Absinthe – A Drink From the Ages
When it comes to the long line of distilled beverages most people will think of the traditional staples, the ones in nearly every home across the globe. It doesn’t matter if you are in a private home and tasting the delights of your friend’s wet bar or you’re in a public restaurant and imbibing some of its most popular wares, you will find the likes of Brandy, Gin, Rum, Whiskey, Tequila, and Vodka on every shelf.
But there are other liquors that may not be as well known but will likely delight your tongue just as much if not moreso. One of those is the French concoction of Absinthe. Like most other distilled alcohols on the market today, Absinthe got its start in the medicine cabinets of some apothecary shops or a doctor’s office.
Created in Switzerland by a French doctor from the extract of a wormwood plant in the late 1700s, Absinthe was thought to have powerful healing properties. Originally it was noted to help relieve the suffering a patient may experience from malarial parasites. While it didn’t cure the disease it did help to subdue it. Today it works well to relieve other mild physical problems like stomach pain, heartburn and indigestion among other ailments.
So, we have the chronic suffering of those in the late 18th century to thank for this potent potable today. It would not take long before the drink would begin to gain in popularity. By the 1870s the French had embraced this liquor and it had become the favored drink of the French Aristocracy. It became known across the nation, as “The Green Fairy” because many creative artists discovered that drinking it would bring on a series of hallucinations that would inspire them to newer heights in their creativity.
Unlike other distilled drinks, Absinthe is made from herbs. While drinks like whiskey, vodka, and gin are usually made from grain or vegetable mash, the foundation of Absinthe is usually a combination of green anise, fennel, wormwood, and hyssop. The distillers take great care in selecting the finest of these herbs from their natural habitat. This ensures that the end product will be the best it could be.
Once the cultivation and harvesting of the herbs is done they are measured, weighed and mixed. The recipe must be precise so that there is no variation in the quality of taste from one batch to the next. A process that includes stripping, grinding or crushing then prepares them for distilling.
Distillation includes steeping the herbs in a neutral spirit like wine or vodka long enough for the oils from the herbs to be infused into the spirit. Then it is allowed to rest for several days away from direct sunlight, occasionally shaking or stirring to keep the mixture even. The entire mash is then filtered and cut with water to get the required proof.
Since wormwood, which is the principal ingredient in Absinthe is quite bitter many people conclude that the drink itself would be equally as bitter. However, when it is properly distilled with the right combination of herbs you will find that it is has a rather strong herbal and floral flavor to overcomes most of the bitterness in the finished product. You should find the taste to be cool and refreshing when it is done the right way.
A practice of adding ice water (called louching) changes the emerald green color to a milky green and adds a little thickness to it. Louching is a way to test the quality of a good Absinthe.
7 Types of Absinthe
Today, there are literally hundreds of different Absinthes on the market and choosing a good one can be quite complicated. There are seven different types of Absinthes depending on your preferences in taste, aroma and effects.
The white Absinthe has a very mild taste with a little sweetness to it. The flavor of green aniseed or fennel take front stage on your palate with a little touch of bitterness to follow. A practice of adding ice water (called louching) changes the emerald green color to a milky green and adds a little thickness to it. Louching is a way to test the quality of a good Absinthe.
This Absinthe gets its amber coloring from the infusion of herbs. It’s made with the old traditional distillation methods so that it has a full flavor with the distinctly bitter taste of vermouth lingering on the tongue. The stronger flavor of green aniseed is clearly leading the flavors of the herb mixture. It louches up very nicely as is expected from a quality Absinthe.
Considered to be the highest quality of Absinthe on the market, it is the Absinthe Verte that was given the name “the Green Fairy” or “The Green Goddess.” After distillation, dye is added to get its emerald green coloring. The color changes to an opaque white when water is added. The flavor is strong with the bitterness of wormwood when it first hits your palate but soon the flavors of the other herbs emerge. This Absinthe is quite strong with a 70% alcohol content.
This one got its name from a doctor (Dr. Ordinaire) who sold it as a medical remedy for many ailments in the 18th century. Made mostly from the extracts and essences of plants and herbs.
Absinthe Reve Pastis
This is the result of an infusion of wormwood or vermouth with the principle herbs used to make the French Pastis, a licorice flavored liquor made from star anise, licorice, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, sage, and sugar. It is a pleasantly bitter taste with an alcohol content of about 45%.
This Absinthe is made without aniseed. It is more popular in some European countries where the flavor of aniseed is not very popular.
The aniseed that is usually a main ingredient in the Absinthe is replaced with a lemon or other fruit extract.
Of the top premium Absinthe’s you will find that almost all of them are the Absinthe Verte. This is the drink that has gotten then name it is most popular for.
Top 10 Best Absinthe Brands – 2023
1. Absinthe Escat
This Spanish Absinthe Verte has 68% alcohol content. It’s coloring resembles a tree leaf but a little lighter. It has a long lasting, fruity taste. The wormwood flavor leaves a pleasantly bitter taste in the back of the mouth but it’s sweet at the same time. It louches up beautifully making for a perfect Absinthe.
