Of Sacred Relics and Holy Wormwood – Absinthe Antiques by S.B. MacDonald

Absinthe AntiquesHistory, like art, is something that the uninitiated will more often than not have merely an appreciation, or even a passing empathy for. Those who explore the subject to any degree of depth, ideally because the subject speaks to some part of them, will be able to find bits and pieces of wisdom and beauty in the details. In the case of history, this applies to the written account of a certain period, the art of a certain age, the body count of a certain war or from the subsequent artifacts which survive throughout the years.

Absinthe, as even those who have had an indirect interaction with it would attest, has borne its unjust stigma with a certain amount of austere (and sometimes cynical) pride. The people who truly love absinthe love it reverently and the ones who are passionate about it treat it, its history and its sinister scars with a great deal of respect.

Scott MacDonald, whom I have the privilege of referring to as one of my favourite online acquaintances, is one of these people and his remarkable book, Absinthe Antiques – A Collection from la Belle Epoque, is testament to that respect for the subject. Thoroughly researched over a period of several years, the book draws its reader on a profound and almost Divine Comedy-esque journey through the world of absinthe’s glorious heyday. Not through historical accounts, so much, the journey comes through a systematic study of objects, implements and advertising which the author has collected from all across the world, allowing him to paint for us a unique portrait of the days when the absinthe trade was in its full glory.

Lavishly and lovingly photographed by Scott, the book doesn’t just serve as a catalogue of the artifacts. As you wander its pages, it evolves for the reader into a veritable art gallery. Each chapter is bedecked with beautiful images, giving us an intimate look at the technique and design of all manner of glassware, spoons, topettes (something my collection is sorely lacking) and so on. Some of the detail Scott has captured in his photographs are so rich and evocative that you could almost feel the tooling on a la fuilles #3 spoon or the roughness of an etched dose line on an egg-style glass.

This is one of the most remarkable things about this book – that sense of evocation. The detail, the knowledge and the intimacy of the experience is so immersive that we are, ourselves, transported back in time. When we see the images of the advertizing posters of the day, the saucers with the price-per-glass painted thereon and the exquisite and almost luminescent greenish glow of a well-lit glass of absinthe, you can almost hear a chanson being sung in a bar by revellers, steeped in their own experience of the elixir that is one of Scott’s most revered passions.

If you are an absinthe drinker, and one who takes the drink seriously, you owe it to yourself to look into the history of absinthe in detail. That said, you will be sorely hard-pressed to find a more lucid, enjoyable and evocative window into that history than this book. I would actually go so far as to say that it is probably one of the most essential books on the subject. Vinnie personally keeps my copy safe at my absinthe table.

Vinnie approves of this book

To order a copy, go here.

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Brevans HR Giger – The Roller-Coaster

After several months of being too bloody busy to do much, we’re back with another video. This time, Vinnie come just a little more our of his shell.

Enjoy!

 

Kallnacher – Flowers in the Glass

The long-overdue review of Kallnacher, another lovely Swiss absinthe from the folks at Oliver Matter.

I think I’m getting better at this whole video thing. Not sure.

 

VIDEO REVIEW: La Clandestine – a Pearl of Great Value

And with this, do I now announce that video reviews will be forthcoming.

This is my first one, so be gentle. The new ones will be better, I promise!

A Little Diversion While We Wait….

In my pre-interview correspondence with one of my forthcoming interviewees, he took the liberty of sharing this charming little link. This is utterly beautiful and captures so much of the darker romance of the Green Faerie.

Enjoy. Interviews coming soon.

A First Foray into Forbidden Fruit – Okanagan Spirits and Taboo

Canada is one of those countries that always feels that it needs to prove itself. When you live in the shadow of the neighbouring empire to the South and when your culture is, essentially, a mirror of that of said empire, anything one can do to stand out and be acknowledged is a bonus.

As far as Canada’s spirits trade is concerned, we have a few things that distinguish us. We have Crown Royal for one. The Grape-encrusted Niagara region is also an alcoholic pearl, in spite of the protests of certain folks.

