Tell me more about Absinthe and get some Green Fairy suggestions
15 min read
Pursuing our last review about current Parisian bars specialized in Absinth, we focus here on some houses able to fulfill its sensations at home. It’s not a secret that the legendary Absinth spirit had its heyday in the 19th century. Lauded and elevated to the rank of “green muse” by the artistic world, which also resulted to be baptized the Green Fairy. Victim of its own success, its consumption quickly spread among popular social strata, giving rise to an informal daily meeting in bars and bistros, called “green hour” (photo credit: Larissa Cook).
Like many other European cities, Paris was the theater of all excesses, but also the cradle of a new marginal way of life, maintained by a community of artists which gave birth to a cultural current called “Bohemian” . Described by its detractors and prohibitionist movements, absinthe was condemned in many countries, including France in 1915. In reality, the lobby of several winegrowers, who were suffering from a terrible phylloxera crisis, eradicated the green fairy with blows advertising bludgeoning to prove its harmfulness. It was not until 1988 that, under the aegis of the European Union, the consumption of absinthe became legal again, under the guise of controlling its level of thujone, the molecule at the origin of its controversy. By Alex Plato
As far as we know, a real Absinthe must contain these two essential ingredients, these are green anise and great absinth, then distilled and naturally colored by plants. Furthermore, this spirit is also highly recommend to be diluted with water, otherwise you may opt as well for the ceremonial of melting some sugar on a spoon, although consuming emanates from the Czech Absinthes, back in the 1990 years (photo credit: Elvelly Herbal Clinic).
At the origin, the Absinthe plant has been muchly used since Antiquity, especially for its medicinal virtues.
Time passing by, it slowly turned into a transformed remedy developed by the French doctor Pierre Ordinaire, who initially exiled to Couvet, in Switzerland, during the French Revolution, about thirty kilometers distant from the future main wormwood city of Pontarlier.
Then, this natural drug would eventually become an aperitif, after the recipe has been bought by the Major Dubied, in partnership with Henri-Louis Pernod, in order to develop the first of the Pontarlier distilleries, back in 1805. Step by step, Absinthe massively took off thanks to soldiers returning from French colonies, where they consumed this beverage to purify the water. Absinthe then became a trendy universal aniseed aperitif, since nearly all social classes fell under its spell, particularly during a consumption ritual usually settled from 5 pm.
Indeed thujone is a molecule often found in Absinthe, and was supposed to drive people crazy. Since it was particularly appreciated for its digestive properties and its menthol aroma, unless it sometimes caused convulsive disorders and eventually feelings of disinhibition or even, in large doses, hallucinations.
Despite the fact that the risk of causing convulsions was pretty low, once it would require a concentration more than 1000 times higher than the quantity present in actual Absinthe. Along the rumored hallucinogenic effects of Absinth, it seems that they result from a random disordered combination of different molecules from the different herbs used. Among them, we may count anethole for anise, fenchone coming from fennel and pinocamphone extracted from hyssop (photo credit: Shane Trevena).
Regarding the current level of thujone present in traditional Absinthes, it meets limitations depending on the country, must be less than 50 mg/liter in European Union, still far less than the usual level between 250 and 300 mg per liter, during the Golden Era. Moreover, the common distillation would also not allow this molecule to pass through alcohol vapors.
That’s why only Absinthes made from a mixture of large absinthe essential oils and alcohol could have contained a high concentration of thujone, unless we just have learned for ten years that the strong absorption of this molecule was not responsible for symptoms related to consumption of Absinthe. It was apparently mostly due to the abuse of strong alcohol (combined for some with opium or other drugs)
Since the revival in 1988, a roundabout way of reintroducing Absinthe in France, under the way of “spirit drink with absinthe plants”, Absinthe is now considered as a strong alcoholic liquor obtained from a mixture of alcohol and distilled herbs or herbal extracts. By the way, the alcohol base can either be a beet or grape brandy. In France, quality Absinthes are even made from a wine brandy. Then, the basis would be completed by the legendary great absinthe and green anise botanicals, also most often added by three others aromatic herbs, such as hyssop, sweet fennel and Roman absinthe also called small absinthe. For your information, other herbs could complete this trio, counting on star anise, lemon balm, angelica root and also a wedding of spices such as juniper, coriander, speedwell and nutmeg (photo credit: Obsinthe).
On top of that statement, it’s important to notice that the quality of these herbs are notably linked to the climate, the fertility of the soil, the cultivation, plus some complementary harvesting techniques. Once again, the quality of the elixir would highly depend on these natural criteria.
