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

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

Delaware Phoenix update – the Blues Cat is out of the bag!

The third Delaware Phoenix absinthe which last month I hinted at being in development has just had its label approved this week by the TTB. Congratulations to Cheryl Lins (the Master Distiller) and to the other three folks involved with the project. I can hardly wait to buy a bottle of this one! DP’s Walton Waters absinthe is still my favorite absinthe, with Meadow of Love not far behind, so it will be interesting to see how the new Blues Cat will rank among them. There’s no word yet about which ingredients were used in this one, but hopefully fish bones on the front label aren’t any indication!

In all seriousness though, note how DP specifies that their absinthe is “distilled with herbs and colored with herbs,” and don’t settle for anything less with your own absinthe. Unless you’re on a budget and can happen to find a good oil-mix absinthe (in which case, please let me know what it is, because boy are those difficult to find).

For more information about my thoughts on Walton Waters and Meadow of Love, please visit last month’s post here:
Spring fever is near, and the Delaware Phoenix is here

Blues Cat - front label

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

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