Yes, an absinthe review is quite unusual for what is nominally (and normally) a beer blog, but it’s somewhat tangential and I’m pretty sure readers would find it interesting. Besides, the pictures are pretty cool.
Last weekend my wife and I visited the Blacksmith Restaurant (here in Bend, natch) for their happy hour (they were serving free samples of Kobe beef), and I’ve highlighted the Blacksmith as a premier beer bar here in Central Oregon before (over on my other blog), so I knew I wouldn’t be lacking for good beer.
In fact, I had both Double Mountain Kolsch (new on tap) (yes, Jeff, I realized it was the same beer you recommended after I wrote this comment), and Deschutes Black Butte XXI. The Kolsch was very crisp and flavorful, and the XXI was still as good as advertised.
It was the absinthe that caught my eye though, and which I finally had to ask about. It has only been legal in the U.S. since 2007, and only just made it to Oregon about seven months ago. I don’t know exactly how long the Blacksmith has offered it, but I think it’s fairly recent. They offer two kinds: one from France, and one from Switzerland, and for $13 you can get both, similar to a beer sampling—and you get the theatrics involved with its preparation, as well.
Now, stop. Let’s dispel any absinthe-related myths right now. Wikipedia has a very good and fascinating article on it, which I encourage you to read in full. In the meantime, here’s the summary:
Absinthe is historically described as a distilled, highly alcoholic (45%–74% ABV) beverage. It is an anise-flavored spirit derived from herbs, including the flowers and leaves of the herb Artemisia absinthium, commonly referred to as “grande wormwood”. Absinthe traditionally has a natural green color but can also be colorless. It is commonly referred to in historical literature as “la fée verte” (the Green Fairy).
Although it is sometimes mistakenly called a liqueur, absinthe was not bottled with added sugar and is therefore classified as a spirit. Absinthe is unusual among spirits in that it is bottled at a very high proof but is normally diluted with water when drunk.
Absinthe was portrayed as a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug. The chemical thujone, present in small quantities, was singled out and blamed for its alleged harmful effects. By 1915, absinthe had been banned in the United States and in most European countries except the United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although absinthe was vilified, no evidence has shown it to be any more dangerous than ordinary spirits. Its psychoactive properties, apart from those of alcohol, have been much exaggerated.
There is nothing about absinthe that makes it worse than any other spirit like tequila, gin, or moonshine.
Okay, back to the review. Here’s how it was served:
- A snifter of each variety was poured. The French was a very light green (not lime green like the movies imply), the Swiss one was clear.
- Over each snifter an absinthe spoon was placed (a special spoon with holes cut in it). In each spoon were placed two sugar cubes that had soaked in absinthe.
- The sugar cubes in each spoon were ignited with a flame; as the alcohol burns out in a blue flame, the sugar caramelizes and melts, dripping into the absinthe.
- When the flames subsided, each snifter (spoons, sugar remains, and all) were placed under an icewater drip; the icewater dilutes the high strength of the absinthe.
The presentation was cooler than my drab description gives; the absinthes actually change color as the sugar burns and melts into them, and the icewater is added: the light green one turned blue and half cloudy, while the clear one turned a milky cloudy white.
The flavor of each was anise—similar to black licorice, but much more “herbal” and “green”—that is, not like eating a piece of black licorice candy, but more like a strong anise-flavored tea. The French (green/blue) absinthe was “rougher” than the Swiss one, more cloying and licorice-y, while the Swiss absinthe was more intensely anise-y with a smoother and more refined feel on the tongue.
Overall both were good, and I’d say any beer lover who likes the darker, complex beers would quite like absinthe.
Alright, time for the pictures. Like I said, they’re pretty cool, although they were taken with a camera phone in a dark bar—I’ve cleaned them up but you’ll have to forgive the quality.
Both in these two pictures are while the sugar is aflame; the French is on the left (light green, starting to turn blue I think), the Swiss is on the right.
The custom icewater decanter, dripping into each snifter of absinthe. You can see how the color of each has changed quite dramatically.
If you get the chance to sample absinthe, I highly recommend it.