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

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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

Absinthe reviews: the numerology of la fée verte

Age may be just a number, but scoring absinthe goes far beyond the digits scrawled on a sheet of paper which is slightly wet at the corner because you’ve been sitting your glass down there instead of on the coaster you neglected to bring over to the table. An absinthe score can often reveal as much about the drinker as the drink itself, while simultaneously issuing a firm judgment from the bench without revealing any mitigating circumstances which may have applied. Actual written reviews allow for complete control over how to present impressions, thoughts, and feelings about the drink, as well as control over the tone of voice and inflections used to convey that information; reviewers can even include anecdotes and background information which has little or nothing to do with the absinthe itself, all to the point of establishing a certain mood or setting in which to present their more concrete determinations. In short, a review is a subjective take on what value that particular absinthe holds for the reviewer; in contrast, a score is an objective determination of what value that absinthe should hold for everyone else (insofar as any human individual can be objective).

I’m not an expert on the subject of absinthe, but I’ve had the good fortune of being able to drink quite a few different ones over the past three years, and I believe that knowledge base may be of some use to some people who are considering a purchase in the near future. While I’ve taken notes on almost everything I’ve ever sampled, and even published a number of reviews online, that would be a lot of unnecessarily detailed information to force someone to wade through before dropping a pair of Benjamins on a couple of bottles of good absinthe. Consider the numbers below to be the Cliff’s notes version, minus the notes.

I’ll continue to add new scores to this list as I sample more absinthes. Perhaps at some later date, I’ll also add in three or seven descriptors to provide a little extra insight and detail (and yes, it has to be three or seven; not only are they prime numbers, but they are magic ones as well, and I’ve got to justify that title up there somehow, gentle reader). For now, though, the numbers below represent the final score (which is given first), and then in parenthesis I have given the score for each of the two categories that I wrote about previously in this post – namely, Appearance and Aroma, as well as Flavor and Finish.

Stock market figures be damned, here are the numbers that matter:

Score

  • 10 (5/5) Edouard Pernod [pre-ban circa 1905]
  • 10 (5/5) Pernod Tarragona [non-ban circa 1956]
  • 10 (5/5) Brevans H.R. Giger
  • 10 (5/5) La Capricieuse
  • 10 (5/5) Walton Waters
  • 9 (4/5) Pernod Fils [preban circa 1910]
  • 9 (4/5) Doubs Mystique
  • 9 (5/4) Jade Edouard
  • 9 (4/5) La Clandestine
  • 9 (5/4) Meadow of Love
  • 9 (4/5) Pacifique
  • 9 (4/5) Ridge Blanche
  • 9 (4/5) Ridge Verte
  • 9 (4/5) Sapphire la bleue
  • 8 (4/4) Belle Amie
  • 8 (4/4) Berthe de Joux
  • 8 (3/5) Blues Cat
  • 8 (4/4) Duplais blanche
  • 8 (4/4) Essai 5 Blanche “Brut d’Alambic”
  • 8 (4/4) Leopold Bros.
  • 7 (4/3) Duplais verte
  • 7 (4/3) Vieux Pontarlier
  • 7 (3/4) Eichelberger 68 Limitee
  • 7 (4/3) Kübler [European version]
  • 7 (3/4) LDF Absinthe Suisse La Verte (PAS AUTHORISEE par le VdT)
  • 7 (3/4) Mansinthe
  • 6 (3/3) La Valote
  • 6 (3/3) Obsello
  • 6 (3/3) Père François
  • 6 (3/3) Vieux Carre
  • 5 (3/2) Lucid
  • 5 (3/2) Un Emile 45 [reformulated 2011 version]
  • 4(3/1) Trillium
  • 4 (3/1) Pernod aux extraits de plantes d’absinthe [modern Pernod]
  • 3 (2/1) St. George
  • 2 (2/0) La Charlotte

Absinthe Premier Fils promotional dice. Photo by Marc Thuillier.

