Spring fever is near, and the Delaware Phoenix is here

Late autumn and late winter are generally wonderful times of the year to buy absinthe if you are having it shipped. Given the herbal nature of the liquor, it can be somewhat sensitive both to light and to temperature, but temperature is of more concern because exposing absinthe to an excessive amount of heat over a period of several days may adversely affect the flavor, whereas exposure to light for the same period would only dull the color into something of a feuille morte (French for “dead leaf”) color, most likely of russet or brownish-green. Given how rough and tumble delivery via shipping companies can sometimes be, it’s best to eliminate as many potentially negative variables as possible, so shoot for cooler weather when it is neither hot enough to hurt the flavor, nor cold enough to cause the liquor to form anethole solids, which can manifest as waxy little discs of white inside your absinthe. Incidentally, this is also why you never refrigerate absinthe. Aesthetics count for a lot when enjoying a glass of absinthe, and you don’t want any waxy floaties in your glass or that of a friend’s!

Seeing as how the absinthe choices within my own liquor cabinet were running a bit low, I ordered two bottles of what might be my favorite absinthes of all – the Walton Waters and Meadow of Love absinthe produced by Delaware Phoenix in upstate New York. In essence, Delaware Phoenix is a one-woman operation, and that woman is Cheryl Lins. She’s an exceptional distiller who offers two of the best absinthes currently on the market, and a little birdie whispered to me that there will likely be a third one beginning sometime this year. I can hardly wait to see and taste what new style she comes up with, and I suspect it will complete a hat trick of absinthes that will be just what the doctor (Pierre Ordinaire, or otherwise) ordered.

I’ll provide my reviews of these two absinthes in the near future, but in the meantime, here’s a shot of the twins inside of their winter weather gear, which are handmade bottle bags crafted by a friend of the distiller. They’re quite homey, but it should be noted that they are not effective for blocking UV light. Since the absinthe is bottled in clear glass, you will want to store them (with or without the bags) in a dark and cool place, such as a cabinet.

Walton Waters and Meadow of Love in handmade bottle bags

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And you thought Switzerland had always been neutral

Co-opting the idea of supposed religious determinism and putting it to use in the political arena is a time-dishonored tradition that goes back to the first creature which crawled forth from the primordial ooze and made his way straight to the top of the mountain to lord it over the other oozelings. In terms of Christianity itself, it goes at least as far back as Constantine claiming to have Jesus on his side and insisting that all of his soldiers paint crosses onto their shields prior to viciously butchering their enemies, despite the fact that mister pontifiex maximus himself did not officially convert until on his deathbed. One wonders how his clearly being ruled by superstition and political decorum didn’t precipitate calls of hypocrisy, if not heresy, but I suppose nobody wanted to be the one telling the emperor he had no clothes (or religious authority).

Similar legalistic posturings and propaganda masquerading as true faith-based initiatives have continued through the ages, and that includes much of the activity of the so-called Temperance Movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. While much of the momentum behind this ideology boiled down simply to rural villages and towns resisting their way of life being on the decline due to the increased industrialization of the modern world, the rise of alcoholism as a social ill provided a convenient focus for the revival of “small town values” and lots of “come to Jesus” preaching.

You might be surprised to discover how little alcohol and alcoholism had to do with the true impetus behind Prohibition in the United States. Likewise, there were a variety of underlying cultural, political, and social variables in play in the very early 20th century when the international Temperance Movement was coming to a head, and as absinthe was so popular in France, Switzerland, and other European nations, it made for a logical target for “the drys'” opening salvo. Below, see an original copy of the infamous anti-prohibition poster created by Gantner which was first published in “Le Guguss,” a Swiss satirical revue edited by a man named Louis Bron. The poster decries the “death of absinthe” in Switzerland as a result of the 1910 ban. A rather macabre prohibitionist in the garb of a Catholic priest is seen standing on the corpse of the green fairy, a rictus smile across his face betraying his supposed honorable intentions. Behind him are Swiss citizens beseeching the heavens, as Switzerland herself sits in dejection.

Sapphire absinthe

While every absinthe enthusiast fantasizes about stumbling across a cache of old dusty crates, prying them open with a crowbar and searching through the 100+ years old packing material to discover several bottles of pre-ban absinthe, it is in fact a rare treat to have even so much as a 1 oz sample. I myself have had the good fortune to acquire three such samples, and they are a unique experience to look forward to in the weeks leading up to tasting it, and to savor for years afterward.

