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What To Look For In An Absinthe

Spirits
10.04.2010

Absinthe Tasting
As the absinthe market in the U.S. continues to expand, consumers are increasingly left with difficult decisions regarding which absinthe they should buy. Unfortunately, the lack of a formal spirit definition for absinthe in this country has left the door open for many lower quality and/or fake products to be placed right next to the best of the best, many times priced the same or even higher than their higher quality counterparts. So, with that in mind, here are a few pointers that can help you avoid buying a $70 bottle of drain cleaner:

Color:
If it’s artificially colored, don’t buy it. You wouldn’t buy wine that said ‘colored with FD&C so-and-so’, would you? Same goes with absinthe. If it’s artificially colored, it stands to reason that it will be of lower quality. Any brand labeled for U.S. sales must state on the label whether it has artificial coloring in it. A distilled, naturally colored absinthe will say something like: “Grain Neutral Spirits (or grape or beet, etc etc) distilled with herbs and colored with herbs”. An artificially colored absinthe will say somewhere on the label “Contains FD&C so-and-so”. Keep in mind there are also clear absinthes, which do not go through the additional coloration step. These are known as La Bleue or Blanche style absinthes.

Type:
Most absinthes sold in the U.S. will have some telltale signals as to which production method was used to create it. Distilled absinthes tend to be of higher quality, whose labeling is mentioned above. A label example of compounded absinthe (made by adding essential oils to the base alcohol instead of distilling the herbs) might say “Grain Neutral Spirits with Natural Flavors Added”. CAVEAT: Some traditionally colored and distilled absinthes may have ‘natural flavors added’ on the label as well, so this shouldn’t be the be-all-and-end-all point to consider. Macerated absinthes (those that have herbs soaked in alcohol and not redistilled) label might say something like “Spirits with Herbs added”. Macerates have very little in common with authentic absinthe.

Thujone levels:
Products that tout thujone content are looking to make a buck off of the drug culture, trying to promote absinthe as something other than alcohol. Any references or comparisons to other drugs such as cannabis should also show you what the producers are focusing on. These products should be avoided if you’re looking to buy historically accurate absinthe.

Sugar:
Absinthe is a dry spirit, with sugar added at the discretion of the consumer. It should NEVER be bottled with sugar added. A telltale sign that it contains sugar will be the word ‘LIQUEUR’ on the label. In the US, this signifies added sugar.

An 1896 lithograph poster by T. Privat-Livemont, advertising absinthe.

An 1896 lithograph poster by T. Privat-Livemont, advertising absinthe.

So, in short, when you’re looking to buy authentic, historically accurate absinthe, examine the label. Buy distilled absinthe that is either clear or naturally colored with herbs with no sugar added, and which employs truthful advertising. If in doubt, or if you’re buying from overseas where the labels might not need to carry the same disclosures, ALWAYS try use the review section of the Wormwood Society, located on the main page of the website. If a product isn’t listed, ask about it or search for it in the forum section of the site. Just because it isn’t listed doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. We just might not have gotten around to adding it yet. Members are always happy to help.



Comments

  1. Tweets that mention What To Look For In An Absinthe | Mutineer Magazine -- Topsy.com | Monday, October 4, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by mutineermag, WineBlogFeed. WineBlogFeed said: What To Look For In An Absinthe http://bit.ly/af2qpj #Wine […]


  2. Frederic | Monday, October 4, 2010

    I was surprised when it was pointed out that Pernod Fils has artificial coloring (otherwise, it seems to be a decent product).


  3. Brian Robinson | Monday, October 4, 2010

    Hmmm. Well, I don’t know what Brian’s policy is on talking about specific brands, but I have major issues with Pernod.

    See my previous blog post about them here:
    http://rantingsdc.blogspot.com/2009/12/creator-of-absinthe-how-much-credit-can.html


  4. Kam | Monday, October 4, 2010

    I find it interesting that you make the comment about avoiding products whose advertising makes references or comparisons to other drugs and then you supply an 1896 absinthe advertisement which shows opium smoke in the background. I’d say an 1896 absinthe is historically accurate, wouldn’t you?

    I am not a fan of drug culture at all and it bears no relevance to my absinthe purchases, so I am not defending anything. I just had to make the observation that this particular point was quite a reach, if not completely false. Absinthe drinkers and drug culture have always been mixed together. It is only the modern absinthe revival which has falsely elevated its status to the level of the wine connoisseurs.
    That is simply not in touch with 99.5% of the world.

    .