Three killer “B”s (Or, Belle Amie, Blues Cat, and Absinthe Brevans H.R. Giger)

As mentioned in a previous post, the latest absinthe from Delaware Phoenix (which is reportedly a one-off batch, and won’t be replicated) is called Blues Cat, and it was made available in limited quantities last month. I was fortunate enough to snag a bottle from the kind folks at Catskill Cellars (whom I unabashedly endorse for their prompt shipping, excellent service, and tasteful selection of absinthe), and before too long a sloshed stork made its way here to reluctantly leave it on my doorstep.

Upon its arrival, I first noted the aesthetic similarities between this expression and the other two mainstays of the D.P. line, namely the Walton Waters and Meadow of love. The same bell-like bottle shape was used, along with its own color-coded wax cork (gold, in the case of the Blues Cat). Likewise, as is the case with the all of the D.P. absinthes, Cheryl Lins uses clear glass bottles instead of those of green, brown, or amber. Clear glass is an uncommon choice in the world of absinthe because the liquor is photosensitive, and the famous green-hued tones of a verte can quickly turn dull and brown after prolonged exposure to light. I’ve seen color change noticeably after only one day, and that doesn’t even take into account how it may have changed while shelved at the distillery or vendor’s warehouse. While the flavor is not impacted in any perceptible way, many absintheurs relish keeping their naturally-colored green fairy as green as it can be (artificial coloring is the sign of an inferior absinthe), so most of the folks I know who enjoy the D.P. absinthes will immediately store theirs in a cabinet (as do I) or place it in a UV-blocking bag or carrier of some sort. That is, unless they’re color-blind; in which case, to hell with the color altogether.

Soon after its debut, folks on various online sites became sampling and assessing the Blues Cat, and I noticed that a number of people were using  the word “peridot” in reference to the color. This surprised me because, although mine shipped the same week it was bottled and first made available, and I quickly noted the color before putting it in the closet, there wasn’t any hint of olive-green to be found. Instead, the liquid was dark yellow with a slight brown tinge, or perhaps “autumn gold” if you’re prone to flights of fancy superlatives. I’ll confess that taking such flights is one of my personal idiosyncrasies (and not a weakness, you damn philistines!)

Ahem. In any case, absintheurs who frequent online forums tend to get tetchy if you criticize something that they like, and even more so if you impugn their manner of assessing it. While I was doing neither when I wondered aloud how a fair number of reviewers were seeing peridot when I was seeing yellow with almost no green to speak of, their responses highlighted a couple of issues which contributed to the discrepancy. The most significant of these was in defining the word “peridot,” which is one of the most overused color adjectives in the absinthe world. (No one wants to say “it’s green” in every review, and since “tourmaline” sounds more like a rejected Chuck Berry song title than a color, “peridot” became the new black, so to speak.)

Wiki sums peridot up as follows: “Peridot is one of the few gemstones that occur in only one color, an olive green. The intensity and tint of the green, however, depends on how much iron is contained in the crystal structure, so the color of individual peridot gems can vary from yellow- to olive- to brownish-green.” It sounds simple enough, especially for we Americans who live in a culture of hyphenates; in this case, start with green, put a relevant hyphenated modifier in front of it, and you’re done. However, while more than one person linked to various photos of peridot gemstones online, and while I’m an internet junkie to roughly the same debilitating degree as the rest of our distracted modern first-world society, one of the areas in which computers do not excel is in the accurate display of color (even less so now that CRT monitors have been relegated to the scrap heap in favor of LCD screens, which are thinner and lighter but also generally suck in comparison). If you want to see the accurate representation of a color, particularly one which takes its name from a gemstone, then I recommend getting yourself to a jewelry store (“I’m just looking”), an artist’s color wheel, or better yet, a Pantone color book; with the Pantone book, you not only have an extremely comprehensive and accurate display of too many different shades of colors to count at your fingertips, but you have it bound in an extremely thick and heavy tool of bludgeoning to use as a weapon against anyone who disagrees with you about any damn thing.

