Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Notes on Absinthe

A few days ago, the Missus and I celebrated my birthday going out for dinner at local Italian restaurant Zambri's and then having drinks at one of my favourite watering-holes: Clive's Classic Lounge. It was a splendid evening with my new top hat and my best gal. This post doesn't particularly relate to gaming, but it does cover one of my interests, and hey it was my birthday and this is my blog. :{p

That interest in particular is Absinthe; that (in)famous distilled spirit. I got the idea of doing a blog post about the drink and my own personal experiences with it after replying to some comments and questions I had received on a few photos of the absinthes I had tried at Clive's.

The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva

First, a bit of my own history with Absinthe: Many years ago, when I first started getting into Steampunk and was thoroughly researching the Victorian Age/Belle Époque, I first became interested in the beverage and the controversy that surrounded it then and still does today. I soon after chanced across a supposed bottle of Absinthe that came with its own spoon and glass at a local liquor store, which I purchased and brought home to try.

It was bloody awful.

My hopes were dashed; how could've this been popular, even back in the day? I later discovered that my ignorance/lack of research had led me to what was actually was is known as Bohemian or Czech-style Absinth (Note the lack of 'e'). I'd been duped! I hadn't tasted real absinthe at all! I, along with many others I believe, had been suckered in and spent hard-earned dollars on a bottle of vile mouthwash! I wasn't able to track down the exact brand I had the misfortune of experiencing, because the bottle itself was poorly-labelled and simply branded Absinth (makes sense, I wouldn't want to put my own brand on that crap); nevertheless I think it was Strombu Absinth, or at least very similar. The linked review pretty much sums up my thoughts on it. The only way my gal and I finished the bottle over the course of a year was by mixing it with various things in an attempt to make it palatable, with little success; although it did kind of go well mixed with Mountain Dew..

A year or so after the ordeal that had left me wiser, I was gifted (possibly on a previous birthday) a bottle of Taboo, a genuine absinthe that is Canadian produced in the Okanagan. I still have that bottle right now, unopened. The reason why I haven't opened it yet is this: I wish to host my own absinthe tasting to introduce people to absinthe, and to do so I need to acquire the proper accoutrements, or Absinthiana, used in the preparation ritual to do it up right! Until then, my bottle of Taboo is to remain sealed.

But that preference doesn't prevent me from enjoying absinthe at other environs! Indeed, I've had the real stuff a number of times, although I can't recall where and when that first was unfortunately (possibly a side-effect of the drink?) I did however have the fortune to attend my first absinthe tasting hosted at Veneto Tapa Lounge for the second Victoia Steam Exposition several years ago.



It was there I got the chance to taste three different brands of absinthe, as well as learn a great deal more of the rich history behind the beverage from a master raconteur.

The three makes were Taboo (Canada), Lucid (France), and La Fée Parisienne (France).


[Please pardon the picture quality; these were taken with an obsolete phone-camera and poorly filtered through Intsagram. Also we were given brown sugar cubes for the tasting, which further altered the drink colour.]


The first was the Taboo. Personally, Taboo is probably my favourite absinthe from all that I've tasted. I feel it has the best flavour and highlights overall; not to sweet, not too bitter, not too strong, not to soft. It also happens to be the one I've had the most, so that may play a part in my favouritism, but may also only go to show how much I do enjoy it since it's what I usually order. It being produced in BC also makes it more ready available/stocked in local establishments.



Next we had the Lucid. I can't quite remember the details of that tasting, but I seem to recall enjoying it the least of the three. That's not to say it wasn't good, I just enjoyed the Taboo and La Fée more for their own reasons.


Finally, we had La Fée Parisienne. As suggested, I tried my sample sans sugar because La Fée is said to be quite sweet already on its own. It tasted quite good, and agreed it didn't need a cube to sweeten it.

Also worth noting is that La Fée Parisienne contains some additional colouring to create a more vivid green. Most absinthes I've seen have a slight green tinge that turns yellowish once water is added and the drink louches.

My first absinthe tasting was a splendid and informative night.

Numerous months later VSE hosted another absinthe tasting, this time at the gorgeous Union Club.

VSE III Absinthe Tasting

Again we sampled three brands: Taboo and La Fée Parisienne as before, and Hill's Absinth; a Bohemian-style absinth (Czech). Needless to say myself and my lady, who was able to attend for the first time, disliked the Hill's.

Bohemian-style absinths lack many of the herbs such as anise and fennel that give it a traditional flavour, making them less aromatic and more bitter tasting. Additionally the technique used to produce such absinth is a cold mix process where high-proof alcohol is combined with artificial colourants and herbal oils. (I've heard that one can make a very poor grade pseudo-absinth by infusing vodka with such herbs, which I highly advise against; stick with professionally produced absinth if you really want a Bohemian-style taste.)

