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

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