However, there are a few excellent modern absinthes which are likewise a rarity, even after a span of only a few years. One such absinthe is a Swiss la bleue called Sapphire, which was distilled by Claude-Alain Bugnon in 2010 (and perhaps earlier, as well). This fantastic blanche was beautifully clear, as are the best la bleues which come from Switzerland, but it also had a higher thujone content than is allowed by law, which is why it is no longer available. While the amount of thujone is absinthe is already minimal, the legal limit for absinthes in the United States is 10 ppm, while in Europe the limit is 35 ppm. I have personally never experienced any of the hallucinatory “effects” which many folks hope and wish absinthe produced, and chemical tests have likewise debunked the notion. However, old ghosts are hard to kill, and so the measurable amount of thujone is strictly enforced. The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) in the United States even goes a bit further, insisting that no absinthe product can have the label “absinthe” as a stand-alone word (which is why so many are called “absinthe superiore”), nor can names or graphics hinting at death, the occult, visions or hallucinogenic effects be part of the labeling or packaging. One gets the impression that if someone said “boo” while they were looking at a bottle of absinthe they would wet their pants and call in the National Guard.

But oh how I digress. In any case, no true absinthe lover cares about the thujone level, as it is so negligible an amount, whether it is 5 ppm or 50 ppm. When a European friend offered me a sample of this rare and hard-to-find absinthe, I did say no to her, and after experiencing it I’m so glad I didn’t. Simply opening the bottle and inhaling the aroma was a true joy. Some blanches have a scent reminiscent of wet grass or seaweed at the center of their aroma, which is a bit off-putting to me, but Sapphire was strong with crisp wormwood and hint of  baby powder, which is a common descriptor for hyssop. I figured that this absinthe would be sweet, and it was. Rich with herbs, the louche finished so quickly that I nearly missed it, and this is one that you want to use a slow drip on with ice cold water.

But the taste! The fennel and melissa (lemon balm) were definitely up front and extroverted, but the very fine wormwood maintained a hot rhythm section underneath which wouldn’t be ignored. The drink was very crisp, and while the mouthfeel wasn’t what I would describe as creamy at first (which is not a criticism, but simply an observation), adding half a teaspoon of agave nectar added that dimension to it. While blanches are traditionally not sweetened, I do still tend to do so with about half as much sugar or agave as I would use with a verte. This absinthe was delicious with or without sweetener.

Oh, and for the record, I neither saw fairies, monsters, nor devils; I did not paint a beautiful picture or write a heart-rending poem; and I did not cut off my ear and have it couriered to my favorite prostitute. An opportunity squandered, I suppose. But at least I do have a pretty picture of the Sapphire bottle, along with a louched dose of it in a Pontarlier glass with “see-saw” brouillieur on top, which was taken by “Michael in Poland.” Enjoy!

Apsynthion through the ages

I’m listening to Haley Bonar’s mesmerizingly lovely song “Out of the Lake” and sipping on a sweet Australian merlot as I type. Despite this being an absinthe blog, I don’t want to give the impression that absinthe is the only alcohol I enjoy discovering and drinking. A person can develop a fine appreciation for one item in particular only by contrasting it with other items of like kind. That being said, I’ve never felt that I had the proper palette to understand and appreciate wine the way that some folks do. When I sip on a wine, I don’t taste things like Valencia oranges, old leather, spongy tobacco, or slightly burned Spanish moss. If I concentrate very hard, I can pick out some jammy or fruity flavors, but I was recently told that “grapes” don’t really count in that context, and I don’t have too much more to offer beyond that except for wishful thinking.

Liquors like scotch, whisky, and brandy/cognac are ones that I’m much better at appreciating, although it took some time developing a palette to reach that point, and I’m still a fledgling with respect to describing and/or reviewing them with anything resembling accuracy or usefulness to someone else. Absinthe, however, is the one liquor which I seemed to understand almost immediately. Even before I knew exactly what the herbs were that I was tasting, I could differentiate between them, and trace one or two of them in other absinthes as well. While I can’t quite lay claim to being an “absinthe whisperer,” I do feel like there should be a movie made about my journey of walking and talking with absinthe as we nuzzle each other and try to reconcile less understanding folk to their own absinthes. Yes, healing relationships and building a better world; is there anything absinthe can’t do?