Ultimately, I realized I was spending far too much time splitting hairs with fellow drinkers, so I decided to just have some absinthe. Please note that this line of thinking is almost always the wisest course to follow.

As a lark, and because I had too many bottles jammed into my absinthe cabinet to easily reach the ones in the back, I performed a little visual experiment to kill off a couple of nearly empty bottles. It just so happened that I had one dose (about 1.25 ounces, an approximation due to some variance between the hand-blown glasses) of both Belle Amie and Absinthe Brevans H.R. Giger left, and having a vague recollection of the extreme color differential between those two vertes, I decided to go for the hat trick and pour a dose of Blues Cat in between them. The results are below. Please note my caveat above and don’t think for a second that the colors you see on your screen are accurate in comparison to viewing them in real life with your own eyes; not only do you have the monitor display issue to think about, but you also have to contend with the fact that I’m a terrible photographer. Seriously, I used a brownish fake-formica background for this shot like I was taking a picture for the 1978 Sears catalog with my Kodak Brownie; it’s like I was trying too hard to not try at all, after my initial try at trying. In my defense, alcohol may have been a factor.

Anyway, I got some natural light angled in through the window, and what you’re seeing actually isn’t far off from the truth of things as I saw it. The Belle Amie on the far left is what I would consider to be a nearly textbook accurate representation of peridot; someone else described Blues Cat as being a “pale yellow peridot,” which I wouldn’t argue with now that the color changed a little bit since I first received the bottle; and lastly, there’s the Giger on the far right, which calls to mind its phonetic twin and the measuring of radioactivity – not in a negative “ohmygod, I’m gonna die!” sort of way, but more along the lines of, “this is the solution to the energy needs of a future utopian society.” Just be sure not to louche it with Ice-nine.

Speaking of louches, you can see those in the bottom photograph below. There’s even a video of this little experiment if you’re interested, complete with me mumbling to myself. All of these absinthes were louched at a water:absinthe ratio of 4:1 (without any sugar added), with the level of the Blues Cat being higher due to variations of the hand-blown glasses being used. Despite the fact that none of these three looked remotely similar, I’m happy to report that they all tasted very good, which ultimately leads to my most important observation of all for the evening: properly made absinthe is delicious, regardless of the color.

Belle Amie (left), Blues Cat (center), Absinthe Brevans H.R. Giger (right

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)

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

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

I’ll have another (Pernod Fils circa 1910)

I’m a relative newcomer to the world of absinthe compared to many enthusiasts, I’ve been fortunate to have been able to try one sample of preban absinthe in my three years of chasing the green fairy. That was a life-changing event bordering on religious experience, but don’t tell Bill Mahr I said that or he might throw some of his hilariously clever (yet disturbingly mean-spirited and sometimes misogynistic) snarkiness my way.

At some later date I’ll tell you the story about mine and S—–‘s dance with a 1905 (or thereabouts) glass of Edouard Pernod. In the meantime, I’m happy to report that, in celebration of S—-‘s completion of her Master’s thesis, an arduous project which my ladylove slaved away at for more than two years while working full-time, we indulged in a glass of 1910 (or thereabouts) Pernod Fils.

Bear in mind that Pernod Fils was essentially the flagship absinthe of the Belle Epoque, or the gold-standard marque of the Gilded Age, if I may be permitted to mix geographically-specific terms, if not metaphors. It was the best-selling brand of absinthe in France, and by all accounts it was a high-quality liquor universally recognized as representing the finest of the distiller’s art, and best of what absinthe could be. Of those few folks who love absinthe enough to invest in a vial of the ever-dwindling supply of preban absinthe (a venture which should not be undertaken lightly, mind, as there are some unscrupulous folk who try to pass off newer absinthe as vintage preban), Pernod Fils is not only one of the more desirable marques to sample, but is fortunately also the most commonly encountered, by sheer virtue of how much was made and bottled in the last 20 years or so of absinthe production in France before the ban.

