What's Wrong With "Bohemian-Style" Absinth? - Reviewed by Experts and Consumers at The Wormwood Society

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What's Wrong With "Bohemian-Style" Absinth?

Bohemian style absinthe, also called "Czech style", gets a lot of bad press from absinthe enthusiasts; primarily because most of it doesn't really qualify as absinthe in the traditional sense, but can only be considered a very distant cousin. 

We sometimes say Czech style because this type of product was first widely marketed from the Czech Republic in the late 1990s, and the large majority of this style of brands are still produced there, although there are products from all over Europe that fit the genre.  This nomenclature has nothing to do with politics or nationalism, only the practical facts of origin.
With few exceptions, these are a mislabeled and misrepresented product.  Nearly all Bohemian style absinthes are compounded from neutral spirits and flavoring oils and while there are a number of medium-quality compounded absinthes on the market, the makers of these make an effort to reproduce the authentic, Belle Époque absinthe flavor profile; Bohemian-style absinthe makers do not.  
The Bohemian style tends to intentionally minimize the anise flavor, which is among the definitive characteristics of traditional absinthe. It's been suggested that this aversion stems from the use of anise to mask the unpleasant flavors of children's medicines.

Making a non-anise absinthe, however, is like making a non-anise ouzo or sambuca. It's just not ouzo anymore. Absinthe, like ouzo, is an anise spirit, flavored additionally with wormwood. It is inappropriate to label any highly-bitter, non-anise spirit "absinthe," regardless of its provenance.

Historic authenticity

The flavor profiles and manufacturing processes of most Bohemian style absinthes have nothing in common with those of traditional absinthe and are only nominally "absinthe" because of the incidental inclusion of wormwood which, for the uninformed, can be all that matters.  However, it takes more than simply the presence of wormwood for a spirit to qualify as absinthe.   

Early on, some marketers claimed this was a traditional 19th century style of absinthe.  However, since there is no historical evidence of a Czech/Bohemian absinthe tradition independent of the Franco-Swiss tradition, this is unlikely. 

In marketing materials, labels, websites, etc., of many Bohemian brands, connections are frequently made with 19th-century French absinthe traditions, events, and personalities.       

History is full of drinks and medicines which contain wormwood ... it is the specific drink of 19th century France and Switzerland that has captured the imagination, and that drink is historically universally attested to be an anise spirit flavored with wormwood.

If it's not absinthe, what is it?

The wormwood spirits made in the Czech Republic and elsewhere should probably be simply called wormwood vodka—like the cannabis vodka and mandrake vodkas produced by the same distilleries; or perhaps wormwood bitters or schnaps.

History is full of drinks and medicines which contain wormwood, and there are bitters such as pelinkovac, beska, piołunówka, malört, and so on that use Artemisia absinthium, but these are not absinthes.

It is the specific drink of 19th century France and Switzerland that has captured the imagination under the name of  "absinthe."  Wormwood may have taken the blame, but in virtually every contemporary account of the taste of absinthe, anise is affirmed as the principal flavor. 

Most Bohemian absinthes are lacking in every quality that an experienced absintheur looks for in a traditional absinthe: fresh, herbal flavor, traditional ingredients, good, natural color, a good louche, and proper manufacture - i.e. distillation of whole, natural botanicals. 

This isn't a matter of taste or opinion, it's a matter of historical, demonstrable, fact.  In spite of marketing claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that absinthe was made in any appreciable quantity in the Czech Republic prior to 1998, except possibly for part of 1947, but even for that, there is no evidence.  There is possibly evidence that a Franco-Swiss style absinthe was made in one distillery in the 1800s, but I'm unaware if the claim has been substantiated.

Although there exist absinthe-related art and antiques from all over France and Switzerland—paintings depicting absinthe drinkers and absinthe itself, glasses, spoons, advertising posters, menus, catalogs, price lists, books and distillation manuals, antique absinthe bottles (sometimes with the intact and drinkable product still inside)—there is nothing from the Czech Republic or former Czechoslovakia to suggest that there was any substantial local absinthe culture and no hint of the now-popular and equally spurious "Czech Fire Method" of preparing absinthe, prior to 1998.

Like fabled Atlantis, every piece of evidence of Bohemian absinthe from before 1998 seemingly sank into the sea.

Why are these absinthes considered by many to be inferior?  Partly because the earliest Bohemian products were developed at a time when very few people knew what real absinthe tasted like or how it was made—only a handful, in fact.

It's very possible that the originators of Bohemian-style absinthe, in all good faith, believed that wormwood was all it took to qualify a spirit as absinthe, and accordingly undertook to resurrect the Green Fairy—although she had always been alive and moderately well in Spain and the rural areas of Switzerland.

Most Bohemian-style absinthes are simply odd-tasting, often terribly bitter, spirits that have been artificially colored.  Since its flavor is mostly unidentifiable and entirely unlike any other liquor they've ever tasted—and green—those new to absinthe cannot know any better and assume that this must be what absinthe is like.  Because of this, many have sworn off of absinthe forever without having tasted the real thing.

Things have changed in the realm of traditional absinthe, however.  Hobbyists and collectors have uncovered 18th and 19th-century distillation manuals that include detailed absinthe recipes and distillation protocols. Several old French distilleries have begun making absinthe again by the old methods and formulas. Also, the products of clandestine distillers in Switzerland (who have been making traditional absinthe all along) have become more widely available with the lifting of the ban on absinthe there.  More people now have a basis for comparison with traditional style absinthe.  Czech absinthes don't compare favorably and are a completely different product.

Why are they still so popular?  Ignorance primarily, and clever marketing.  The marketing is so flashy and alluring, especially to curious, exploring young people, that it's common to find people who believe that absinthe originated in the Czech Republic and that all the best "real" old style absinthes are made there.  Others insist that Czech/Bohemian styles are the "strongest" absinthes - those that will allegedly make you hallucinate due to their allegedly high thujone concentration. This is of course completely false, as no absinthe has any hallucinogenic properties beyond those of prolonged, extreme alcoholic intoxication.  The thujone levels of these absinthes are often exaggerated in order to encourage sales, and some "100mg/l thujone" absinthes were analyzed and contained no detectable traces of thujone.

In short, the marketers of these products are banking on the romance and history of one spirit while producing something entirely different.  As one consumer put it, this is a product "where ignorance is seen as a valued commodity amongst producers."

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