The occidental tourist

Lest we jaded post-moderners think we have a cultural monopoly on cringe-worthy marketing, it’s always worth taking a glance back at those tacky bastards who have come before. See below for an example of one such scheme inspired by the undignified willingness to lower standards for the sake of making more money. It may be tempting to think of this as a postcard from the edge (and the artwork is indeed beautifully surreal), but in fact it is a genuine article from the early 20th century which represents an entire category of “absinthe-like” products intended to mollify absinthe critics and consumers in equal measure. This particular venture failed to gain popularity, but the success of products such as anisette and various anise-flavored products in the 1910s and beyond is proof of the efficacy such willingness to compromise combined with a deluge of marketing can have.

The text at the top of this postcard translates to: “Chinese-Absinthe. Patent pending at the Faculté.” The text at the bottom translates to: “Chinoise-Absinthe. Replicate the advantages of absinthe but without the inconveniences.”

ABSINTHE CHINOISE – postcard

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God bless the Bazinet

Please pardon the long absence, those handful of you who may monitor this little corner of the internet from time to time. Life happens to the best of us, and to me as well. Some of it is good, some of it not so much, and most of it is not noteworthy.

One exception to that latter part is a recent experience I had with some antique booze. I had the good fortune to sample a glass of H. Bazinet absinthe (circa 1895) last month, and I must say that it may well have been the most complex preban absinthe I’ve ever experienced. This was especially evident given that I sampled it together next to a glass of Pernod Fils 1910, which instead of being dense or complex, is as streamlined and elegant absinthe as one could ever hope for. Both liquors were exquisite, but in remarkably different ways, and given the relative obscurity of the Bazinet in comparison to Pernod Fils, I was pleasantly surprised me at how enjoyable it was.

To start with, the color of the Bazinet 1895 had aged to a rich gold color, with less brown than the typical “dead leaf” shade which some prebans age into, and no pink or peach tones which Pernod Fils often moves toward over decades of aging. The aroma was of leather and sweet tobacco, with which it shares some commonality with preban Edouard Pernod. The Bazinet in particular has the aroma of an old library, with the smell of finished
leather bindings and aged paper being among the strongest impressions. In addition, there was a warm spiciness to it as well, thanks to a foundation of good wormwood and fine fennel and coriander as well.

The sample of Bazinet I had did not louche significantly, which may or may not be due partially to 100 years of aging in the bottle. I’m inclined to think that isn’t the case, though, as the only other recently-discovered bottle of Bazinet of which I am aware had been sampled by several members of the FeeVerte.net forum, and it was reviewed very unfavorably, with the adjective “woody” being used by more than one of them as a negative
descriptor. The fact that the aroma and flavor profile were so finely-tuned and balanced in my sample convinces me that the manner of storage for this bottle (from the well-tended cellar of The Mohican Hotel, which was originally owned by Frank Munsey) allowed for near perfect preservation, and that it could very well be that this particular marque did not place an emphasis on a thick louche. Interestingly, a relatively weak louche did not prevent it from being a very robust liquor; to the contrary, the flavor and mouthfeel stood up very well to
additional watering, even up to a 5:1 ratio of absinthe to water, which is very impressive.

All in all, the H. Bazinet is an exceptional preban absinthe which was deservedly one of the more popular marques of the belle epoque (apparently winning a bronze medal in Paris in 1889). I can only hope that bottles continue to pop up on occasion in the future; when they do, you can be sure that I’ll be there for another glass.

pre-banabsinthe002-resized

Neutral no more: Switzerland goes for the green

It has been reported today that the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland has been granted PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI labels, which include the terms “absinthe,” “Fee verte,” and “la bleue.” Given that food labels used in Switzerland are now recognized by the European Union (and vice-versa), what this means is that traditionally-distilled absinthe sold in the EU and Switzerland may only bear the actual name of “absinthe” if they were made in the Val-de-Travers region, depending on how this action progresses and is interpreted/enforced in the future. The original statement may be found here.

Of particular insult is this particular quote: “Absinthe, Fée verte and La Bleue evoke an ‘eau-de-vie’ traditionally associated with the Val-de-Travers region which has built the reputation of this product.”

No. For starters, anyone with even a passing knowledge of absinthe, the French city of Pontarlier is far and away the most famous geographical area associated with absinthe. Was it invented there? No. Was its reputation built there? Most definitely, and without question. Anyone who attempts to argue otherwise is embarrassing themselves and probably has something to sell.