We had been waiting for some time to try this particular sample, and this past weekend, after all the “t”s were crossed, the “i”s were dotted, and the stars finally aligned, we pushed the button on firing the final draft of S—-‘s thesis into the ether of the net on Friday, and set about celebrating on Saturday with this liquid time-machine. I’ll confess that my experience with the Edouard Pernod had set the bar almost impossibly high (is there a pun in there somewhere?), and not surprisingly, the Pernod Fils did not make it over.

What? You’re surprised? In fairness, I should point out now that despite all the overwhelming superlatives which rush out in almost every review of a preban absinthe (most of them justified, perhaps), it’s important to temper them with the knowledge that in most cases, we are not really drinking the same absinthe that our predecessors did 100 and more years ago. Even in those rare instances where the bottles have been well-kept in cool, dark environments for the past century, absinthe by its nature of being a botanically-based and infused liquor will age more noticeably, even in a sealed glass bottle, than will almost any other liquor or liqueur (with the exception of other botanically-based boozes, such as chartreuse). As such, the aged absinthe we are drinking might have gotten “better” over time in terms of taste (although this is still technically due to degradation); likewise, it may have gotten worse, or simply been altered in a way that is neither better nor worse.

The Pernod Fils sample we had, as it exists now in 2012, was an excellent absinthe. In fact, I’d say it ranked in the top 5 of absinthes I’ve tried in terms of quality, and I’ve tried more than 30 in my three years of exploration. It had a lovely floral aroma in which the exceptional Pontarlier wormwood was prominent (although not extremely powerful), followed by the noticeable softness and fragrance of hyssop. It may be an overused adjective in the absinthe world, but the word ‘alpine’ came to mind with a focused clarity. Still, this absinthe had an almost feminine quality in terms of how subtle is was in many respects. That isn’t a criticism at all, as exceptional subtlety is something to be celebrated by anyone who can appreciate it. Nevertheless, I’ll confess that I was a comparatively disappointed since I had been expecting this absinthe to boast a powerful presence akin to the preban Edouard Pernod absinthe I had tried.

That’s when I had to stop and consider how very well-preserved this sample of Pernod Fils was in comparison to the Edouard Pernod. The 30 milliliters of this very rare drink had a bit of a peachy-brown color to it (see a picture of the louched sample below in an antique “egg” glass), and while it may not have retained much of the peridot green color that it undoubtedly had at the time of its production in or around 1910, it was still fairly clear and bright with noticeable trails of essential oils, the scent of which wafted up from the glass. In contrast to this, the Edouard Pernod sample from two years ago was a dark brown, with a deep, smoky-sweet aroma. Of the two, it’s most likely that the Pernod Fils was the closer to its original state, based on contemporary descriptions of each absinthe from a century ago. Therefore, while I may have enjoyed the Edouard Pernod sample more, that was due in significant part to how 100 years of aging affected the original Edouard Pernod, so that it was questionable how representative my glass truly was.

After our celebratory sampling was over and I took a little more time to reflect on the experience, I realized that tasting the subdued yet sublime Pernod Fils made me appreciate how close many absinthes of today have come to capturing the essence of those fine old absinthes of yesteryear. After over 100 years of refining the art of distilling absinthe in the 18th and early 19th century, folks in the early 20th century had the luxury of taking for granted the number of high-quality absinthes available to them. While many of the details of that knowledge were lost after various prohibitions on alcohol in general (and bans on absinthe specifically), distillers are slowly rediscovering the best ingredients and recipes for making wonderful absinthe. I’ll happily toast to their continued progress with a glass of the finest of modern absinthe, but I wouldn’t refuse another dose of the rare old stuff if you’re offering.

Louched glass of circa 1910 Pernod Fils absinthe

Louched glass of circa 1910 Pernod Fils absinthe

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

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!