Anecdote: At the Toronto Fan Expo last year, my lady love and I had hung out frequently with the actor Udo Kier all weekend. A charming and highly gracious gentleman, he had apparently developed a taste for Jagermeister, which he used as a chaser for Ontario white wine.

However, one area in which Canada has always been a little behind is the absinthe industry. Currently, the power struggle in the industry appears to be in the hands of the Germans and the Czechs (though, to be honest, everything I’ve tried from the latter has been utterly ghastly). What hope does Canada, a country whose customs officials are too damned anal-retentive to let any decent absinthe across the borders without massive, cost-prohibitive duty fees, have in the creation of something as unique as absinthe?

Taboo Genuine Absinthe

Apparently, we have a pretty good shot, to say the least. Okanagan Spirits in British Columbia, a distillery that specializes in things like eau de vie and suchlike, has unleashed a monster upon the world of absinthe, one which has taken the absinthe world a little by surprise. The monster in question, and I use the word as a compliment, bears the grand name of Taboo Genuine Absinthe.

“We were keen to emphasis that [Taboo] has a recipe that mirrors traditional European Absinthe.” writes Rodney Goodchild, Okanagan’s marketing fellow.  “By calling it Genuine Absinthe, we are hoping people will recognize that there has been no amendment to the traditional style recipe or had any herbs removed.”

The recipe, he says, was one that Okenagan’s master distiller, Frank Deiter, had acquired from his various European contacts. Do they use all the right herbs? Yes, in fact they use whole herbs rather than essential extracts (take note that Taboo is naturally green). Is there an etched-in-stone formula for the use of those herbs? No. Absinthe is one of the rare exceptions to a steadfast rule in the spirit industry.

Natural green, not the artificial, rich emerald colour.

“There’s no black and white with it,” Rodney explains. “One of the things you’ll always find [in the spirits industry] is consistency. Big companies need consistencies. Crown Royal needs it to taste the same next month to next year. You don’t get consistency in any natural process.”

Indeed, everything from different regional ground conditions to differing weather systems can cause a differentiation between batches of the herbs used. As a result, as with any organic process, there has to be a little trial and error between balancing the herbs to get the flavour right to making sure the thujone content is acceptable to governmental standards – less than 10ppm, which is a very different story here than in Europe.

Side-note: Curiously enough, according to Rodney, in Europe, there are limitations placed on the use of fennel, as opposed to wormwood. Go figure.

There are a few things that make Taboo something unique and special. The first is that Okanagan uses a wood-fired copper pot batch still to make it.

“Distilling in copper plays a vital part. Copper has a quality that removed a lot of aggression from the alcohol. I think it has a lot to do with the heat distribution. And it’s a small still in a small distillery, rather than large distillery churning out at high volumes.”

The quantity over quantity phenomenon is something that has haunted absinthe since it’s early days, especially when it began to compete with the French wine industry.

“People who lived in Bordeaux drank bordeaux,” Rodney relates. “People who lived in Burgundy drank burgundy. [When absinthe came on the scene], there were distilleries popping up all over the place and suddenly there were options.”

Then along came, not a spider, but an insect. The grape phylloxera, to be precise. This little pest became something of a devil in the 19th century media, as it ended up devastating vast crops of wine grapes. With the enemy weakened, absinthe’s time had come.

“When wine disappeared, the people turned to something new. Absinthe was there at the right moment. Demand skyrocketed, quality dropped.”

In fact, quality dropped so far that it was cheaper to buy a bottle of absinthe than it was to buy a loaf of bread. the reduced quality made the product suffer (and, subsequently, some of the people who drank it).

However, in the case of Taboo, taking the time to make a smaller batch of something better is no inconvenience.

Taking these photos was taking too long for me to wait to drink the still life.

