The early story of absinthe, affectionately also known as la fée verte, or the green fairy, is as cloudy as the louche that is produced when water is slowly added to a glass of the potent elixir. Potions made from Artemisia absinthium, or grande wormwood, the herb that is responsible both for the drink’s peculiar, bitter charm and for its allegedly deleterious effects, were well-known as cure-all nostrums long before the supposed invention of the drink in Switzerland in 1792 by one Dr. Pierre Ordinaire. We can also throw in the enigmatic Henriod sisters, a Major Dubied and his son-in-law, Henry-Louis Pernod, and fast forward to a manufacturing plant first established in Couvet, Switzerland, in 1797.
In order to avoid the onerous import taxes between Switzerland and France, a larger distillery, Pernod Fils, was opened in Pontarlier, France, a mere eight years later, and the rest is history. Or was for about 110 years.
Absinthe gained favor across the social spectrum in France and was given a special boost by soldiers returning from the North African campaigns of the 1840s (where it was allegedly used as a water purifier) and later by the root-louse phylloxera that devastated vineyards in France and neighboring countries.
Most absinthes were (and some continue to be) made from distilled wines to which an entire botanica of ingredients was added — either directly or through maceration, or both. In addition to the essential grande wormwood, anise seed, hyssop, coriander, licorice root, lemon balm, green anise, and fennel are frequently included. Following the phylloxera plague, wine became expensive, relegating its consumption to the privileged classes, and absinthe distillers turned to cheaper sources, often employing sloppy, dare we say even poisonous, distillation practices.
Which may account for many of the stories of lurid crimes supposedly committed under the influence of thujone, the key chemical compound in wormwood. Despite, or perhaps because of, la fée verte’s success among the rising bohemian class in fin de siècle France (we all know about the famous van Gogh ear incident — though the volatile Vincent had problems other than excessive absinthe consumption), a temperance movement arose (sound familiar?). “Absinthism” became equated with alcoholism — not to mention arousal. (Sadly, someone beat me to the “Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder” line.) And, in 1915, it was banned in France. Meanwhile, absinthe had also become popular in the U.S., especially in cities such as New Orleans. We banned it in 1912.
That ban was lifted — or tweaked, or reinterpreted — in 2007, and distillers such as Absente (who had apparently been producing the product “absent” any of the offending wormwood) were able to trumpet “Absente is now made with a full measure of WORMWOOD!” (Caps and exclamation point theirs.) That “full measure,” in case you were wondering, is said to be 10 parts per million.
Rising to the challenge of being able to detect 10 ppm, Omniboire scrounged six bottles of the newly legal (and thus way less fun) stuff and assembled a crack tasting team of professionals. OUR EDITOR, Elaine Wolff (caps mine in this case), revealing a past life as a certified aromatherapist, quickly raised her hand. Steve Mahoney of the Green Lantern (the color seemed appropriate) agreed to participate. And through the good offices of Luciano Ciorciari at Brasserie Pavil, our host for the event, we acquired Sara Kowrach, Pavil’s bartender, and Chad Kosacz, bar guy at their newly opened Watermark Grill. Let l’heure verte, as (extended) cocktail hour was called more than a century ago, begin.
The criteria for evaluating absinthe are both very different and essentially the same as those for wine tasting: sight, smell, taste. But in the case of absinthe, we needed to evaluate the color both before and after the addition of water. Ditto the aromas. Though it’s traditional to perform the ritual of dripping water into the drink through a sugar cube perched on a special fork-like device (there’s a special “fountain”on the zinc bar at Pavil for just this purpose), we skipped the cube, electing instead to slowly add up to three ounces of chilled water into one-ounce, pre-poured shots. (As usual, we were tasting blind, hoping not to become so ourselves in the process.)