The Val-de-Travers may rightly take credit for being the birthplace of absinthe. But just as almost every famous person in the world was born in one place and built their reputation somewhere else, so too with absinthe. Pontarlier was the capital city of absinthe, and French distillation and consumption of absinthe in the 19th and early 20th century far outpaced that of Switzerland. In addition, the “Swiss style” of absinthe is that of the clear (blanche), and production of green (verte) absinthe was very low, so to lay claim to the colloquial term of Fée verte is reprehensible. What’s more is that it’s shocking, considering how full of national pride both Switzerland and France are known for. There is a case to be made for the Val-de-Travers to establish a PDO for “la bleue,” but the fact that they would lay claim to a term which is historically proven to have made its name in France is astonishing.

Of course, absinthe, aka the Fée verte, isn’t the only thing which is green, and it would appear that the potential revenue to be gained from a resurgence of absinthe is a factor in this pursuit of a PDO. Granted, the need to establish a formal definition of absinthe in order to protect the category from the faux-absinthe products pouring out of the Czech Republic is there, but that’s where the focus should have started and stopped. Genuine absinthe is not exclusive to a region – it’s exclusive to a list of ingredients and method of manufacture. In addition to Switzerland and France, absinthe of the 19th century was also made in countries as far away as the United States and Argentina (yes, THAT Argentina). For that matter, absinthe was made in Spain and continued to be made in Spain for over FIFTY YEARS after Switzerland made it illegal, and even then Spain didn’t ban the liquor – it simply fell out of favor for a time. If one country has to be given a Protected Designation of Origin, then let it be Spain, who actually protected real absinthe long after it’s birth-nation kicked it to the curb.

Real absinthe has since been made in the afore-mentioned countries here in modern times, and has branched out to others like Germany and Austria, the Netherlands and South Africa. It will still be real absinthe regardless of what this PDO says, but it would be much more responsible and honest for the Val-de-Travers folk to acknowledge it. Establishing and protecting the definition of absinthe here in modern times while encouraging and applauding its continued manufacture around the world would be something that the Val-de-Travers and all of Switzerland could take some real national pride in.

The only bottle of Butterfly Absinthe (distilled in Boston, MA, USA) known to survive. Circa 1907. Found on Oxygenee.com

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

Absinthe from the “Gateway to the Mediteranean”

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!

1950s Pernod Fils S.A. Tarragona with Navy sticker (inset)

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.]

Digging into absinthe

Of all the various accessories associated with liquor and cocktails, arguably none of them are as unique and specific in use as the absinthe spoon. These little trowels of tastiness are essentially spoons with holes poked in them, and the apparent perversion of  such an austerely utilitarian tool as the common spoon was undoubtedly pointed out by more than one of absinthe’s detractors before the Great War as the sign of a damnable and devilish product. ‘Babylon has fallen!’ proclaims the sweaty revivalist/prohibitionist, dramatically attempting to quench his thirst with water from a nearby well, yet painfully unable to do so because the water falls through the holes before he’s even able to bring the spoon to his lips. One can almost hear the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.

Or perhaps it never came to that. Based on noted historian Benoît Noël’s research of hundreds of documents of the period (which hey, I would have been happy to do myself, except that I don’t speak French), it seems that the iconic absinthe spoon did not make it’s debut until approximately 1889, nearly 100 years after distilled absinthe as a beverage made it’s debut (and at least 20 years after the anti-absinthe contingent mobilized). Prior to that, absinthe seems to have been served most often without sugar, a concept which makes sense given that almost no other liquor has sugar added to it. Presumably, the idea of adding sugar came into play as a method of minimizing the bitter wormwood taste and making the drink more palatable to those used to Swiss blanches (which are naturally sweeter), as well as to women, who were increasingly becoming more independent and empowered during the latter half of the 19th century.

The Swiss seem themselves to have introduced the absinthe grille a few years before the absinthe spoon, and an absinthe grille functions in much the same way: it is placed over a glass containing a dose of absinthe, and sugar cubes are rested on its perforated surface, ultimately to be dissolved into the drink by dripping water onto them from a carafe or fountain. However, grilles do not have a handle, and they are also too wide to fit inside of most glasses, so a standard spoon had to be used to mix the sugar granules into the finished drink. At some point, it would seem that some anonymous soul had the brilliant idea of combining the two implements into one magnificently elegant tool; and yet, as loathe as I am to admit it, it may be that we owe the invention (or at least the popularization) of the absinthe spoon to marketing.