The other thing that makes Taboo stand out, and this is perhaps the bigger thing, is the use of fruit-based alcohol in the distilling process. As Rodney explains it, “Okanagan Spirits started the business to produce Fruit based spirits.  (Eau de Vie / Fruit Brandy etc) as we have a high volume of fruit available in the Okanagan Valley.  During the process of distilling fruit, only part of the distillate can be used for these fruit spirits.  The remainder, which is an excellent source of alcohol (but just lacks the full fruit taste for an eau de vie) was building up fast and we were questioning what to do with it.  [Frank] suggested we use this fruit alcohol to make a Genuine Absinthe.  A product missing from the liquor store shelves in North America.”

The fruit-based alcohol is much softer on the palate than grain and it, along with the copper effect, really make Taboo a much smoother, friendlier absinthe than her harsher cousins. However, she needs more than her unique flavour to get her and her cousins some measure of broad acceptance in North America.

“The key challenge is distribution,” says Rodney. “How do we distribute? Absinthe is slowly growing in popularity. People are recognizing it and it’s still very small in the spirits world. Saskatchewan still doesn’t bring it in and Ontario is very much on a fringe. Do I see growth, yes, but slow.”

In spite of the limited distribution that Taboo has, it has gotten excellent reviews (for example, check out the Absinthe Buyer’s Guide’s reviews and, of course, my own). As a trail-blazer for Canadian absinthe, Taboo may end up being a tough act to follow, but we can only hope that other distilleries may pick up the gauntlet and try their hand at the Green Faerie. In the meantime, we’ll just have to be content with something better priced than the other brands one can find in the LCBO and yards above them in taste and quality.

Pernod – the Name You Can Trust

Pernod Absinthe

NB: This is a review of the current absinthe produced by Pernod and not of its pre-ban ancestor.

Country of origin: France
Distillery: S.E.G.M. Pernod International
LCBO price: $82.35 CAN
Neat colour: A beautiful golden-green colour, somewhat reminiscent of peppermint tea. The golden elements seem to hover at the top of the portion in my glass.
Neat aroma: The first smell is intensely alcohol-laden. The second, however, gave hints of the predictable anise, but with something heavy and herbal at the bottom of it.
Neat taste: The sip seemed to evaporate as soon as it coated my tongue. Everything it touched went numb, somewhat like Anbesol. Numbness faded within a minute, though as I write this, my gums are still a little tingly. Taste was strong and almost medicinal in its herbality.
Louched colour: Beautiful oil swirls in the glass as the louche forms, billowing like a mushroom cloud. Final colour is a pale green, with a golden “core” for lack of a better word. The impression is rather like a lemon covered in green wax, then a layer of white . A mysterious and charming colour.
Louched aroma: Not surprisingly the alcohol is gone. It actually smells “green”, which makes me hesitate. The usual present anise and wormwoody-undercurrent.
Louched taste: It’s almost spicy, in a way. Anise is not so overpowering that it detracts from the whole. Wormwood harmonizes lovingly with it.

Vinnie Approved

When you first start looking into the history of absinthe, the name Pernod will invariably pop up very early in the search. One thing I always tell people about the history of absinthe was that it was invented by the Swiss, but perfected by the French. The specific French folk who perfected it were the folks at Pernod Fils. If I am not mistaken, these quasi-mythical people were stationed in the Pontarlier region of France, from which the glass I am currently drinking my serving of Pernod was named.

Just like a Time Lord, when his body is too abused to carry on, the Maison du Pernod Fils regenerated after the treacherous ban and started producing a wormwood-free beverage more or less exclusively until the way was clear to bring back the elixir that the Pernod empire was founded on.

The current manifestation is a delightful, albeit pricey, drink. It seems to suit the stereotypical mood of absinthe – romantic, artistic and surreal. While I’m writing this review, I’m spinning “Deadwing” by Porcupine Tree in the background and the mood of the noise seems to gel exquisitely with the drink (note to self: see if you can score an interview with Steve Wilson).

The flavour, as noted above, is almost spicy in a way, not in a cinnamon-like sense, but in a jalapeño sense. It’s not an oppressive, melt-your-face-off kind of spicy, however, but it’s more of a slight hint that gives it just a little kick.