Also, I could afford to buy much more absinthe when the royalties checks started rolling in.

And now for something completely different: here’s a wonderful illustration from the oldest known work of botany (and pharmacology) in the world, the “Vienna Dioscorides.” The text is actually a Latin translation of information compiled by a Greek doctor named Pedanius Dioscorides around 70 A.D. Although his original text has presumably been lost, it lived on in various translations, and a Byzantine artist included illustrations in a version printed in 512 A.D. specifically for Juliana Anicia, the daughter of Emperor Anicius Olybrius. It is thought that these illustrations were heavily influenced and/or based on similar drawings produced in the Rhizotomicon of Crateuas of Pergamon, which dates back to the 1st century B.C. In all seriousness, how brilliant would it be to produce something so amazing that people were ripping it off 600 years later? While there’s still a chance that musicians will be sampling James Brown grunts and exclamations in the 25th century, I wouldn’t lay money on it.

Below, please enjoy the most ancient illustration of Apsynthion bathyprikon (a.k.a., Artemesia absinthium, commonly known as wormwood) in existence, preferably while listening to beautiful music and enjoying a glass of something equally timeless.

 Apsynthion Bathyprikon

Apsynthion Bathyprikon

The tick-tock sound means it’s time for absinthe!

There’s more than one way to louche an absinthe, and one of the more novel and entertaining ways devised in the 19th century was via an “auto verseur” brouillieur. A brouillieur (also known as a “dripper”) does exactly what it sounds like – it drips water droplets into the absinthe. In a way, absinthe is simply a liquor concentrate, designed and distilled specifically to be reconstituted with water. Exactly how much water is used to dilute the liquor depends partly on how high the proof is, and partly on personal taste. In general, a 4:1 ratio is a good estimate to begin with. Adding the water slowly produces an intriguing cloudy louche as the essential oils are released, but how that water is slowly combined with the absinthe is open to your imagination and preference. A thin stream poured from a carafe was the most common way to louche a glass of absinthe in the 19th century, while glass brouillieurs (essentially small bowls with a tiny hole in the bottom for water to drip through) might also be fitted on top of a glass of absinthe for water to drip through.

In the mid 19th century, one particular absinthe brand named Cusenier came up with the “auto verseur” (colloquially referred to as a “see-saw” brouillieur) for dripping water into absinthe which was both fun to watch and listen to. The brouilleur is balanced on a glass via the four glass feet which hold it in place, and as the water dripped through the bottom of the metal funnel-shaped bowl, it fell onto a small metal piece below which alternately swung up and down as a result of the water droplets striking it and rolling down the side. Here is a picture of a modern 21st century reproduction of the auto verseur placed on top of an antique Lyonnais absinthe glass (similar to a Pontarlier-style glass, but with a reservoir of a different shape) from the late 19th century.

Anise by any other name

A taste of absinthe would go a long way right now. Alas, I’m away from home for a couple of days, and while my gracious hosts have provided me with some tasty stew and crusty garlic bread for dinner, they don’t share my affinity for the green fairy. As a point of fact, I have very few friends or acquaintances who enjoy absinthe at all, a reality which seems all the more strange  to me given how wildly popular absinthe was 100 years ago. Even given humankind’s fickle nature, and the cyclical nature of which types of liquors and liqueurs are popular in any given generation, absinthe has fallen so far that it’s barely on anyone’s radar as anything more than a novelty (and a foul-tasting one at that, if they have been conned into thinking those “strong thujone” fake absinthes are the real thing).

I sometimes think that folks who enjoy Indian food, and particularly a spoonful of mukhwas afterward, are missing out on a great beverage opportunity. Mukhwas is that mixture of anise and fennel seeds, usually coated with sugar or containing some sort of candy-coated bits and perhaps some sesame seeds, which is often offered in a small bowl as you are exiting an Indian restaurant. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure if I liked this exotic and strange substitute for after-dinner mints the first time or two I tried it, but I soon acquired a taste for the pleasantly peppermint-meets-fennel concoction, which is remarkably similar to my learning curve for appreciating absinthe. And just as with absinthe itself, mukhwas is considered to be an aid to digestion and have some health benefits when taken in moderation.

