe (a liquor which was still banned in the United States) wind up in the galley of some U.S. Navy ship or commissary? While a relaxed “when in Spain, do as the Spaniards do” policy would likely have been a welcome change of pace for some service members, members of the U.S. armed services are almost always prohibited from engaging in activities which are legal in their host country but illegal back in the United States. However, in addition to absinthe’s legal status in the U.S. being in limbo during this time period (though not for Spain, as it was never banned there), an even more interesting fact turned up in my research on the origin of this bottle. As part of Franco’s attempt to improve international relations and create ties with the U.S., a naval base was created in 1953 in Rota, Spain, which was administered by a Spanish Rear Admiral, but completely funded by the United States and staffed with American servicemen of all branches of the U.S. military. It remains in operation to this day, and I suspect that my bottle of Pernod Fils Tarragona earned its “U.S. Navy Mess” sticker from this exact location.

But on to the really good stuff. By now, you’re probably may be wondering if I let this green genie out of the bottle, and yes, as a matter of fact, my lady love and I did open it yesterday. Special occasions are wonderful things, but sometimes a person’s expectations get blown out of proportion during those times, and so we waited for a day that just seemed like a good time for a Spanish absinthe, and yesterday was that day. The fact that it was Mother’s Day was simply a coincidence, which is just as well since both of our mothers would happily decline a glass of absinthe. (Thankfully, there are flowers, books, and tea to be given in its stead).

So how did this absinthe rate? It was like a taste of liquid sunshine. Not the ‘60s acid trip kind, mind you, but rather the metaphorical kind; it was bright and warm, full of the taste of the famous green anise of Spain while still being anchored by a very fine wormwood. Of all the absinthes I’ve tried, this was the first that tasted noticeably better when sweetened with cane sugar instead of agave nectar. That could be because the Tarragona is fairly sweet to begin with, or possibly because this recipe produces a more delicate liquor; regardless of the reason, the agave nectar didn’t smooth out sharp edges (of which there were none) so much as smear the subtle herbal nuances of the flavor.

However, it would be a mistake to think that this absinthe was too weak or delicate to stand up to a good watering; I found that it hit it’s peak at approximately a 4:1 ratio of water to liquor. While the louche activity tended to stay at the bottom half of the glass for most of the prep time, it was very active and cloudy there in the deep before storming up and overtaking the entire dose near the end of the watering for a spectacular final louching. The very high level of activity is no doubt due to the addition of star anise in a slightly higher amount than in previous decades of the Pernod Fils Tarragona, and my guess is that the action stayed at the bottom of the glass because I was using a carafe with a very thin but forceful stream, rather than dripping water into the glass.

The aroma was very pleasant, if not quite as room-filling as I was expecting it would be. As with the louche, the fragrance was playing hard to get until near the end, but the reward of leaning in for a whiff was that of an alpine bouquet resting in a field of green anise.

Overall, traditionalists might be a little bit disappointed that the alpine overtones are not as sharp or crisp as a Belle Epoque-style absinthe, but I found this one to be a pleasant and balanced bridge between the French/Swiss absinthes of the 19th century, and the more modern Spanish absentas which have a much stronger profile of green anise. It earns a full 10 points from me. Well done, Mr. J. M. Bañas!

1950s Pernod Fils S.A. Tarragona with Navy sticker (inset)

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