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

Advertisements

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