Absinthe!

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.
  • Drink!

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.

French absinthe Swiss absinthe

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.

Two absinthes

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.

5 Responses to Absinthe!

  1. I am glad you liked it!:) It is very cool to see even beer drinkers appreciating this great beverage these days.

    Though I should point out that absinthe SHOULD NOT be lit on fire, but that was of course the mistake of the establishment, not yours. Judging by the louche and your brief description, the brands were La Clandestine and Le Tourment Vert. La Clandestine is wonderful Swiss absinthe, but I should point out that Le Tourment is actually an IMITATION absinthe. It uses extracts in place of actual herbs, and skips the colouring step (a required procedure to be considered genuine absinthe) for artificial dye.

    Anyway, if you enjoyed the drink even with a botched preparation, you will LOVE it prepared correctly. Two sugars is typically considered excessive, especially with that small an amount of absinthe, and caramelizing makes matters worse. Check around your local liquor shop sometime and see if they have a quality brand like La Clandestine or Obsello and try it 3:1 without sugar and you will find it to be night and day.

    Cheers, and I hope you find more brands to enjoy, my friend.

  2. Interesting entry! I’m glad to see you enjoyed the absinthe. However, there are a few points that I’d like to make about preparation.

    More than likely, you didn’t get an accurate idea of what these absinthes tasted like. This has to do with the burning of the sugar. This has NEVER been a proper way to serve French or Swiss absinthe. Unfortunately, too many bartenders have watched movies like ‘From Hell’, which depicts this practice.

    The truth however, is that flaming absinthe was invented in the 1990s as a way to attract the clubbing crowd in Eastern Europe to a lower quality, imitation absinthe that tasted nothing like the historical brands of France or Switzerland.

    French and Swiss absinthe is not designed to be set on fire. Doing so adds an acrid flavor from the burnt sugar, and masks the delicate qualities of these styles of absinthe. Any producer of these styles would scoff at the notion of burning their brands. If burning is ever done, it should only be done with Bohemian style brands, which have a totally different flavor profile.

    I’d also like to point out that the French absinthe you tried isn’t a traditional French style. It’s obvious to me from the pics that it is Le Tourment Verte, which is an oil mix (as opposed to distilled) product flavored with lots of untraditional herb oils like eucalyptus.

    For more information about absinthe preparation, I’d recommend further reading on the Wiki absinthe article. I’d also recommend you check out the Wormwood Society, which is an absinthe education organization.

    I also highly recommend you return to the bar and try the absinthe flight without the burning sugar. See if they have another traditional French absinthe as well. I think you’ll find it to be a completely different tasting experience.

    I hope this has helped to clarify a few things!

    Kind Regards,

    Brian Robinson
    Review Editor
    The Wormwood Society
    http://www.wormwoodsociety.org

  3. stringth says:

    Hi and kudos for giving the big “A” a try.

    What brands did you have? There is a huge range of absinthe out there now . . . the not so good stuff benefits from the sugar but the fire? Shame on the Blacksmith for not doing it’s homework. The crap brands (mostly czech) INVENTED that “bohemian style” of preparation so that frat boys around the world would buy their totally un-authentic product and “trip ballz.”

    Hope you try it again, sans flame. Ideally you just drip ice water, 3-5 parts per 1 of absinthe.

    Cheers!

    Stringth

    PS: Tons of accurate info at wormwoodsociety.org

  4. Jon says:

    Lots of good info in the comments, thanks! The first two commenters are spot-on identifying Le Tourment Vert, that’s the brand listed on the Blacksmith’s cocktail page (http://www.bendblacksmith.com/drink/cocktails/) but it hasn’t been updated for the Swiss. But the first commenter guesses La Clandestine, that’s probably likely.

    The flaming sugar was definitely about theatrics and presentation and yes, it was cool to watch. Bars are definitely in the “presentation business”. :) Next time I’ll definitely try the drink with just the icewater.

  5. Jeff Alworth says:

    Nice post, Jon. I’ve been slowly sampling absinthes as they become available, and like craft beer, they’re wildly different. The character is in the infusion, which is the distiller’s home recipe. In ten years, we’ll be going to absinthe tastings like we do malts tastings now. There’s a real opportunity for a writer to become THE expert, too.