2. Absinthe Montana
The Green Montana also comes from Spain and has a very nice floral bouquet dominated by the anise but with hints of citrus wafting in the background. It is a full-bodied mixture of herbs with a little warmth from the 68% alcohol content. The louche thickens quite well as would be expected in a high-quality absinthe.
3. Absinthe Duplais Balance
This Swiss made Green Absinthe’s distinct aroma enhances after louching. The lower alcohol leel actually helps to keep the flavor balanced since its heat doesn’t overpower the natural herbal flavors. Its rather clean and crisp flavor can be rather complex.
4. Absinthe Duplais Verte
This Swiss made Absinthe really packs a punch with its 72% alcohol content. It was awarded the Silver Medal at the 2008 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It has a very strong nose with an intense herbal aroma. The strong taste of the wormwood bitter flavor mixes well with the other ingredients of fennel and anise. Both are enhanced when you louche it.
5. Absinthe Edouard
This French made Absinthe Verte has a very intense green coloring. Its dark emerald color is clear with an aroma that includes so many ingredients that it is hard to distinguish them. Fennel, hyssop, anis, and wormwood eventually distinguishes themselves. When you louche this one try slowly dripping the ice water and watch the thick, oily tendrils appear in the glass before it clouds up in that milky green color. The extremely smooth textures calls for sipping this drink very slowly.
6. Absinthe L’Italienne
This is the first authentic Absinthe to come out of Italy. It’s green coloring is not as rich as other Absinthes but all the other qualities make up for its lack of greenness. The complex aroma is a blend of spicey and flowery accents the herbal ingredients and when you louche it, the aroma really intensifies as the thickness slowly rises from the bottom of the glass to the top. This Absinthe is of the highest quality with well-balanced flavors complemented by the 65% alcohol content.
7. Absinthe Sauvage 1804
This French made Verte gets its name from the French word “sauvage” which means wild or savage in English, however the drink is the epitome of sophistication. The distillers create this drink in very small batches of 180-200 bottles to protect its quality. The coloring of this verte is not a true green. It has a yellowish tint to it. As soon as you pour it the aroma becomes apparent as it perfumes the room with its strongly herbal scents. Cold water and a slow drip will produce a perfectly good louche that instead of a milky green color turns to a light yellow color with touches of forest green in the glass. It’s has a slightly dry flavor enhanced by the taste of anise coming through. Top quality.
8. Blanche Traditionelle (Brul d’Alambic)
Unlike the others that made the premium list this is an Absinthe Blanc made in France. Bottled at still strength it has an extremely strong taste with an alcohol level 81%. This Absinthe is not for the faint of heart. The Blanche Traditionelle is well balanced with a beautifully rich aroma. Despite the strong alcohol content you will still be able to distinguish the fruity components and herbal composition that blends well with the wormwood. The louche builds up slowly because of the alcohol level but ends up a nice milky white while at the same time concentrating the mixture to produce a much more powerful aroma.
9. Blues Cat Absinthe
An American made Absinthe with a 68% alcohol content is the result of the collaboration between an Absinthe historian, an herb grower, an artist and a blues musician. The coloring is more a straw green with fennel being the prominent fragrance that greets you. Later the scents of wormwood, coriander and hyssop add to a very floral aroma. The louche is made by slowly dripping ice water in the glass creating oily trails throughout the drink. The flavor is rich and full with a creamy texture. A very smooth and delicate drink.
10. C.F. Berger (circa 1910)
This Swiss made drink has all the main attributes that mark a good Absinthe. The color is more brown than green or yellow from having been exposed to the sunlight but that is the only thing that has been affected. The aroma emerges as a wonderful bouquet. The taste is neat is the ultimate experience. It is so smooth, well balanced, and floral. When it is louched it changes into a light green opalescent color and makes for a perfect drink. This is a perfectly well balanced and complex drink that is a true gem.
Some of the most popular Absinthes usually come from countries like France and Switzerland.
Top French Absinthes – 2023
1. Absinthe Suisse Grande Distillerie Lyonnaise, Circa 1895 – 96
A specific recipe is developed for any absinthe produced in the Lyonnaise region of France. It uses a high percentage of angelica root and in the coloring phase veronica is added.
This one has a perfect louche and a floral bouquet that just bursts with a fresh and fruity aroma. The flavor changes from the usual Absinthe because of the addition of the angelica and veronica. Ranked highest among all the Absinthes from France.
2. Jules Pernod, Circa 1910 – 95
Jules Pernod was one of the true rivals of the Pontarlier-based Maison. Pernod was one of the top distillers of Absinthe in the early 1900s and still produces an excellent Absinthe. It starts out a perfectly clear amber color with flecks of green seen when exposed to light. When louched properly trails of oil flow through the glass and creates the clouding as it rises from the bottom of the glass. Beautiful to see.
The fragrance is very delicate, especially after louching. The floral bouquet was enticing with the floral and herb combination. This smooth drink sits well on the tongue with the complex mixture blended so well it is difficult to distinguish them from each other.
3. Dornier-Tuller Absinthe, Circa 1910 – 92
This is a rare treat for the regular Absinthe drinker. The louche sets up too quickly but once it is set up it comes up a perfect Hazelnut color with the ideal thickness. The aroma is very clean with a fruity essence.