The year 1889 isn’t an arbitrary one to use as the date of the earliest known absinthe spoon (as well as the earliest-known illustration featuring an absinthe spoon – see below for that). As much of an icon as the absinthe spoon became, the most iconic piece of metal associated with France is unquestionably the Eiffel Tower. This architectural masterpiece was completed in 1889 as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, and as impressive as it is today, it must have been a jaw-droppingly marvel to the average fair-goer in the late 19th century. A plethora of memorabilia associated with the Eiffel Tower was soon to follow, and one of the first was a commemorative absinthe spoon. This detailed and somewhat baroque spoon has since become one of the most highly sought-after collectibles in the absinthe world.

Eiffel Tower absinthe spoon - 1889

After the idea of sugaring absinthe via a perforated spoon came into fashion, a wide variety of spoons entered the marketplace, although most of the types typically used in cafes and bistros throughout France tended to be fairly simple. That being said, in the satirical illustration of General Boulanger done by Sem (Georges Goursat) below, you can just barely make out a long, curved tip on the spoon, a feature found on a type of absinthe spoon called “Losange étirée,” or “elongated Diamonds”). This elongated type of spoon is quite a bit rarer than those without the curved tip, and appears to have been intended as a way to rest the tip of the spoon on the edge of a bistro saucer so that the spoon did not come into contact with the table and remained sanitary (or at least, that’s the conclusion S—- and I came to after examining one — I haven’t yet been able to confirm that through any historical reference).

I’ll go into much greater detail about absinthe spoons at a later time. In the meantime, enjoy the comical art and feel free to come up with your own slant on what it means. To date, there hasn’t been any definitive interpretation of the humor here. General Boulanger did have a large base of support around 1889 and had a window of opportunity to gain great power in France, then inexplicably fled to England, after which his backers turned away in disappointment, he was pronounced a traitor by the French Senate, and a couple of years later he came back across the English channel to Belgium, where he killed himself at the graveside of his mistress who had died the year before. Ironically, while he seems to have been a user of opiates, General Boulanger does not seem to have been much of an absinthe drinker at all, and so the absinthe glass and spoon are likely symbolic of French decadence, excess, or something else entirely. If you think you might know, by all means, please comment!

Satirical illustration of General Boulanger, by Georges Goursat (aka, "Sem"), 1889.

Variations in verte

If it’s true that God dwells among the minutiae (or that the devil is in the details, depending on your perspective of whatever it is you may be macroing in your lens), then there are definitely enough esoteric particulars in the world of absinthe to keep you busy searching for the divine. One set of details of interest to contemporary drinkers in the golden age of absinthe, but which has since fallen into relative obscurity, is with regard to the style of absinthe which they prefer. These various styles denote which botanicals are used during production, both for the distillation itself and afterward for the coloring step. While not necessarily hard-and-fast rules for which herbs a recipe absolutely had to use, they are useful a loose guidelines for absinthe style which were largely defined (and perhaps championed) by the region in which they originated, and have been passed down to us via the Duplais distillation manual (first published in 1855, and known as the 19th century bible of distillation). They include:

Suisse – This term may denote a grade of absinthe (the absolute highest) and/or a style of absinthe, produced by the “suisse” method and usually uncolored (i.e., a blanche). In modern times, it is mostly used synonomously with “blanche,” and there is not specific recipe aside from the “holy trinity” herbs used in absinthe distillation prior to the coloration step: grand wormwood, anise, and fennel.

Pontarlier – Considered to be the definitive style of absinthe, the Pontarlier-style is also the most streamlined recipe, consisting only of six botanicals: grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa (lemon balm). A rural town in the farthest reaches of eastern France near the Swiss border. This small community became the nexus of absinthe production beginning with the 1805 opening of Pernod’s distillery, and lasting through the French ban on absinthe effective in 1915. Pernod Fils absinthe is the quintessential example of the Pontarlier style. Modern examples include Jade PF 1901 (which was reverse-engineered to be a clone of preban Pernod Fils circa 1901), and Walton Waters.

Besançon –  This style of absinthe contains the same six herbs of Pontarlier-style (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa), but with the addition of coriander and veronica. The city of its origin and after which it is name is also in the eastern-most part of France, just northwest of Pontarlier. I am not aware of any modern absinthes which have attempted to replicate this style.

Fougerolles – While containing the same six herbs of Pontarlier-style (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa), with veronica being the only additional herb in the recipe, this style is best-known for having used the least amount of wormwood. The city in which this style originated and is named after is in the northeast of France, located north of Pontarlier and relatively close to Besançon. I am not aware of a modern absinthe made in this style; ironically, Verte de Fougerolles (now known as Enigma Verte) is reported to be noticeably wormwood-forward, which I suppose may have been what prompted the name change.