From the first time I tried it a couple of years ago until now, this is definitely Vinnie-approved. Bravo gentlemen and ladies. Long live the Emperor.

An Exodus into Madness – “Absinthe – La Folie Verte”

How does one capture the romance of the Parisian Nineteenth Century?

One could ruminate upon the works of Degas or Van Gogh and easily taste the life of a Parisian urbanite. One could ponder the pseudo-cautionary tales of Marie Corelli with the same sinister understanding from reading Milton’s Paradise Lost. One could contemplate the verses of Verlaine.

One could happen upon a pre-ban bottle of absinthe.

If ever there were a soundtrack to the psychology of the absinthe houses and the green hours of Paris drinking houses, it would have been the remarkable collaborative noises wrought by the ever-mighty Blood Axis and the ever-unusual Les Joyeux de la Princesse. We have two which are present on CD – Absinthe – La Folie Verte and Absinthe Tætra. It’s the former of which I am specifically writing about, though both carry with them the depth of mood one needs to get a hint of being in the grip of the Green Faerie.

La Folie Verte begins with a reminder of Blood Axis’s single dedicated song to the subject of absinthe from their Gospel of Inhumanity album. Each layering echo turns the song into a beautiful, dreamy, chaotic mess which so deliciously reminds one of the layering of intoxication. Glass after glass after glass, and this is where we are.

As we wander further into the album, we are set upon by romances in the guise of warnings, courtesy of Corelli’s Wormwood, a period novel which professed to be an admonition against the dangerous sins of absinthe. Yet when listening to the words, droned out to such lovely effect by Moynihan, one can’t help but pine a little for the days of the Moulin Rouge (mercifully free of Nicole Kidman) and the heyday of Pernod Fils.

absinthe-minded

absinthe sketch, 2010

The music carries the delectable antiquity of wax cylinder recordings and 19th-century chansons. We are washed in droning, repeating refrains and bathed in echoing and distorted verses, needless of intelligibility. The noise, like with so many other audio pioneers, becomes the instrument and we forget, for a while, that there is any other melody than the strange ones we are beset with on this remarkable CD.

The bad news is this: it’s out of print. The almost good news is that you can, every once in a while, find a copy on eBay. I lucked out and found a copy in mint condition and I have fought to keep it that way. Do yourself the favour and hunt it down. Pour yourself a glass, strain the water through the sugar, turn the lights off, light the candelabra and give this unforgivably unforgettable piece of art a spin. You’ll know where you are in very short notice.

Defining Absinthe

My friends have heard me recite this litany a few times now. It seemed worthwhile to set it down in a definitive text and get it over with, so I can stop assailing them with the same words over and over again.

Absinthe was invented by the Swiss, perfected by the French, destroyed by the Czechs and expanded upon by countless countries. As a result, we are now confronted with a galaxy of bottles, each of which is different in execution and finish. There are apparently many pretenders to the title and a good many who boldly get creative with the formula, sometimes to interesting effect, I’ve been told.

So how do we tell if absinthe is truly absinthe? Well, there are a few tell-tale signs.

Artemisia absinthium in bloom (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

There are three herbs that give it its flavour, namely wormwood, anise and fennel. The most prominent of these to the nose is usually anise. If it has a noticeable licorice-like smell with a bittersweet undertone, you are probably on the right track. This is not to negate other scents which can contribute to its bouquet. The important element is the bittersweet one, which comes from the wormwood. But if it doesn’t have the holy trinity of herbs mentioned above, then it’s not absinthe.

Which brings me to the pheonomenon of the louche. We get this when oils which are not soluble in water (called terpinoids) are released from the alcohol when we add water. Absinthe has several ingredients which produce these, including the holy trinity. Poets wrote hymns to the opalescence produced by this effect. Yes, it spoils the pretty green colour, but if you add water to absinthe and it doesn’t get cloudy and opalescent, it’s not absinthe.

