Those who’ve been in the restaurant in the past month perhaps will have noticed something peculiar at the end of the bar. It’s our new absinthe fountain, which I have affectionately named Black Betty. Absinthe has been all the rage since it’s quasi legalization last year. While I usually hesitate to jump on the band wagon with such things, Libby kept on me to order some absinthe as some people had been asking for it. She finally wore me down through attrition and since then, it’s become my new obsession. I’ve done some research (not just imbibing but actually READING about it), and would love to pass the little that I’ve gathered for all of you along with some tasting notes of two of my favorite absinthes thus far. If one was to want to look for more technical and in depth reading, I recommend the websites of Erowid and The Wormwood Society for insight.
A background and history lesson . . .
Absinthe is a distilled liquor in which there are three main ingredients (beyond the neutral spirit used as it’s base) : wormwood, fennel and aniseed. There are a number of other ingredients used in the maceration process such as angelica root, hyssop, iris, among others, but wormwood, fennel and aniseed are considered the backbone of the drink. It is the infamous wormwood, however, that was and still is, the most controversial ingredient in absinthe (not the unusually high proof of alcohol strangely enough). Wormwood contains a volatile oil called thujone, which was once believed to be a neurotoxin and even a hallucinogen similar to THC. While both of these claims have been proven false by modern science, thujone is neither a neurotoxin nor hallucinogen, and won’t make you ax your family (see below) or cut off your ear and mail it your girlfriend (see Van Gogh). Let’s face it: absinthe typically contains between 55% and 75% alcohol by volume. The stuff can quite simply get right on top of you.
While wormwood based elixirs have been around for thousands of years, absinthe wasn’t mass produced until post revolutionary France. It’s commercial origins were in Switzerland, where Pernod Fils was the first to mass produce the product ( even though Dr. Pierre Ordinaire is popularly referred to as the man who developed the general recipe for the drink we know today, which has also been a hot debate as well).
In the 1840′s absinthe was supplied to French Army in North Africa to ward off the throws of malaria, and it was at this time in which the drink became popular with the masses and not solely high society. Since most absinthe was cheaper than wine, it became the choice drink for not only artists such as Rimbaud, Beaudelaire and Van Gogh, but for the working class alike. This was absinthe’s brief heyday, the period between the end of the Franco Prussian War and the beginning of World War One, commonly referred to the Belle Epoque. During it’s surging popularity in the late nineteenth century, a growing number of people from the civic and health arenas began to shun absinthe and deemed it a public danger. It was believed at the time to cause tremors, hallucinations, and ultimately, madness. It was first banned in Belgium in 1905, followed by Switzerland in 1906, after an infamous trial surrounding a man named Jean Lanfray. Lanfray, murdered his pregnant wife and two children, supposedly in an absinthe rage. It wasn’t significant to the court that Lanfray had had slew of other alcoholic beverages though out the course of his day (including creme de menthe, brandy, and wine), but it was the two absinthes he consumed that turned him into a bleeding maniac. The United States followed the ban in 1912 and France in 1915.
In October of 2007, the federal government updated its absinthe policy and allowed companies to use the name “absinthe” on the labels as long as the product inside the bottle was thujone free. So basically, absinthe containing more than 10 ppm can’t be sold in the US. While it is believed that pre-ban absinthes contained much more thujone, modern evidence has supported the notion that may not be the case.
So . . . what’s with the fountain? And what is this louche I keep hearing about?
Black Betty, our absinthe fountain, is just as functional as she is fashionable. The procedure, though it looks a bit ceremonious, is truly is the best way to prepare the drink. Black Betty is filled with ice water and I use a standard measure of liquor (1.5 oz), and pour it into a wine glass. Then I place a trowel with a sugar cube (I prefer to use Coeur de Canne, a brown, unrefined sugar, but a standard sugar cube will do) over the glass and slowly drip the ice water over the cube and into the absinthe. We’re creating the louche right now. The absinthe turns opaque and cloudy, and you should be careful not to add too much water as you don’t want the final preparation to be translucent. I typically shoot for a three parts water to one part absinthe, but up to five to one is acceptable.
So now, I just wanted to share with you a few of my tasting notes on my two favorite absinthes thus far. While I’m trying to get a hold of new absinthes, it’s been somewhat difficult to get a wide variety in this market. The two absinthes I’ve chosen are two domestic, first, the Marteau, made locally by House Spirits, and secondly, the St. George, made in Alameda, CA. Both are quite costly, around eighty dollars each for a .750, but in my experience with all the other available absinthes on the market, it pays off to pay more.
Pre-Louche : Pale greenish yellow in color. Bright and clear. Herbal tea notes dominate the nose.
W/ Louche : Turns almost a greenish/honeyed color. High notes of fennel, herbs, camomille tea. Botanical. Flowers and grass. The palate is medium bodied, but not mouth numbing. Elegant and bright. Long finish. Fennel and tea notes reinforced.
St. George :
Pre-Louche : Dark, concentrated green color. Smells like a Momtazi vineyard tea preparation: stinging nettle. Lemon, star anise and basil leap out of the glass.
W/Louche : Clouds quickly to pale green. Nose is more medicinal than botanical. Lemon peel and anise reinforced on the palate. Body is unctous, full bodied. Anise! Anise! Anise! Long finish and a bit tongue numbing.