The colors ranged widely, from a near-fluorescent chartreuse to a Listerine-like blue green, and they were judged on their clarity and their naturalness. The louche, or cloudiness that forms with the addition of water, was also evaluated for its action and persistence. And the final color was graded on its opacity, complexity, and nuance. Initial aromas were expected to be sharp (though often less complex than post watering) in a product of more than 50-percent alcohol. Mouthfeel, taste — with points off for bitterness — and overall impression completed the 100-point score sheet. And the winner, by a single point, was…
Pernod aux Plantes d’Absinthe Superieure: the original. “It’s a classic artist’s-rendering color,” said Wolff, who found the anise component initially strong but ultimately balanced. “If you really wanted to start `with absinthe` this would be it; it’s ‘there’ in a very nice way — sort of like a Bordeaux versus a California cab,” offered Mahoney. Kowrach found the color “artificial” at first but pleasing after the louche, and called its mouthfeel “creamy.” The dissenting voice was Kosacz’s; he liked the artistic aspect of the color (Pernod admits to adding yellow #5) but was overwhelmed by the green anise and “didn’t find it had much complexity.” Final score: 77/100, 68-percent alcohol.
Absente Absinthe Refined was a nose behind. The producers admit, of course, to wormwood, plus anise, star anise, angelica, and peppermint among the herb and spice mix. Oddly, though the commentary was restrained, the drink scored well technically. “No ‘wow’ factor, good for beginners,” commented Kowrach. “Lost its louche,” complained Mahoney who, it should be noted, added the least amount of water to his samples in the first place. Omniboire liked the initial color for its naturalness, found the nose “hot” but minty, and detected some woody components. Final score: 76/100,
At this point, beyond beginner-friendly absinthes, opinions began to diverge wildly. The number-three contender, an Austrian product called Mata Hari Absinthe Bohemian, made from grain-neutral spirits, earned scores ranging from 55 to 93. “It was my favorite,” said Mahoney, who found peppermint on the nose and a gin-like feel. (His comments are borne out by the back label, which claims “perfect for cocktails due to its non-dominant anise taste” and suggests serving it over crushed ice.) “Herbal and woody, heading toward cedar, with a Christmassy feel,” said Wolff. But Kowrach and Kosacz were both disappointed, Kosacz because he didn’t see a “beautiful greasy film,” caused by the release of essential oils on the inside of the glass. Final score: 72/100, 60-percent
Even greater was the spread, from 50-95, for fairy number four, La Muse Verte Absinthe Traditionelle, made from a beet neutral-spirits base. “Spot on,” enthused Kosacz. “It looks like I stuck my fingers inside the glass,” referring to those essential oils again. Mahoney confessed that he was developing an appreciation for La Muse from listening to Kosacz, but others groused about bitterness — including Omniboire, who liked the initial aromas. “Floral notes I didn’t catch elsewhere” offered Wolff. Most agreed that this was one among the tasting that could actually use the sugar-cube treatment. Final score: 66/100,
Lucid Absinthe Superieure, formulated by “world-renowned absinthe expert T.J Breaux,” the man often credited with spearheading the drink’s revival, received Omniboire’s lowest score due to an extremely unpleasant odor that only got stinkier with addition of water. (Mahoney called it “foul,” Wolff “unappealing”). But Kosacz, moving beyond the aromas, found a “textbook flavor profile” along with “silky” mouthfeel. Think stinky cheese; that might help. Final score: 58/100, 62-percent alcohol.
Le Tourment Verte, being dutifully re-tasted as this is written, suffered greatly from its mouthwash color, and it must be admitted that there’s a medicinally minty aspect to the taste as well. All the while dissing the color, Mahoney was a partisan, praising the “piney” aroma and saying “it `otherwise` ran away with it; I could sit and drink this one.” It was also a favorite of Wolff, who appreciated its “strong but smooth wormwood flavor.” Kowrach found floral aspects, especially rose, proving that there’s a blend for every palate. Final score: 54/100, 50-percent alcohol.
All of our tasters did agree on one thing: the best place for most absinthes is in cocktails. Oscar Wilde would presumably disagree, at least if we are to take seriously his rhetorical question “What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” •
Note: prices vary as wildly as tasters’ scores, even on the internet, where the range was from $43-$75. Expect to pay north of $60 in San Antonio, and as that’s an investment, one approach might be to occupy a bar stool at Brasserie Pavil and taste through their growing list — not necessarily all at once, we feel obliged to point out.