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