Lyon – A style of absinthe containing the same six herbs of Pontarlier-style (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa), with the addition of angelica and veronica. Lyon is located in the mid-east area of France, southwest of Pontarlier. One historical brand made in this style was Absinthe Suisse Grande Distillerie Lyonnaise. To my knowledge, there are no modern absinthes which have attempted to duplicate this style.

Nimes –  In addition to the six herbs of Pontarlier-style (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa), the Nimes-style adds elecampane, veronica and mint. A city of southern France, located far south of Pontarlier and just northeast of Montpellier. Modern examples include: Belle Amie and “Tex Wreck” (a homemade or HG absinthe which is not commercially available). It is possible that the forthcoming Blues Cat absinthe from Delaware Phoenix will be a take on this style.

Montpellier – A style of absinthe, containing the same six herbs of Pontarlier-style (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa), with the addition of coriander and angelica. This style’s name is taken from the city of the same name, located in the south of France near the Mediterranean coast. The only modern example distilled in this particular style is Pacifique.

Absenta (or Spanish) – This style of absinthe is a relatively latecomer, with absinthe production in Spain having first become established in the early 20th century. Spanish absinthe is known for having hints of citrus and for being slightly sweeter than typical French absinthes; the sweetness is due in large part to the anise which is sourced from the Alicante region in the southernmost part of Spain, although the typically lower ABV of absentas also contributes to it’s light airiness. While there is no truly definitive list of ingredients common to all absentas, the six ingredients of the Pontarlier-style (grand wormwood, anise, fennel, petite wormwood, hyssop and melissa) are commonly used with the addition of some star anise, angelica, and a little bit of coriander. Historical brands made in this style include Absenta Argenti, as well as the Pernod Fils Tarragona from the 1940s through 1960s. A modern example of a good absenta is Obsello.

But wherein lies the devil in these details, you may wonder. The marketing of absinthe in the 19th and early 20th century depended partly on quality grades, the lowest of which no longer exist (fortunately). In short, while “absinthe suisse” was the nomenclature for a liquor of the highest quality, it was almost always used exclusively for blanches, while absinthe supérieure usually denoted the highest-quality vertes. After this came less expensive absinthes, starting with ‘absinthe fine’ as a sort of mid-shelf selection, before dropping downward to absinthe demi-fine (“half-fine”) which had a wide-ranging ABV of anywhere between about 40% to 53%, and finally ‘absinthe ordinaire,’ which generally had a higher ABV of around 46%, but was colored artificially with “indigo blue”. It was within these lower-shelf categories that the requisite cutting of corners would sometimes take a toxic turn. The coloration step of absinthe production is one of the most expensive because of the cost of high-quality herbs and other botanicals. To some folks’ minds (both then and even now), it also seems like one of the most superfluous steps, even though it isn’t just the color which is added during this stage, but also a final tweaking of the flavor.

Regardless, those distillers who were looking to save money knew that they had to replicate a proper, peridot-green color in order to sell their product. As such, they decided to take short-cuts during this final step of production by using additives which ranged from the harmless (if not exactly flavor-enhancing) inclusion of  herbs such as spinach or parsley (largely to help produce a cloudy louche effect), to the Oh-My-God-That-Is-Poisonous! addition of copper sulfate or antimony trichloride. While medical science had not yet advanced far enough for them to know it at the time, chemicals such as these can cause cardiac dysrhythmia (a.k.a., arrhythmia). I suspect that if there is any truth to preban absinthe having produced hallucinations during the Belle Epoque, it is very likely due to some poor soul having ingested one of these low-grade, poisonous absinthes.

So remember this little mantra, my friends: If it’s absinthe ordinaire, you don’t want to be there!

Digital copy cover of Duplais’s manual on distillation

In the gutter, looking at the stars

Absinthe mythology is as dark, alluring, and angsty as a heroin chic lead singer of any ’90s band. Admittedly, I’m looking hard at you, Hope Sandoval (of Mazzy Star, lately of the Warm Inventions), but from the 1990s, I could also look farther back and into the 1890s. Oscar Wilde sang lead for a band of one as it were, and is a wonderfully iconic and ironic figure when it comes to “absinthe fiction,” considering that at least three well-known quotes regarding absinthe are attributed to him, despite the fact that some assert he barely ever indulged in the drink.

