Absinthe – Drink or Obsession?
By Franz Scheurer
Absinthe is nowhere near as old as many people believe: it began in the Valais region of Switzerland and Pernod was the first known brand. Pernod was concocted there in 1790. It took another generation before the Pernod family moved their production to Pontarlier in the French Jura, where the two main ingredients, wormwood bark (Artemisia absinthium, giving Pastis the name Absinthe, and the roots of the giant anis plant (Gentiana lutea), imparting the aniseed taste, grow in abundance. Absinthe, also knows as the ÔGreen FairyÕ, was produced in great numbers in the French and Swiss Jura and it quickly became the darling of Parisian poets, writers, actors and hangers-on. The Bad BoysÕ obsession with Absinthe and itÕs perceived hallucinogenic properties, supposedly due to its thujone content (a chemical present in minute quantities) eventually proofed too much for the establishment and in 1915 most European governments banned Absinthe and everyone struggled to find a suitable alternative for EuropeÕs favourite aperitif. Absinthe was not banned in Ireland, Austria, Sweden, Denmark and Spain and a healthy illicit production was kept alive with the farmers in the remote villages of the Swiss and French Jura. The European Union reauthorised the production of Absinthe in 1990 and there are well over 300 brands being manufactured in Europe alone. The regulations are interesting in as much that you can call the distillate Absinth or Absinthe (even if it does not match the traditional definitions). Most countries have limited the amount of thujone allowed to be imported and offered for sale. Australia limits the amount of thujone to 35mg/kg and the importation of Absinthe is governed by a licensing system.
IÕve decided to sample my personal favourite five Absinthes with a few friends, and here is the result:
Absinthe (Spezialbrennerei Zrcher) 50% a/v
This is a clear spirit, distilled in the Canton of Jura in Switzerland, in a very traditional way, using small batch copper stills. It is very dry with little aniseed flavour or aroma and an acquired taste.
Absinthe Mata Hari (Montmartre) 60% a/v
ItÕs so green it looks artificial. This is an Absinthe from Austria and itÕs also very dry. There is very little aniseed on the nose instead thereÕs aromas of lime, lemon and lanolin. On the palate it is dry, quite bitter and extremely challenging.
Absinthe Kbler 53% a/v
From the Val-de-Travers in the Canton of Neuchtel, this is another good Swiss Absinthe. One of the few available in a 1lt bottle its predominant aromas are of rosehip, liquorice and lambsÕ ear lettuce. Not quite as dry as the above two, it displays more of an aniseed character and has an oily texture.
Absente¨ 55% a/v
This French Absinthe stands out by its creamy texture. ItÕs wonderfully aromatic reminiscent of stepping into an old-fashioned European pharmacy and aromas of anise, liquorice and intermingle with the flavours of sweet Christmas pudding. This is the sweetest Absinthe of these five and itÕs absolutely superb!
Grande Absente¨ 69% a/v
This distillate has every right to be called ÔGrandeÕ. ItÕs high in alcohol, high in aroma and high in flavour. It smells of bitter almonds, Turkish delight and Crme Caramel and on the palate it is instantly mouth-filling and reminds me of chewing on a liquorice branch (or what we used to call sweet wood).
Served in the traditional way this one wins by a country mile!
Some will like Absinthe straight or just over ice. I donÕt recommend it as it is neither traditional nor does it do the distillate justice.
You will need to pour a decent measure into a highball glass, over a slotted spoon (traditional Absinthe spoons are best). The spoon is topped with a lump of white sugar. Once the sugar is soaked, light it and wait for the flame to die. Add the remaining sugar to the liquid and add water (and ice if desired). All Absinthe will go milky when water is added.