  5. Brian Robinson | Monday, October 4, 2010

    Kam, thanks for the post. A couple of points:

    1) I didn’t pick the pictures. They were supplied from stock. However,
    2) Are you completely positive that this picture is showing opium smoke? Do you think it might instead be an artistic rendering of the trails left in absinthe during the louche?
    3) The point about drug culture is far from being ‘a reach’. Absinthe was not connected with drug use any moreso than any other alcohol during the Belle Epoque. In fact, literally tens of millions of people drank absinthe on a daily basis throughout France during that time. Absinthe was a drink of the people. ALL people. Not just the counter-culture or the druggies. That sentiment is pure rubbish.

    The connection of absinthe with the drug culture did not come into being until promoters of low quality and knock-off brands from eastern Europe needed to find a way to attract their major area of focus, which was the rave and club culture. It was their efforts that led to the misconception that absinthe is anything other than an herbal spirit.

    In fact, the Wormwood Society was created in part to help lead a direct response against those types of irresponsible and fallacious marketing schemes, some of which can still be seen today. I challenge you to find one high-quality absinthe brand that touts a druglike experience or its thujone content. I’m sure you won’t find one. In fact, many of the brands that do tout thujone, simply lie about the amounts they contain! Amazing, yet true.

    Cheers.


  6. Brian Robinson | Monday, October 4, 2010

    Oh, and for the record, I completely support the choice of pictures. Robette is a stunning example of absinthe art.


  7. Kam | Monday, October 4, 2010

    As I said, I don’t defend the point of view of the drug culture. I actually championed the position of it being a drink of all people as you mention. Thus, my comment about the modern revival attempting to make absinthe an elitist drink and something on the level of a wine connoisseur. That is something I disapprove of almost as much as the drug culture’s adoption of it.
    I merely point out the obvious that drug culture has existed in one form or another for the entire lifespan of absinthe culture. As unsavory as it might be, elements of both intersect at all points along the way and it isn’t a new phenomenon. Blacklight posters of cannabis leaves or ecstasy tablets and raves and that ilk may all be fairly new in drug culture but strictly speaking, an absinthe connection is not.
    The opium smoke in the ad is more my impression of the picture and it doesn’t look like any louche I’ve ever seen. But perhaps you are right. I certainly can’t give any expert opinion on the intention of the art. It was a poor tool to use for what I was trying to explain anyway.

    .


  8. Brian Robinson | Monday, October 4, 2010

    I don’t believe the modern revival is doing any such thing. You need to keep in mind that, during the Belle Epoque, distilleries had been producing absinthe for quite a long time, and had fields upon fields of absinthe herbs to buy from, which meant that cost of production was fairly low.

    Currently, there are very few resources from which to buy high quality herbs used to make absinthe. Cost of producing a high quality, distilled absinthe is significantly higher and has very little profit margin. So, consequently, prices are quite steep in relation to, say, a vodka or gin. But you also must keep in mind you’re paying less per drink with absinthe than you are with a gin or vodka of the same price. So, if the absinthe revival takes hold and becomes more popular, it will lead to more access and lower prices. Absinthe is still a novelty in many areas, so it’s considered chic, but that will pass. It’s a victim of being the ‘new big thing’.

    Regarding your point about drugs and absinthe being connected throughout it’s history, you act as though absinthe is alone in that spot, which it isn’t. Hard spirits of any kind have been linked with drugs throughout history, mainly by temperance promoters. You can’t single out absinthe in that field. Just like with the Lanfray killings. Never mind that he was known for drinking up to 5 liters of Piquette a day, and on the day of the murders, had also ingested several brandies, creme de menthes, etc. It was the two glases of absinthe that made him go off his rocker!


  9. Sam Dependahl | Tuesday, October 5, 2010

    Brian, I’m curious what the profit margin is for a bottle of Absinthe? I assumed producers target their product to a niche market (which I guess I would consider myself to be a part of) and the model has worked because the production for most of these brands is so small. To me, a $50 to $100 bottle of wine may be more justifiable because of the cost of land, consulting winemakers, a long growing season, the use of oak barrels…


  10. Brian Robinson | Wednesday, October 6, 2010

    Sam,
    That obviously differs for each brand made. But commonly, those brands that use artificial coloring and/or essential oils tend to have lower production costs. If they price their products at the same level as distilled, naturally colored absinthes, they will have a higher margin.

    Even for distilled and naturally colored brands, costs differ depending on their source of base alcohols and herbs. Some high quality herb sources are insanely expensive, yet can yield unbelievable flavors. Many of these producers have mentioned to me that they make absinthe because of their love of the drink, not for the potential profit, because there isn’t much. Many rely on production of other spirits like gin, whiskey, vodka, etc as their cash cow, with absinthe being their ‘passion’ product.

    Targeting a niche market is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing because, as long as you put out a good product, you’re likely to get a lot of repeat business. Curse because you’ve got a smaller consumer base to sell your product to, making it harder to expand enough to be able to spend the resources to lower your production costs.


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