We hope you enjoyed our first entry in our Absinthe Connoisseur series of articles. Now that you know a bit more about the different types of absinthe available in the marketplace today, we wanted to explain a bit more about how to taste and/or review an absinthe.
When a person is drawn to absinthe, we believe they’re usually seeking the full and complete Belle Époque experience—the experience of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Toulouse-Lautrec: the full and true experience of the most mysterious and romantic drink in history. What did the patrons at the Moulin Rouge and the Cabaret du Chat Noir taste, smell, and feel when they drank absinthe? This is the standard against which we judge modern absinthes.
The Appearance is composed of the hue, depth of color and clarity.
The famous green hue of absinthe is actually an incidental effect of the secondary infusion of finishing herbs. The real intent of this infusion is not specifically to color the absinthe, but to provide additional flavors and aromas. The green color is an attractive bonus resulting from the chlorophyll extracted during the infusion. Absinthe containing artificial coloring of any kind is automatically suspect in quality and color evaluation is essentially pointless. Producers who have added artificial colors have missed the entire point of why absinthe is colored green in the first place.
HUE: The hue should be natural and organic-looking and should be pleasing and have nuance. Verte and blanche/la bleue (green and clear white) are the traditional colors. Deep yellow and golden-brown amber hues known as “feuille mort” (“dead leaf”) are acceptable in older absinthes. Rouges or reds, while very rare, were not unknown but there is no consensus on evaluation. The ideal hue of a verte absinthe has almost universally been described as “peridot,” after the stone of that name. Peridot is a lighter, slightly yellowish shade of green, and distinct from the more bluish emerald hue.
DEPTH: Ideally, an absinthe will have a rich, vibrant depth; not so light as to appear watery, and not at all dark. A deep, heavy green indicates over-finishing, whether from too much herbal matter in the finish, or spending too long in infusion. Overfinished absinthe will often have an unappealing, muddy, “pea soup” appearance after adding water. These absinthes will also quickly develop an abundance of chlorophyll degradation compounds, affecting their flavor and aroma.
CLARITY: Clarity or brilliance indicates that the absinthe is free of suspended herbal particulate left from finishing and from starches which can result from improper finishing. These can appear as haze, cloudiness or as small clumps of cloud-like flocculate floating suspended in clearer liquid. While a very light sediment is acceptable in a naturally finished absinthe, the absinthe itself should—when decanted into a glass—be perfectly clear and gemstone brilliant, with flashing reflections and no haze. In a blanche, or white absinthe, the appearance should be crystal clear, brilliant, and free of any tint or hue.
The Louche is the swirling, clouding effect that occurs when water is added to absinthe. Its characteristics are indicators of the amount and quality of botanical oils in the absinthe. The large majority of oil present will be anethole from the aniseed and fennel but other botanicals, particularly seeds, also contribute.
Some makers of faux absinthe aim to appeal to consumers who lack an appreciation for aniseed and fennel. Knowing that a good louche is an expected characteristic of absinthe, they have actually used other botanical matter, such as gums or resins, to achieve a louche effect in the absence of anethole. These often leave a sticky, non-water-soluble residue on the inside of the glass and on the drinker’s lips. Ironically this is a case of history repeating itself, as this is the identical tactic used by inferior and faux brands of a century ago.
The louche should be rich, but translucent, so that light and reflections pass though the bottom, more narrow part of the glass, giving warm amber highlights with shots of blue and green. This is the origin of the legendary “opalescence” of absinthe and indicates a healthy but restrained quantity of anise and other oil-rich botanicals in the recipe. It should not be chalky or flat, not too thick or milky, but contain interesting refractory effects. Nor should it be so thin as to be nearly transparent.
An overly thick louche portends a taste which is too heavy with anise—possibly from injudicious use of star anise—and will be overly tongue-numbing; while a too-thin louche will lack fullness and flavor.
Be sure not to over-water or under-water your drink. We recommend a ratio of four or five parts water to one part absinthe for tasting purposes. Indeed, this is the ratio at which absinthe was drunk in the pre-ban era and which most quality brands are formulated for. Many bartenders make the mistake of severely underwatering their absinthe. This can lead to reduced sales, as underwatered absinthe can be an unpleasant experience. Many newcomers might not understand that this preparation is incorrect and therefore won’t order it again. Experienced absintheurs might just give up ordering at that particular establishment, since they can properly prepare it themselves at home.
The principle botanicals in absinthe are anise and wormwood, but other botanicals should be evident besides these. The aroma of good absinthe has been compared with the fragrance of an alpine meadow on a mild spring day. The best absinthes have been described as a soft, spicy and complex floral perfume.
Wormwood is an unfamiliar fragrance, so it’s difficult to describe in print, but it has a clean, fresh, slightly minty, camphorous quality. It’s fairly unusual on its own and not particularly enticing, but blended with anise and fennel, it becomes immediately apparent why this drink was so popular. Ideally, the aroma dramatically increases and blooms while the water is added, as the plant oils come out of solution with the alcohol. A pleasant fragrance should fill the air in the surrounding area.
Absinthe shouldn’t smell grassy, vegetal, sea-weedy, vinegary or strongly of “black jelly beans.” The latter is almost always a sign of over-use of star anise. The smell of over-cooked artichokes or cabbage is indicative of poor distilling technique. This is the smell of the end fraction of a distilling run, the “tails,” which should be discarded. Since the tails can contain a fair amount of expensive alcohol, some distillers choose economy over quality.
As with the aroma, the best absinthes are complex and interesting, with hidden and mysterious flavors. Anise and fennel should definitely be in the forefront—absinthe is an anise drink—but they must be balanced with that of the wormwood and other herbs and not remind one of licorice candy. Star anise oil is the main culprit of this flaw.
Star anise is an inexpensive alternative to the better quality aniseed and fennel seed. Star anise oil is used as flavoring in licorice confections and liqueurs such as sambuca and economy brand ouzo and arak. Hence, it’s a very familiar—and strong—flavor. Nearly all economy or mass-produced absinthes use star anise oil as a flavoring additive rather than distill from actual aniseed and fennel seed. Too much star anise can also be responsible for an opaque, flat and chalky-looking louche.
Absinthe should taste mildly bitter and slightly dry and astringent, but not overpoweringly so; no more so than tea or coffee. It shouldn’t taste grassy or spinachy. While mint is among the traditional herbs used, it should be appear in balance and not overpower the more subtle herbs. Nothing is as disturbing as an absinthe that tastes more like mint schnapps.
Just as with coffee or tea, whether or not to sugar absinthe is entirely a personal preference and is genetically influenced based on sensory experience of sweet and bitter.
This refers to the mouth-feel and aftertaste. It should not be excessively tongue-numbing, although some numbing from the anethole is to be expected if several glasses are drunk. Absinthe should be smooth, dryish, slightly bitter, fresh and crisp. Unpleasant bitterness should be penalized heavily. A lingering mouth-coating, bitter, metallic yet buttery sensation, especially when accompanied by the above mentioned artichoke flavor/smell, is undoubtedly tails and is a mark of poor craftsmanship
For more information about evaluating absinthe to download an absinthe review scoresheet, and to participate in our online reviews, please visit our review site. Also, consider purchasing your own copy of our Absinthe Review Journal, which contains the above instructions as well as some advanced information and Key Quality points.
Next time, we’ll discuss how to design and hold your own absinthe tasting party. Happy drinking!