One particularly famous quote of Wilde’s with regard to absinthe (and unarguably the lengthiest) is as follows: “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world. I mean disassociated. Take a top hat. You think you see it as it really is. But you don’t because you associate it with other things and ideas.If you had never heard of one before, and suddenly saw it alone, you’d be frightened, or you’d laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad. Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe, and thinking that I was singularly clear-headed and sane. The waiter came in and began watering the sawdust.The most wonderful flowers, tulips, lilies and roses, sprang up, and made a garden in the cafe. “Don’t you see them?” I said to him. “Mais non, monsieur, il n’y a rien. [“No sir, there is nothing.]”

This type of fanciful exaggeration of the power of absinthe undoubtedly served as a two-edged sword in terms of the future of the drink, as it both inspired some souls to sample it for the first time with the hopes of gaining some sort of artistic enlightenment, while it simultaneously fueled the fires of the abstinence contingent who zeroed in on absinthe as the primary cause for the decline of Western (European) civilization, even as other alcohols were ignored. In truth, the concept of alcoholism as an disease which could accurately be diagnosed had not yet gained a foothold, and the “drys” actually gave the thumbs up to anyone and everyone drinking as much wine as they wanted, so long as they gave up hard liquor and spirits made from “industrial” alcohol. Ah, those heady days of yesteryear.

Within this rather topsy-turvy environment, Oscar Wilde posited a famously rhetorical question about absinthe: “What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” A legion of conservative zealots with a complex agenda responded with force.

And yet, as easy as it is to castigate these folks as being single and/or simple-minded for vilifying one alcohol over another, there’s no doubt that absinthe has a certain allure to it which other drinks do not. Perhaps it’s the almost hypnotic ritual of its preparation with the sugar and the spoon; or maybe it’s in how there is a mild but noticeable “awakening” effect after enjoying a glass, an effect which does not instill artistic talent in those who may lack it, but can provide a warm, healthy atmosphere in which creativity may bloom.

Regardless of the reasons, there was and will always be a certain romanticism associated with a dose of absinthe, and while the melodrama surrounding it ultimately may have caused more harm than good in terms of the future of the drink, a dramatist as fine, witty, and pointed as Oscar Wilde could hardly disagree that it was worth it. In point of fact, he reserved what may have been his plainest, most earnest words for the drink, which is as beautifully simple and complex a pronouncement as any I could ever dream up:

“A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world.”

Today isn’t the anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s birth, or death, or any other date of note during the course of his lifetime. As such, it’s the perfect day to raise a toast to the chap, and so I do. This one’s for you, Oscar.

Oscar Wilde, 1882.

The absinthe dodge

In the mind of most Americans with a passing familiarity with absinthe, it is almost exclusively identified with the 19th century France. Some folks who have done a little research would spread the map out a little further and be able to link it with Switzerland (absinthe’s birthplace), as well as the surrounding countries in western Europe where it was also consumed, but they are often genuinely surprised to find out that absinthe was actually consumed here in the good ole’ U.S. of A (even if it wasn’t exactly flying off the saloon shelves).

While you’d think that absinthe might have been popular in the “little Paris” of New Orleans (and you’d be correct), one of my favorite tidbits of absinthe history comes from the Pacific Northwest. I know, right? It’s hard to imagine the land of towering evergreens and the rough and tumble loggers who cut them down for a living as being particularly partial to a fancy-pants French aperitif, what with its flowery scent and sugared serving method, and yet there were apparently at least a few open-minded fellows (or perhaps simply some carpetbagger dandies from the Northeast who got lost on their way back from the Deep South after Reconstruction). No doubt there’d be a few Europeans who would be equally surprised to discover that absinthe was sampled by residents of a little town called Yakima. Now, I don’t know what Yakama means, but the town was named after the Yakama Indians, from whom the land was taken by men who could not properly spell.

Suffice it to say that the battles came to an end soon enough, and an agriculturally-based township began to grow in the 1850s. It must have been a fairly successful one, because by 1890 they had some genuine, bona-fide absinthe stocked on the bar shelf (no mention is made of if it was American-made absinthe, which, believe it or not, did actually exist back in that proverbial day). As you can see by the text of the article, though, it seems that the residents didn’t have much more of an accurate idea of what to do with absinthe than they did of how to spell proper nouns. Imagine how scrambled their brains would have been if they’d actually drank some of the stuff!

inset from the Yakima Herald, July 24th, 1890

Yakima Herald, July 24th, 1890

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