Absinthe: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of the Green Fairy
As unfortunate as the events which led to the re-emergence of absinthe may be, it is fortunate that they occurred, because they created the market and the interest which inspired French and Swiss distillers, both legal and clandestine, to pressure their governments and the new European Union to re-examine the case against absinthe. As a result, many countries, especially France and Switzerland have reformed their absinthe laws and absinthe is again being legally produced there.
Several old absinthe distilleries, those of Pierre Guy, Paul Devoilles and Emile Pernot, are again producing quality, old-style absinthe by the same methods, recipes and ingredients as they formerly had done. Also, new distillers are joining the trade. Most notable among these is Jade Liqueurs.
What to look for in a good absinthe
Absinthe is judged by similar criteria as other spirits, essentially: color, aroma and taste. It should not be tasted or drunk neat. Both the alcohol and the anise oils are too strong and will immediately disable your palate.
First, note the color, if any. Does it appear to be artificial, or is it most likely natural? Is it clear and bright, or hazy and throwing sediment?
Next, the aroma before adding water. Does it merely smell strongly of alcohol, can you smell the herbs? Is it a rich, interesting, perfumed fragrance and do the herbs seem in balance; or does one overwhelm the others? Is it one-dimensional and unremarkable? When adding water the volatile oils come out of suspension and more of their fragrant properties are released. The aroma should “bloom” with more complexity.
Also as water is added, watch the absinthe louche. Does it develop gradually and gracefully or does it begin to louche almost instantly? Is it thin and watery or thick and milky? A good louche should come on slowly and develop a rich and creamy look, but still have a slight translucent, opalescent appearance when viewed in good light. Full sun is the best place to observe the louche. The color should be interesting and jewel-like, with amber highlights, not flat and dull.
How does it feel in your mouth? Mouth-feel is a good indicator of quality ingredients and good production technique. It should feel rich, creamy and smooth, not excessively astringent and dry.
How does it taste? Drinking absinthe should remind you of walking through an alpine meadow on a late spring day. It should be cool, crisp, clean and refreshing; not heavy, oily or overly bitter. It should taste neither medicinal nor mouthwash-like. It should taste well balanced and interesting, not one-dimensional. While absinthe is an anise drink, it should not taste like black licorice candy, but have more of the other herbs showing up as well.
Common flaws are:
Too bitter. Often from the mistake of using the wrong type of wormwood in the post-distillation coloration or intentionally from the common misconception that absinthe is supposed to be very bitter. Absinthe should be no more bitter than tea.
Too minty. A big problem with Czech and Eastern European products. While mint can be used to advantage, if you can easily detect the characteristic cool, mint taste, it’s probably too much.
Camphorous. Use of the wrong type of fennel. Florence fennel only should be used. Common fennel is not the same type.
Too much anise. Some of the lower quality French and Spanish absinthes rely on too much star anise to get a good louche, at the expense of producing an almost chemical candy-like character.
Too little anise. Mostly a problem with the Czech products, but also some of the French ones. Czechs prefer to avoid anise altogether, thus bypassing the classic flavor profile of proper absinthe. Some French brands simply use too little to get a good louche and full flavor.