It’s not cool enough to just drink absinthe anymore. Since absinthe has been around in the U.S. legally since 2007 (and since the Wormwood Society has been around since 2004), ignorance is no excuse as to why you aren’t yet an absinthe connoisseur, or absintheur. For those of you who are behind on the times, the next series of blog articles are going to help bring you up to speed. From types of absinthe based on production process, to the specific herbs used to make it, to how to evaluate an absinthe, and finally ending with how to throw your own tasting party. We’ll go through it all. And each week, we’ll also leave you with a popular absinthe cocktail that is simple to make, and will boost your cool points with your friends.
So, before we can get into tasting and evaluating absinthe, you need to know more about the different types. That’s what we’ll be discussing today. Of the products that call themselves absinthe (or absynt, absinth, abisinthe, etc), there are three major types, which differ based on production process. Here are some basics for each:
The botanicals are macerated (soaked) in high-proof alcohol for a brief time, usually around 24 to 36 hours. This macerate, still containing the herbs, is then distilled. The resulting distillate is clear, and further herbs are usually used in a second maceration (think of a huge teabag full of aromatic herbs), which will add flavor, aroma and color. This is a traditional finishing step, but not all absinthes receive this second maceration, and remain clear. These uncolored absinthes are typically referred to as “blanche”style, while the herb-infused green variety are referred to as “verte”. These terms are simply the French words for white and green, respectively. You might also run across the term “La Bleu”, which indicates a blanche style absinthe that was traditionally made in Switzerland.
Compounded, or “Oil Mix” absinthe.
Essential oils are usually extracted from plant matter by steam distillation. These are the same type of oils used in aromatherapy products, incense and fragrances. Other flavors are produced synthetically. These flavorings are then purchased by the producer in bulk and then simply blended with neutral spirits. This mixture isn’t distilled further, and the result will be clear. If the absinthe is to be green (or any other color), it will almost always be colored artificially.This is the common way to make absinthe cheaply—virtually all mass-market absinthes are produced this way—and they will normally be noted for tasting less complex and more like “black jelly beans” owing to the use of star anise oil, the flavoring used in much black licorice candy. They will also lack nuance and often contain acrid or harsh characteristics because the steam distillation process isolates different compounds than does the more traditional alcohol distillation method.
While the oil mix method was used in the pre-ban era, these were never considered to be quality products, merely “economy brands.” Only consumer ignorance permits these products to be sold at premium prices today. Take a look at the Absinthe Cost Comparison entry for more information.
Herbs are soaked in alcohol. That’s it. The resulting macerate is filtered and bottled. It’s an extremely cheap way to make “absinthe” and it shows. Technically, this isn’t an absinthe any more than beer is whisky: in other words, it’s the first step, but not the same thing at all. If using the proper herbs (many do not), the overwhelming flavor of wormwood will stand out dramatically, since it’s one of the most bitter herbs in the world.Even the smallest amount of raw wormwood can be easily picked out by an educated palate due to its high level of bitterness and lingering astringency in the back of the throat. It’s a very unpleasant flavor.
OK, so now that you know the types of absinthe (and by way of inference, which type you should probably be drinking), we’ll move on to some of the specific herbs and what they taste and smell like in our next column. Until then, I leave you with one of my favorite all-time cocktails, the Sazerac.
Fill and Old Fashioned glass with ice, then set aside to chill.
In a separate glass, add:
- 1/4 oz simple syrup
- 2 healthy dashes of Peychaud’s bitters (these must be used for a classic Sazerac)
- 2 oz. Sazerac Rye
Fill glass with ice and stir.
Discard ice from the original Old Fashioned Glass, and rinse that glass with absinthe. Strain other ingredients into the Old Fashioned Glass, then garnish with a lemon twist. Enjoy!