Add it up (or, Absinthe scores worthy of the old professors)

As with any passionate interest, there are those of us who fetishize absinthe and obsess over every detail to the point of distraction. It’s amusing to me how oblivious we homo sapiens can be about this shared tendency of ours. When I see a sports fan shake his head in disgust or derision at comic book geeks and their bagged-and boarded collections, then chug a beer and go into a ‘roid rage because his fantasy football team didn’t win, I can’t help but smirk at his ridiculous hobby and then go home to reorganize my antique absinthe spoons. Oh, the humanity.

I’m not sure if there is a rating system for ‘roid rages (I like to think the baseline is “Over the Top!!” and then goes up from there into a Mortal Kombat-styled hierarchy of “Fatalities”), but there are for comic books (both content and condition), and there certainly are for absinthes as well. The idea of a numerical scoring or rating system for absinthe is a fairly new one, considering that genuine absinthe was largely unavailable for close to a century (and doesn’t seem to have been rated that way in the 19th or early 20th century), but since its return to the stage there have been at least two systems developed for the drink. The first appeared on the La Fee Verte forum in 2005 and is a 100-point system which provides for a quite detailed review of each drink, but as a result may be intimidating to newcomers and somewhat cumbersome to use. Another rating system appeared on the Wormwood Society forum a couple of years later, and is a simpler 5-point scale which was based on the U.C. Davis 20-point scoring guide for wine. It has fewer categories than the Feeverte system (“Louche Action” and “Color After Water” are both dropped) and is weighted to give more heft to certain categories. Each one of these is fine, but both reflect a good bit of that fetishistic behavior that we enthusiasts can exhibit from time to time.

While the idea of a rating system is to be able to both appreciate and enjoy our drink more, as well as provide a means of comparison for someone who may be looking to purchase a new absinthe, it takes some of the fun out of my sipping pleasure to go too far and overthink the matter. So I’ve created my own simple rating system for folks who would like to provide a numerical score without having to spend a whole lot of time doing math.

Simple Absinthe Rating Chart

 There are two main categories:

  • Appearance and Aroma (5 points)
  • Flavor and Finish (5 points)

That’s it. Two categories, each worth 5 points for a combined total of 10 points. (You can add a zero to the end of your final score if you want to convert it to a 100-point scale). And here you thought you’d have to print this out on graph paper and break out your old scientific calculator.

The general idea is that you pour your absinthe into a glass, taking note of the color and clarity, then add water while observing both the loucheing action and final louche, as well as breathing in the fragrance as it wafts up from the glass; afterward, write down a number between 1 and 5 which represents how you would rate the experience overall. Some simple concepts to keep in mind are that absinthe should smell like a crisp, alpine meadow (as a result of grand wormwood, which it must contain) with the scent of other herbs (chiefly green anise) being detectable, but it shouldn’t smell grassy or spinachy. The liquor should be clear if it is a blanche, and a natural peridot green if it is a verte, and should not have organic material or sediment of any sort floating in it.

After that, sip the finished drink and evaluate the taste, mouth-feel, and finish, then write down a number between 1 and 5 evaluating these aspects, with 1 being the lowest rating for a terrible-tasting beverage which you want to scrape off of your tongue, and 5 representing a drink on par with the nectar of the gods that you’d punch a puppy in the face to get another bottle of. Keep in mind that it should have a notable but pleasant bitterness at it’s core, with flavorful herbs shaping the overall taste, and a slight numbing and cooling of the tongue. When you’re done, add the two numbers together, and you’ve got yourself an absinthe rating score that you can take to the bank (good thing too, considering the price of absinthe). Effective and elegant.

There are probably some veins throbbing in foreheads out there (in between the dismissive shrugging and the haughty eye-rolling), but the fact is, the more complicated a scoring system becomes, the less reliable and accurate it seems to be. Of the two existing score charts, the Wormwood Society system is closer to my ideal, but I disagree with the weighted percentage they have allotted to certain categories (such as having Flavor counting only a little more than, say, Louche). In fact, their two categories of Appearance and Louche are cumulatively worth more (32%) than the two combined categories of Flavor, Mouthfeel and Finish (30%); as much as I enjoy good presentation, how pretty something looks is never going to count for more to me than how it actually tastes. Based on the no-nonsense stare of the absinthe professors below (taken from the April 1889 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine), I don’t think I’m alone in that line of thinking. With my system, I’ve basically accounted for the three attributes of color/clarity, aroma, and the louche for the first half of the score, while giving more weight to both flavor and finish to account for the second half of the score.