It feels velvety smooth to the tongue but the taste is perfectly balanced with all the floral and citrusy aspects you would expect.
4. Absinthe Sauvage 1804 – 91
5. Fritz Duval, Extrait D’Absinthe 72, Circa 1895 – 90
This one comes from the oldest producers of Absinthe in France. It starts out as a light amber brown with hints of orange and peach before louching. When louched carefully you will notice the slow swirls begin to start. At the end you have a perfectly peachy color with just the right amount of thickness.
It gives off an aroma of anise and wormwood with a little floral character. This verte is not the typical verte but all the floral ingredients and spices blend together to create a clean and smooth taste.
The other country that has historically been a top producer of the best Absinthe is Switzerland, the home of its birth.
Top Swiss Absinthes – 2023
1. Dornier-Tuller Absinthe, Circa 1910 – 92
This Absinthe is infused with Hazelnut and the color is apparent with little traces of Hazelnut brown floating in the glass before louching. The louche sets up rather quickly but the end result is the perfect opaqueness. The Hazelnut coloring is highlighted with little flecs of amber peach.
It has a very clean and fruity aroma. Your nose can distinguish between the amber and wormwood.
Very smooth taste, perfectly in balance with the floral and citrusy aspects of top quality wormwood. Just a trace of the bitterness that is common to the wormwood.
2. Clandestine Recette Marianne (Franco Suisse) – 86
Marianne has a very sharp taste that is very smooth and spicy with a mild bitterness to it. In the beginning it is a perfectly clear white but once you begin to louche you will find white clouds rolling throughout as it begins to thicken up. Once the louche is completed the color is a pearly white with flecks of blue.
Marinanne has a beautiful floral fragrance with peppermint dominating the aroma and a touch of anise making its presence. After the louche the aroma of wormwood and hyssop are also apparent.
The taste of wormwood is apparent at first sip with the peppermint taking a back seat.
3. Blanche Traditionelle – Brut D’Alambic – 85
This bottle produces very strong aromas concentrated from all the plants used to create an amazing infusion of flavors. Wormwood, anise, coriander, hyssop, genepi, chamomile, fennel, veronica and angelica all come together to create a very intense aroma and taste.
Before the louche you will see a perfectly clear drink but after louching a nice layered effect will rise from the bottom of the glass. The louche sets up nicely but not enough to develop the pearly, opalescent coloring. This is a very thick drink that has an equally strong flavor to match.
4. Twin Tec Absinthe Biker Medicine – 84
This has a very fine quality that starts off with the perfect green color, clear and bright without anything artificial to boost it up. Clouds up nicely when louched and ends with a perfectly balanced color.
Before the louching you will notice the aroma of the complex combination of herbs and wormwood rising up to meet you but it becomes very apparent after loucing as the fragrance sharpens into a nice herbal garden. A well balanced taste where each herb gets a chance at center stage.
5. Duplais Blanche – 83
This comes from a 19th century French recipe. This Absinthe Blanc starts off a perfectly crystal clear liquid. After louche it is white with a bluish gray hue. The aroma is fruity and full of the fragrance of wormwood flowers.
It’s taste does have quite a bite to it just like a traditional Absinthe should be less the dominance of the fennel. The wormwood creates a slightly dry finish but a harmonious drink nevertheless.
Absinthe in the US
Many Americans may not have heard of this drink and with good reason. For years it was illegal to produce, sell or buy Absinthe in the US. The main reason for this is that Absinthe was banned in the US for nearly 100 years. Traditional Absinthe contains as a major part of its recipe the infusion of wormwood. Wormwood contains a natural chemical called Thujone, which is known to cause hallucinogenic effects on the person that consumes it. For this reason, the US Food and Drug Administration has placed a ban on the Traditional Absinthe.
This does not mean that a true Absinthe drinker can’t get it. Since the ban never really held any punishment many just ordered their Absinthe from overseas and had it delivered to their doorstep. The Absinthe that is found in many US liquor stores today is a watered down version of the real deal. It lacks the main ingredient wormwood and has a completely different flavor to it.
The proper way to drink Absinthe
Absinthe has been around for a long time but you don’t drink it like you would some of the more common alcoholic beverages. There are definite steps in preparing a true drink of Absinthe. Follow these steps and you will have a beautiful Absinthe experience.
- Pour about 1 to 1 ½ oz. of Absinthe into a glass.
- Place a special Absinthe spoon over the glass.
The Absinthe spoon is an essential for this process. It has slots or holes where the water can drip through when you are ready to louche.
- Place a sugar cube on the spoon.
- Slowly drip 4 to 6 oz. of ice water onto the sugar cube, The water will dissolve the sugar as it drips through the spoon into the glass.
- Watch the magic happen. Enjoy the change in aroma and watch the coloring slowly change before taking your first sip.
Another, less traditional way to drink Absinthe is to burn it. Simply dip the sugar cube in Absinthe and the light it on fire. Hold it over the glass and let the carmalized sugar drip into your glass. Delicious.