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

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5 Comments

  1. April 30, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    As someone who posts a lot of reviews to the Wormwood Society I have to say, thank you! While I DO enjoy geeking out and rating absinthe it can be a bit much for some people.

    Also, even though I use the WS model for ratings I do have a disagreement with how little weight is given to the finish. But getting crazy over that is like the sports fan who blows his top over a slight change in NFL draft rules or something.

    For me and wine ratings, I’m at the point where a 95 point wine and an 85 point wine might as well be the same thing (say, 9 out of 10). But that’s because I don’t obsess over wine. So for those out there who just want to know if an absinthe is good or not, I love your simpler system.

    • April 30, 2012 at 8:06 pm

      I do indeed like their system for the most part, too. As you said, whatever quibbles I (and you) may have with it certainly doesn’t invalidate it, and it’s a great resource for novices and old pros alike to use as a guide. Your example of a 95-point vs. 85-point wine is an excellent example of how I feel about ratings even for absinthe; since there aren’t anywhere near as many absinthes as wine, that gap of 10 points means even less than it would for wine, and I’m just as likely to buy the 85 as the 95. If someone rates something as a 60 or 70, then that’s my cue to do a good bit more research before I plunk down any money.

      In any case, I do feel that any system which encourages newbies to record their impressions and assign a number value is a good thing. It’s so easy to be discouraged when starting out, especially since most of us can’t afford to buy 3 or 4 bottles of absinthe in one go as we can wine, so hopefully this simple method will encourage folks to rate, review, and post somewhere (at the WS, at Fee Verte, or on a blog somewhere). Cheers and good evening to you!

      • Michael Meyers said,

        May 13, 2012 at 9:48 am

        I guess nothing’s perfect. The thing with these rating systems is that even though both FV and WS encourage people to review, they certainly don’t pressure them to do so. The way these systems are designed, it makes sense that only those who wish to take a deeper look at absinthe should and will use them.

        It’s probably a topic for another day, but one of the negative outcomes of the internet IMO is the proliferation of opinion and the resulting zeitgeist that everyone feels compelled to have one on everything. And unfortunately all opinions are not created equal.

        I like your simpler system as well, but I am doubtful that it can be used in any credible or consequential way. That’s where we differ here. While I don’t think “complicated” is better, I do think that thorough is better if the aim is to evaluate for purposes beyond “buddy banter”. That’s the trouble with simple here. Its nature is so casual that one could easily become sloppy and inaccurate. And if a system is going to be simple, it had better be very well thought out. For instance, it is well known that the majority of taste perceptions that we experience have to do with what we smell. So just off the cuff, I think something like 3 points for appearance, and 7 points for aroma, flavor and finish might be better.

        Also, just a couple of corrections of inaccuracies:

        1. It is the U.C. Davis system that is a 20 point system, not the WS (which is a 5 point system, 1 being the lowest).
        2. “and 10 representing a drink on par with the nectar of the gods”
        In context, I’m sure you mean 5.
        3. The percentage weighting at WS for Appearance and Louche combined is 32%.
        4. The statement of Flavor, Mouthfeel, and Finish being 30% of the score, while accurate is a little misleading. If you add the Aroma (to complete the core of what really counts with any beverage) based on my earlier statement, those now total 48% of the score.

        All in all I enjoyed the article. It dances close to a pet opinion of mine which is that even though there are those who will examine things to the extent for which any review system allows, we each have a choice of how much weight we will give them in our lives.

        “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!”

        Amen

      • May 14, 2012 at 4:50 pm

        Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Michael, as well as for the numerical/mathematical corrections (which I have fixed within the text of my blog). I agree about the inherent limitations of such a simple review process as I’ve outlined; however, I believe the most valuable aspect of a numerical product score is (or should be) for use as a buying guide. Such a simple assessment allows both for comparison to similar products, and as a general indicator of quality, particularly to those who don’t know if they do want to take a deeper look at absinthe or not. After all, whether or not someone develops an interest in something is often determined by their first experience with it, so being able to buy an “8” will give someone a good chance to accurately judge a drink category.

        I agree with you completely that nuances and complexities of any product should be evaluated and addressed within the text of a review, if it’s to serve any appreciable purpose for connoisseurs and/or anyone with more than a passing interest. And while I’m not certain that I can agree that aroma dominates our perception of taste to the degree you state, I’m of the same mind that it is an important factor to take into account.

  2. April 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    […] absinthe culture more complex and inaccessible than it needs to be. Head on over and check out his most recent post on ratings, it’s worth a read and a thought or […]


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