A glass of absinthe, some chicken tikka masala, a cup of milky chai with cardamom, and a spoonful of mukhwas to finish… somebody with culinary skills greater than mine needs to make this happen, and then give me a reservation for two at least once a week. I tip very well!

A Czech bohemian in Paris

Viktor Oliva (1861-1928)  is one of the very few artists (or indeed, individuals) who can lay claim to being Bohemian by birth, in that he was actually born in Nové Strašecí, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary. Take that, 21st century hipsters.

Having traveled to Paris in 1888 to become part of the art movement and “Bohemian Parisian” community there, Oliva doubled down on his credibility as a true Bohemian artist, and then, while developing a passion for hot air ballooning, of all things, he pulled off a hat trick by painting Absinthe Drinker, a beautiful work of hallucinogenic beauty that undoubtedly fueled the myth that absinthe was a magical elixir that granted superhuman powers of artistic skill. I challenge anyone reading this post to down a couple glasses of absinthe and paint anything half as intriguing as this timeless work of art. If you do indeed manage to pull it off, by all means, please contact me immediately.

Adding to Oliva’s reputation is that fact that he had a favorite place in which to drink (Café Slavia), in which he had a number of works displayed. His Absinthe Drinker still hangs inside of that cafe to this day, and I cannot possibly express how much I love that fact. At present, there is no word on whether or not the ghostly green figure ever makes an appearance, but I hope to visit this undoubtedly fine establishment someday myself to find out for certain.

Absinthe and the Encyclopedia Britannica (11th edition)

World War I, known as the “Great War” or “the war to end all wars” in the years immediately following its conclusion, was a cataclysmic moment of global change in uncountable ways. With specific regard to absinthe, the lead-up to it, and the actual onset of the war itself, would be the final nail hammered by the temperance movement into a coffin that was decades in the making. Following an earlier ban in Switzerland, absinthe was banned in France in 1915, ostensibly to preserve French genetic stock and her soldiers on the battlefield, despite the fact that absinthe was utilized as a health elixir and water purifier to French soldiers less than 100 years prior in French Algiers.  The next few years of war would soon prove their at least that part of their intention to be horribly ineffective, as over one million French soldiers are thought to have perished by the end of World War I.

During the same period of time before the outbreak of war, a group of scholars were working on what was to be the final edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica to be produced entirely (or nearly so) in Britain. The eleventh edition, published between 1910-1911, is still regarded as perhaps the finest to be produced by Encyclopedia Britannica, and indeed by any encyclopedia. While it’s use of certain textual devices such as “pathetic fallacy” (which is basically the anthropomorphism of inanimate objects as if they had feelings or intellect) renders it somewhat less than academic or reliable for modern scholarship, it provides a fascinating snapshot of the world as seen and defined through the eyes of a changing populace which was leaving the industrial age of the 18th and 19th centuries behind, and stepping into the technological age of the future. It is arguably all the more endearing for it’s slight and awkward imperfections.

Among those things to say goodbye to was absinthe. While absinthe would technically continue to be distilled for many decades after the bans of the early 1900s, it would do so in increasing obscurity over there years. The entry for absinthe in this eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1910 then is perhaps the final English-language “definition” of note of what true absinthe is. While still imperfect, owing in part no doubt to absinthe being a primarily French and Swiss creation which was not very popular in Britain, it is nonetheless very close to what could be considered “textbook.” Modern distillers and absinthe aficionados should take note of it:

ABSINTHE, a liqueur or aromatized spirit, the characteristic flavouring matter of which is derived from various species of wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Among the other substances generally employed in its manufacture are angelica root, sweet flag, dittany leaves, star-anise fruit, fennel and hyssop. A colourless “alcohólate” is first prepared, and to this the well-known green colour of the beverage is imparted by maceration with green leaves of wormwood, hyssop and mint. Inferior varieties are made by means of essences, the distillation being omitted. There are two varieties of absinthe, the French and the Swiss, the latter of which is of a higher alcoholic strength than the former. The best absinthe contains 70 to 80% of alcohol. It is said to improve very materially by storage. There is a popular belief to the effect that absinthe is frequently adulterated with copper, indigo or other dye-stuffs (to impart the green colour), but, in fact, this is now very rarely the case.  There is some reason to believe that excessive absinthe-drinking leads to effects which are specifically worse than those associated with over-indulgence in other forms of alcohol.