Furthermore, you have to know that there are different ways of producing Absinthe. From the traditional Absinthe, requiring a maceration step, completed by a distillation, passing by the modern Absinthe production style. In favor of the blending of alcohol, either including natural or synthetic absinthe flavors and color. Moreover since these types of Absinthes already existed before 1915 (photo credit: L’Instant T Chalon).
Indeed, it could either happen by mixing, similar to certain Gins, since alcohol may be blended with aromas of absinthe plant.
Otherwise, the other way is by distillation, since traditional Absinthes come from maceration, then from distillation, starring herbs used in their composition. The maceration stage is carried out in a tank where the alcohol (85%) and a mixture of plants are stored for several days. At the end of this stage, the liquid is filtered, then reduced with water, before being placed in the still’s boiler for distillation. This distillation method implies that the heads and tails are separated, and that only the heating core is kept. This method produces qualities of Absinthes much superior to those obtained by the previous mixing process.
After the filtration step, absinthe may be bottled, while its approximately 75% alcohol degree, being reduced with water (regarding white or blueAbsinthe) or aged in casks.
Adding to this, a coloring touch, natural or artificial, is frequent in the production of this spirit. As part of natural coloring, a final maceration phase is carried out after distillation. As long as traditional Absinthes get their color from the chlorophyll pigment, present in different herbs such as hyssop, lemon balm and small absinthe. During this maceration phase, the alcohol takes on a slight green color and gains in aromatic complexity. This is called green absinthe, although a red color can be obtained by using hibiscus flowers. By the way, this chlorophyll inside the solution, is indeed very fragile, since when exposed to light, it usually could gradually switch from green to yellow color, and even sometimes turn to amber. Unless the contemporary natural productions are less victims of this side effect, many of them are thus nowadays sold in opaque bottles. Whereas artificially colored Absinthes are much more stable at this point.
Another important fact to mention, there were originally five main categories of Absinthe, those could have been either ordinary, semi-fine (both artificially colored, with a blend of neutral alcohol and natural essences), fine, superior and Swiss (both distilled, offering a better quality and natural color). It’s not a secret that these last categories may differ according to their alcoholic strength and the quality of the absinthe plant, but are now obsolete with the new rules.
Indeed nowadays, a real distinction needs to be made between mixedAbsinthes (modern ones, resulting from the mixture of the essence of absinthe with a neutral alcohol) and distilled Absinthes (traditional ones).
These distilled drinks may either be green or blue. The green versions are in fact, white Absinthes colored this way, within a final maceration melting herbs, naturally giving its color and a more complex taste.
In the other hand, the blue (or white) versions, often referring to Swiss Absinthes, are colorless due to their distillation and bottled at a high alcohol level (photo credit: Miss Mobile Klick).
Last but not least, how to appreciate your favorite Absinthe? In fact, this spirit may be considered as one of the more ritualistic, so much that this Green Fairy follows an ancestral guideline, somehow fostering its legend. Thus, pure Absinthe shall be poured through a perforated flat spoon called “Absinthe spoon” topped with a piece of sugar. The latter is very gently sprinkled with ice water, most of the time flowing from a designed Absinthe fountain, until this sugar cube may be completely dissolved in your glass.
For your information, the regular role of sugar is to reduce the natural bitterness inherent in any traditional Absinthe, due to the presence of absinthine molecule in any green nectar. For a 68% dose of wormwood, three to four doses of water are required.
Although Absinthe can also be consumed throughout many other ways, either with white wine (to replace water), without sugar, with anise, gum or orgeat syrup…
We start our Absinthe tour with one of the most illustrious French houses. The Distillerie Guy was founded in 1890 by Armand Guy, then aged 20, when he arrived in Pontarlier, the capital of Absinthe. Much influenced by another huge branch player the Vichet distillery, then establishing its distillery just upon an underground source. Another sign of destiny, the proximity to a military camp, where the soldiers contributed to spread this Absinthe know-how, while bringing it through their worldwide operations.
These were the good old golden hours of Absinthe, causing a formidable regional economic boom. As well as at a time when Pontarlier counted no less than 23 distilleries and even 150 bars, just for a population counting 10,000 inhabitants, including nearly 3,000 people employed in the cultivation and the Absinthe industry. This flourishing situation lasted until the unfortunate Absinthe ban started to occur in 1915. Indeed, following a desire of the government to fight against alcoholism, Absinthe was banned in France, after having been banned in Switzerland, the United States and Belgium.