Of course, you could write down some specific notes, observations, thoughts and inspirations obtained during the entire process (and I would encourage you to do so), but by definition those are not part of the score; the number you arrive at as a result of evaluating those observations forms the score, while the actual observations form the basis of a review. That may seem obvious, but I find it helpful to make a clear delineation of the two concepts. Not everyone needs or wants a five-paragraph essay on exactly why a particular bottle scored a 2 out of 10 — the fact that it scored only a 2 is sometimes as much as they need to know in order to avoid it, and then if they want to know more, they can read a review. Whichever way you choose to drink and/or evaluate your absinthe, make sure that you don’t work so hard at coming up with a number or an opinion that you fail to take the time to savor and enjoy it!

Absinthe Professors – illustration in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, April 1889

Lump it or leave it?

To sweeten, or not to sweeten: that is the question when it comes to preparing a glass of absinthe. Absinthe is distinctive in the world of alcohols for a variety of reasons, but one of the most interesting to me is that, while it is technically a liquor (and not a liqueur, which by definition is pre-sweetened in the bottle), it has been overwhelmingly popular to prepare it with sugar. Consider the additional distinction that absinthe as bottled is basically a concentrate, and you have yourself a most unusual alcohol, indeed.

From the tidbits of information I’ve been able to glean regarding distilled absinthe’s transformation from medicinal tonic in the 1700s to mealtime aperitif in the 1800s, it appears that the very earliest versions of absinthe liquor were not intended to have sugar added at all. This makes sense to me given the medicinal origins of absinthe, and also if I consider distillers to share some commonality with chefs, in that they have worked hard to formulate a balanced creation intended for consumption as is, and if you reach for the salt and pepper (or, in the case of absinthe, sugar), there’s an implication of imbalance. For an exacting artist and professional, this is practically akin to a slap across the face and a fart in their general direction.

However, the fact that absinthe is bottled as a concentrate which is meant to have a significant amount of water added to it, but that the ratio of water-to-absinthe was approximate, indicates that there had to be some leeway allowed for individual taste for preparation. In addition to this, folks in the 19th century are said to have had quite a sweet tooth compared to modern-day drinkers (something which is difficult to believe, considering today’s preponderance of things like high-fructose fake grenadines without real pomegranite, and the terribly sweet sweet-and-sour mixers found in stores and out of the gun at any given bar or club, but that’s an argument for another time). Given that absinthe was barely one step removed from still being considered a medicine that folks simply grit their teeth together and choked down because it was good for aiding digestion, it makes sense that there would be a no real objections to allowing folks to add their own measure of water and sweetener to temper the wormwood’s natural bitterness. Interestingly, some photographs and illustrations from the period show no sugar being used at all, while some show two or even three sizable cubes of sugar being used per drink, although it has been surmised that the cane sugar used for cubes produced in that time were not quite as sweet as present-day sugar cubes.

The chronological order in which the Belle Epoque absinthe ritual as we know it today arrived at its ultimate destination is a little murky. It’s generally accepted that absinthe first gained popularity with French legionairres in Algiers (the capital of French Algeria) and other colonies beginning in the 1830s, for whom it was “prescribed” as a salutary method of purifying local water. By the time the North African campaigns ended and the soldiers returned to France, they had developed a taste for the beverage and brought it with them to the local cafes which were just then beginning to become so popular in Europe. For another decade or two, drinking absinthe was largely restricted to the military and the upper classes because it was relatively expensive compared to beer and wine, but it would soon become more affordable as production costs went down. It also skyrocketed in popularity as artists and bohemians consumed it with abandon and began to sing (and paint, and write) its praises; ultimately, it became the pre-dinner drink of choice throughout all of France, and a special perforated absinthe spoon was developed to make the addition of sugar even easier for those who wished to. Even women were getting in on the act, which was a relatively ground-breaking notion in that day given that hard liquor was considered to be for the menfolk.

While it’s a matter of personal preference on how much sugar to add, if at all (hey, I tend to like a teaspoon of agave for many brands of absinthe), see below for one young lady’s lesson on how to prepare a sweetened absinthe and party like it’s 1899.

L'Art de faire une Absinthe

[Rough translation of the text above:

Once your absinthe is poured into the bottom of a clear glass, place two cubes of sugar, one on top of the other, onto the metal spoon. The carefully pour the clear water in a little waterfall. Take a good look: here’s how to do it. So as not to make it too weak, be sure to pour the water very slowly. The absinthe will become paler, and its divine fragrance will fill the room. Within this opaque whiteness, you will see reflections of amber and opal.]

Last call for Trillium absinthe

One of the things which I admire most about the storied history of absinthe is precisely that – the story and the history. While the absinthe-fueled accounts of various playwrights, poets, murderers and thieves are intriguing, they don’t compare to living your life and making your own stories and memories. For me, absinthe has played a central role in several memorable moments, more so than any other drink. Red wine comes in a close second, but it usually plays a supporting role and I very rarely remember the specific wine for a particular occasion.