And speaking of colour, I should point out that the proper colour for absinthe is a pale, golden-green colour, rather than an emerald one. This does not mean that if you drink an absinthe that is bright green, blue, black or whatever, that it’s not absinthe. Merely a matter of point.

There is no truly proper way to drink absinthe. The French method, with the spoon, sugar and water, is considered the traditional method. The so-called “Bohemian” or “Czech style”, involving setting the sugar and alcohol ablaze (as popularized by the film “From Hell”) is very much not to my taste. I find that the carmelization of the sugar and the burning off of the alcohol detracts from the flavour. I am also, personally, not a big fan of drinking it neat (or straight). But, again, to each their own.

One thing I am dead-set against is the phenomenon of drinking it in shots. To me that would be like serving a beautifully-prepared peppercorn sirloin in a bun with ketchup and fries and an enormous pop on the side, or like lining one’s birdcage with a print of the Mona Lisa. Certain alcohols befit the shot-drinking technique, like tequila or certain whiskeys. I’m all for getting creative with one’s beverages, mind you, and encourage people to put a little absinthe in as a shot component (indeed, if you come up with something interesting in that department, let me know). Toulouse-Loutrec used to mix his absinthe with white wine and called it Absinthe Minuit. Hemingway used to mix it with champagne and call it “Death in the Afternoon”. That sort of thing is fine. Firing it down in a shot like it’s some cheap booze is vulgar, in my opinion.

Also, I have been told by many people, friends and otherwise, that the only reason why people drink absinthe is to get drunk. I disagree. Vehemently. Wine drinkers do not drink their wine just to get pissed, they drink it  to appreciate the whole experience of the wine; its flavour, its aroma, the feel of its intoxication, etc. Drunkards drink to get drunk. Absintheurs drink to experience absinthe.

Part of the experience is the journey it takes you on. I find that the intoxication from absinthe does little to impede one’s awareness (at least the varieties I have tried have that effect), but do tend to make the world around seem a little bit romantic, per one’s own imagination. Things become a little sharper, while other things get a little fuzzier. It’s almost like the drink knows what’s important to you and takes pains to make sure you still have it, while taking more or less everything else away. To be sure, it’s an alchemist’s elixir, to paraphrase Aleister Crowley’s essay on the subject.

Even the simple act of melting the sugar with water through the slotted spoon has an almost ceremonial feel to it. I can’t help but feel a little bit of sacerdotal reverence when I balance the cube and start the water over it. No other alcohol I have consumed has had the same amount of ritualistic zest that absinthe does. I even add to it by reciting the English translation of Sonnet de l’Absinthe by Raoul Ponchon, almost like an invocation, before drinking it.

Absinthe, I adore you, truly.
It seems, when I drink you,
I inhale the young forest’s soul
During the beautiful green season.

Your perfume disconcerts me
And in your opalescence
I see the full heavens of yore,
As through an open door.

What matter, O refuge of the damned
that you a vain paradise be,
If you appease my need;

And if, before I enter the door,
You make me put up with life
By accustoming me to death.

I really must learn the French for that, one day.

As a post-script, I should probably throw in a note that the information I put down is not conjecture and I would not have set it down without having researched it. I say this as there have been a good many people I have spoken to in the past who, in their arrogance, like to pretend that they know better than everyone else.

On a similar note, I have read several reviews of the absinthes I have experienced thus far in my journey and it seems to me that absintheurs the world over turn their collective noses up at most of the ones I have come to like so far. Please remember, I live in Canada. We don’t have access to much in the way of absinthe and what we do have is usually considered sub-standard to the current brands prepared in Europe, let alone the pre-ban varieties.

If you disagree or think you know actually do know better, produce your sources and I’ll capitulate if they are trustworthy. If you know thirty other brands of absinthe that are significantly better than the varieties I will be reviewing on this site, send me a bottle, tell me why it’s superior and I’ll review it. Otherwise, keep your mouths shut while I rant, or better yet, drink some absinthe and enjoy.