By the way, the period of time from the ban on Absinthe would eventually permit to revive the renewal of anise aperitifs, but also a myriad of new spirits, which were mostly born post-war to imagine all kinds of liquors.
Thus, once conceived in this distillery, thanks to a whole range of plants and fruits, notably found in their family grimoire. Indeed, the formulas used for these creations extend from arquebus, angelica natural extracts but their spirits also contain a full range counting more than 30 products, from Andaye, Chartreuse, Curaçao, until Antziq… For sure without forgetting their famous Absinthe and the traditional Haut-Doubs pine liquor, baptized Le Vert Sapin (photo credit: Mademoiselle Spiritueux).
Otherwise, the much acclaimed Pontarlier-Anis takes up the ancestral family recipe of their Absinthe de Pontarlier, but without including the absinthe plant. Since it was invented by Georges Guy in 1921, this unique spirit is exclusively obtained by the distillation of green anise seed and other carefully selected plants. Unless it remained illegal to distill aniseed products until 1921, since the ban on Absinthe in 1915, this edition was considered as the first anise drink elaborated in Pontarlier, when the distillation of anise was again authorized in France. The result is a real surprising aperitif, easily distinguishable thanks to its exceptional lightness. This refinement was made possible due to the distillation of green aniseed spirit, in centenary stills, offering to this famous Pontarlier-Anis a real delicacy of taste.
Therefore, this Pontarlier-Anis got many gold medals during its random presentations at the SIA (Paris agricultural show) and was then much popular through last decades, contributing to the rehabilitation of Absinthe in France. Indeed, thanks to the relentless work of François Guy from the first victory in 1988 and the first governmental decree, regulating the thujone use, until the further studies lead by the CEA laboratories (Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique) of Saclay, which would have allowed to perfect the knowledge regarding this so controversial thujone molecule. Absinthes produced by the distillery are made in the purest tradition of the Armand Guy Establishments. Finally, the supporters of the Green Fairy had to patiently wait until 2001 to appreciate the unhoped comeback of this legal spirit including absinthe plant, before the unique Absinthe appellation, authorized, since 2011 in France.
Moreover, in 2003, the same green heir François Guy, seeing the Absinthes market invaded by random fake productions, decided to protect the authentic Pontarlier‘s Absinthe by an official AOR label (Designated Origin of Origin), permitting to this ancestral recipe to be transmitted in the respect of their father-to-son tradition and know-how cultivated by skilled and passionate distillers. Thus, faithful to its oral origins, also aware of the risk to put all of their recipes into written procedures, the knowledge of plants, the maturity of their raw material, and many other decisive production information to obtain the desired taste, are currently concealed and protected (photo credit: Quentin Carlot).
At the time of writing, the family has managed to keep their Armand Guy Distillery for four generations from father to son, lately glad to resuscitate their ancestors’ Absinthe in order to make its contemporaries discover, their finest aromas and its infinite flavors. It was a good reason to award this company with the EPV label (Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant) in 2007, a label highlighting the excellence of a certain French know-how, with the use of ancestral techniques and tools, kept for over 100 years in a same family (photo credit: Distillerie Guy).
This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why that nowadays, this Guy family name is still associated to its corporate values, promoting the green (in many senses) commitment through their local products, as a real guarantee of quality and authenticity. Pursuing this approach, their Absinthes count a balanced quantity between 34 and 35 mg/L of this thuyone, in order to fully exhale the atypical taste of the absinthe plant, in addition to the other ingredients, as we recall again including the green aniseed.
Therefore, their Absinthes respect the thuyone rate, which is limited in Europe up to 35 mg/L, fortunately beyond the level 10 mg/L imposed in certain countries. That’s why, their Absinthes regrettably remain prohibited in the United States, in Japan, and in all countries with this regulation. As far as we know, the Distillerie Guy also decided not to reconnect with the former high alcohol degrees of the past. Indeed, since in terms of taste, the presence of anise and absinthe botanicals having been reduced by the French legislation, it has been noticed that strong degrees are not easy to enjoy these products, causing a too prominent presence of the alcohol taste, or masking the original vegetal aromas.
Adding to the classic Absinthe Guy, softly captioned at 45° level, an other limited edition (usually with a stronger level, around 56°) is unveiled each year in October, the Distillerie Guy produces a specific Absinthe which takes part in the Absinthiades competition, in collaboration with the Friends of the Pontarlier Museum, situated in one of the oldest residences in Pontarlier (15th century). The building has conserved a beautiful set of Art Nouveau style stained glass windows and beams decorated with painted historic patterns, mainly dating from the 17th century (photo credit: Bar Libertine).