Which is why, even though it was not a surprise to me, I was saddened to hear the official word that Trillium Absinthe would no longer be produced. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say up front that Trillium is not a very good absinthe. Mind you, it isn’t bad; the distiller at least had the decency to use actual grande wormwood and to not use unnatural colors (something which, shamefully, the modern Pernod absinthe cannot say). However, the color was a bit too straw-like and pale, indicating a poorly done coloration process, and the wormwood itself did not taste like top-grade wormwood which I’ve detected in the very best brands.

Having said that, Trillium was distilled by Integrity Spirits in Portland, Oregon, as close to a hometown in my adult years as I’ll likely ever know. It’s my understanding that Trillium was actually the second American-made absinthe to be released after the lifting of the “ban” in the United States (perhaps we’ll discuss at a later date how, technically speaking, there appears to have never been an actual ban on absinthe here), the first being St. George. As it was such an early absinthe leading the charge into the 21st century, I had hoped that  Trillium would fulfill its potential and fine-tune its recipe into something very tasty indeed. As superficial as it may seem, I love the name and Trillium flower, and they had an attractive sky blue and white color scheme for the bottle. Unfortunately, it was officially announced on the Distillery Row website this week that Integrity Spirits is no more.

This was not truly a shock, as the Integrity Spirits site had gone dark months ago. In January or February, I saw smaller 375 cl bottles appear on the shelves of Portland liquor stores after the standard 750 cl bottles had disappeared, which I presumed meant they were selling off the last of their stock. Still, seeing the last nail driven into the coffin lent it a finality that was saddening. There aren’t that many absinthe distillers to begin with, and each one lost brings the drink closer to the brink of obscurity yet again.

On a more personal note, Trillium was the first (and in fact, is still the only) absinthe I ever ordered out. While I tend to drink fine liquor at home (partly to be in a more intimate environment with friends, and partly because I don’t want to pay the exorbitant markups), and especially absinthe because it’s so rare to find a bar which stocks even one decent brand, in 2010 I was tipped off to the fact that Hobnob Grille, which was a mere two blocks away from my (then) apartment on Belmont St., stocked two absinthes. Ok, in point of fact they only stocked one, since the other was Le Tourment Vert, a faux-absinthe which was mercifully booed into retirement some time ago, but I was more than ready to try the Trillium. My girlfriend and I walked in and sat down, noting the unique environment of what amounted to a sort of sports bar which nevertheless had only one television and wrap-around bar on one side of the restaurant, and a wide-open space with a few tables and a ping-pong (table tennis) table in the center.

We ordered some food (I believe some creole calimari, and definitely some french fries), and then we ordered our drinks, including the Trillium. The waiter asked me if I would like a glass of water to pour into the absinthe (a rare insight for wait staff in 2010 and maybe still today, from what I understand), and then he apologized that they didn’t have an absinthe spoon. To his amusement, I pulled my own out of my pocket. I was never in the Boy Scouts, but I had the “Be prepared” motto down cold. He brought our drinks, and I set about louching up the Trillium. I was happy, my girlfriend was happy for me, and it was a nice feeling to simply be able to enjoy a glass of absinthe at the green hour out in the wild as if it was a mundane, everyday occurrence. The waiter offered to bring us paddles and a ping-pong ball in case we wanted to have a game, but we played it cool and just soaked in the eccentric atmosphere. It was a moment. Incidentally, while local Portland favorite (and fantastic singer-songwriter regardless of geographical location) Laura Viers wasn’t playing on the sound system, her hauntingly beautiful songs were reverberating in our ears from her albums (and her in-store performance in the Apple store). If you’d like a taste of the July Flame album from 2010, I recommend “Life is Good Blues”, although “Galaxies” might be my favorite song of hers. Ah Portland, all of your quirky coolness is missed.

In addition to Trillium absinthe, Integrity Spirits also produced a few other spirits, the most notable of which may be 12 Bridges Gin. I’m not sure of what other promotional items they may have had made up for the distillery, but below you will find an extremely rare Trillium-branded absinthe fountain. Mind you, I have no numerical evidence on which to base that notion, but I triple-dog dare you to try to find another one. If you do, we should share a drink.

R.I.P. Integrity Spirits.

Trillium absinthe, promo card for Laura Veirs' "July Flame" album, and a very rare Trillium-branded absinthe fountain

Trillium absinthe, promo card for Laura Veirs' "July Flame" album, and a very rare Trillium-branded absinthe fountain