This differs greatly from traditional-style absinthes that were/are made through a process where macerated botanicals are infused in a distilled base alcohol, which is then re-distilled to remove bitterness and reach desired flavour texture and complexity. The green colouration of many traditional absinthes (though some varieties are not coloured), get their natural pigment from the chlorophyll in the herbs.

These differences in process not only impact both the quality and flavour between the two styles, but can also help visually identify a Traditional-style from a Bohemian-style in most cases: because of its creation process, Bohemian-style absinths lack the herbal oil profile and density of Traditional-styles, thus do do turn cloudy or louche when water is added. (Although the opposite is not exactly true; I'll expound on this shortly.) Thus for the need for the popularly portrayed "fire ritual" to replace the traditional water one. I feel such a change in preparation and presentation is another reason why I consider traditional absinthe to be superior to Bohemian-style.


Which finally brings me back to the other night, where I had the esteemed pleasure of sampling another 2.5 absinthes: Devil's Club (Canada), Taboo Gold (Canada), and a bit of La Clandestine (Switzerland)


Pemberton's Devil's Club
Browsing Clive's libation & spirit guide, I was delighted to see another Canadian-produced absinthe was available to try and ordered it. I was also surprised to find that Devil's Club did not louche; though I later confirmed that it was a distilled absinthe and not cold-mixed. Thus perhaps not all traditionally distilled absinthes louche; it must still depend on density of the herbal oils.

Nevertheless quite I enjoyed it; it was very mellow compared to most other absinthes I've tried, and had a flavour similar to the scent of wet herbs or a very old wooden building. My lady said it reminded her nostalgically of a hay loft, and one bartender described it as the smell from cutting through a bramble-thicket. Very appropriate considering it contains devil's club root bark as an ingredient.

Its mellow profile makes me envision sipping it on the porch on a hot summers day. I'm definitely going to see if I can track down a bottle for my own.

Taboo Gold
Next the missus ordered the Taboo Gold, which is limitedly produced in small single batches per year. Compared to regular Taboo, we found the Gold much lighter on the anise and wormwood flavours, and heavier on the other herbs like angelica. It was somewhat fruitier, with a cinnamon spiciness. It was quite enjoyed, and made an excellent follow-up to the mellow Devil's Club.

La Clandestine
Our bartender was generous to offer me a sip of the Swiss-made La Clandestine, which he and the other bartender said was their favourite. I found it rather strong undiluted, and am unable to give a informed opinion of it given I judge my absinthes when mixed with water, but it did taste promising. Next time I'm at Clive's I'm going to order one with water.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are a few questions I've been asked: 

  • "Why drink Absinthe?"

I find this question akin to asking why someone drinks wine or single-malt scotch: because they enjoy it, or rather more so because they enjoy the flavour. For myself its very much the same, I enjoy the anise/wormwood/fennel flavour; but it goes beyond that for me (and likewise for most oenophiles/scotch enthusiasts). There are several anise-based spirits, but Absinthe is unique amongst them and indeed most liquors by it's preparation ritual. The ritual can be as important as one wants it to be, but it almost feels like taking one's time with it just the right way to do it. Kind of like uncorking a fine red wine, pouring it into a wine decanter, letting it breathe, and smelling it before you taste it. With absinthe, by smell and tasting it undiluted before you slowly add water to it and watching the spirit slowly turn cloudy allows one to enjoy it to its fullest. Absinthe is a drink where you take your time and enjoy your company.

  • "Isn't/wasn't Absinthe illegal?"

Absinthe was banned in several countries after the turn of the century for various social and political reasons, although some countries such as the UK, Canada, and Australia never banned it (although Australia did briefly ban/restrict products containing wormwood oil). Many countries which banned Absinthe have within the last 10 or 20 years repealed such bans and created a modern revival, although regulations do vary by region, particularly on thujone content.

  • "Doesn't it cause hallucinations?"

Absinthe has commonly been attributed to causing hallucinations. Unfortunately for those looking to see green fairies are going to be disappointed to hear these rumours have been confirmed false.

  • "What should a beginner try?" and "Among connoisseurs what is the best 'froggy' juice? I have tried it twice, once I liked it, the other, definitely not. I'd try it again though, with proper advice."
First of all, I think a beginner should ask themselves if they enjoy anise-flavoured drinks such as Ouzo or Sambuca; strong aperitifs that taste like liquorice. Because if they don't like that flavour, they probably aren't going to enjoy most absinthes.

Before hunting down a bottle or finding an establishment that carries it, a bit of research should be done before hand to know what is being purchased and/or if it is properly served. (A poor brand/serving can sully first time experience.) As far as the best, I believe its a matter of find one's own favourite. Personally I'd avoid ersatz Bohemian-style 'absinths' (the lack of an 'e' at the end is generally a dead give away) and you should do fine. My recommendation: try Taboo or La Fée Parisienne. Both are somewhat widely carried and are generally well received.



Cheers! ;{١