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!