1913 ad for the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

Not by absinthe alone (or, “I’ll have one of everything”)

It’s as true now as it was then that diversification is a key ingredient to a successful business, particularly if you’re not one of the top two or three producers of whatever good or service you are offering. While most of us absinthe enthusiasts focus exclusively on that one particular liquor, most distilleries offered a wide range of products in addition to distilled absinthe. (Some even offered oil mixed absinthes, but we’ll discuss the different between oil mixed absinthe and distilled absinthe in a future post.)

Consider the A. Vichet distillery. This was a large distillery well-known for quality absinthe which was a bit on the sweet side (although I have personally only heard of a small handful of Vichet absinthe which have survived into modern times, and so sadly have not been able to get much information on how it has aged), and yet the name probably would not have had quite the same recognizability as Pernod Fils, Oxygénée, Berger, nor a few of the other distillers with “Pernod” in their name. It wouldn’t have made a lot of business sense to commit all of their resources to try to outdo the top two or three absinthe producers which had already established dominance, and so the Vichet offered a wide range of liquors and liqueurs (and even wines), as did most distilleries. From quinquina to creme de cacao, kirsch to curacao to cognac, Vichet offered pages of different liquid lovelies within the pages of its product brochure, oftentimes in both “top shelf” and “mid shelf” qualities.

See above for the cover of their product brochure number 28 (circa 1909), and below for the inside back cover illustration of the various bottles they offered for sale within the same brochure.

Picturing Pernod Fils

Any discussion of absinthe in its heyday is not complete without mentioning Pernod Fils. Pernod Fils was the single-most popular brand of absinthe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, right up to the French ban in 1915. Although the true origin of absinthe is hotly debated, including whether or not the doctor known as Pierre Ordinaire was an historical personage at all, or something more of an allegorical figure, what is known for certain is that Henri Louis Pernod and Daniel Henri Dubied opened one of the very first absinthe distilleries in 1797. While the brand would largely become identified with France as a result of the Pernod factory built in Pontarlier in 1805, Pernod Fils absinthe production actually began in Couvet, Switzerland in 1797.

At the height of its popularity, Pernod Fils was producing 30,000 liters of absinthe PER DAY, and in addition to satisfying the thirst of millions of French drinkers, the product was shipped to many faroff and exotic countries which had likewise developed a taste for absinthe, or which were at least hosting some European expatriates (such as Paul Gauguin, in Tahiti). It was of the highest quality, as indicated by the absinthe superiore designation, and the best-selling brand of the day.

Of course, Pernod Fils didn’t get to be the Green Fairy’s favorite emissary by being slouches and keeping a good thing to themselves. Production increases over there years, and in the mid-to-late 1800s, Pernod Fils continued to capture the favor (and the francs) not only of the bourgeoisie, but also of the middle-class. Of note in this period is that Pernod Fils continued to use a grape base alcohol for their absinthe, rather than the far cheaper industrial alcohol which many other brands used, even after the devastating phylloxera blight which all but destroyed grape vines in France beginning in the 1860s and crippled the wine industry for a generation. Integrity and pride of workmanship found in an absinthe distillery? Those are some characteristics the government and the temperance movement curiously failed to acknowledge (and emulate).

Of the variety of marketing avenues the company explored, one of the best known was an elegant advertising image which became familiar to thousands of bar and cafe patrons throughout France starting in 1880. Specifically, it was a chromolithograph based on an oil painting done by artist Charles Maire. In a rather unique process, the chromolithograph print was applied to a canvas backing, and then varnish was applied to create the illusion of an actual oil painting. Each one was stretched and mounted on wood, then placed in a custom-made gilt-wood frame painted gold and featuring wormwood leaves. The end result was a sort of still-life look at absinthe, featuring a bottle of Pernod Fils, two Pontarlier-style reservoir glasses, a glass carafe full of cold water, and a newspaper proudly displaying the Pontarlier town name (which by that time had become home to more than 20 absinthe distilleries).

For absinthe historians and distillers, this artwork is particularly interesting in that it features a completely prepared glass of absinthe which accurately displays the a proper louche for Pernod Fils. Exactly how cloudy an absinthe SHOULD appear after preparation is a matter of some debate among modern distillers even today, with some insisting that a louche should not appear to be “milky.” This image unequivocally demonstrates the appropriate thickness of the Pernod Fils louche.

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