The Pontarlier Museum presents, on three levels, different collections linked to the history of Pontarlier and obviously of Absinthe, archaeological collections (from the Prehistory until the Middle Ages), along some local Comtois paintings and earthenware.
For instance, La Pontissalienne was issued in 2011 for the 11th edition, the name of this Absinthe especially refers to the inhabitants of Pontarlier, called the Pontissaliennes and Pontissaliens. With a level of 56°, this elixir recalls the main assets of an Absinthe with a powerful taste, developing the same aromas as the plant, reaching the perfect balance between the fresh green anise and the soft Pontarlier Absinthe.
Last but not least, the liqueurs of Absinthe Guy and Vert Sapin both lately embodied on a new consumption shape, through a revolutionary Boosterdry patented concept materialized by a light mousse, fulfilled with some Haut-Doubs local Fir bud liqueur (photo credits: Boosterdry).
Distinguishable with its stunning air of whipped Chantilly cream but without nor dairy products or gluten, this Absinthe Mousse is ideal for completing original digestives, in an innovative bringing something new to your shooters and cocktails, or even to give free rein to your culinary creativity. This 2017 winner of the Yum contest, can be kept cool, but be careful not to leave the bottle in contact with a cold wall (this detail may unfortunately freeze the product). This fresh form also sounds like the alimentary nitrogen, often found in cocktail parties.
We recommend to properly tilt the bottle 180° during service so as not to lose the propellant, either suggested to adorn some random shooter, adding the quantity of 1 to 2 cl of the alcohol of your choice, or for any final cocktail serving, as a cap on an Absinthe, a Pontarlier-Anis, or even a mojito, accompanied with a semi-candied cherry or raspberry… For sure, you would find your more suitable way to use this device, that you wouldn’t be able to cook without it!
Other, you could use this Absinthe mousse in your daily cuisine, notably as a foam effect in front of his guests, adding a decorative and tasty touch of Absinthe on your favorite desserts. This could be a real unexpected coulis on ice creams and sorbets, as a famous Trou Normand, a chocolate pastry (cake, éclair), and eventually on a savory toast!
Stay tuned the Distillerie Guy is also part of the Route de l’Absinthe project, a Franco-Swiss road aimed at promoting this mythical drink, deep inside its native cradle of production, spreading from Pontarlier to Val-de-Travers. More information on their official website, where you could explore the wide range of the Distillerie Guy and the closest stores to find their products.
This time, we switch from region and travel to the Loire Valley with the Distillerie Combier and here their stronger Absinthe, called L’Entêté (means “stubborn” in French). We already discovered their brilliant spirit activity in our previous topic, about French Gin and their wonderful rose flavored Meridor Gin. Still keeping a focus, as much as possible, on local raw material thanks to their ideal location in the so-called Jardin de la France, and a certain nostalgia regarding tradition, leading to vintage accents in their brand identity, this West French located Absinthe boarded in 2010 (photo credit: Distillerie Combier).
Deeply marked with the stubbornness that characterizes the home Master Distiller and as seen previously, after long and complex negotiations, Franck Choisne played a large role in fighting for the modification the 1988 decree, which prohibited the use of fennel in the production of Absinthe. Then, in 2012, one year after the Absinthe appellation again authorized in the public domain, and in tribute to this historic act, this epicurean imagined the development of this Entêté masterpiece. In fact, this Absinthe is naturally green colored, thanks to the presence of chlorophyll.
Taking advantage of the large facilities available at the Distillerie Combier, already skilled with alambics since 1834, this herbaceous nectar is then distilled and then infused. From this point, all the plants release their best flavors and would gradually enhance this Absinthe, offering it a powerful personality, but faithful to the fresh character of the great Absinthes, back from the 19th century.
For your information, in this black bottle adorned with some kind of ancient sticker, recalling the design of flasks from yesteryear, we count no less than a total of nine ingredients. Thus, this unique composition offers to its enthusiasts its pretty taste, made from almost green colored almond, of course its cooling fennel back in the game and some emblematic anise, also identifiable at the scented expression. Once your nose has been stimulated, it would logically be followed by the action of your palate, which would undoubtedly appreciate the balanced touch between the sweetness of fennel straight from Provence, and the flowery power of their organic great wormwood plant, married with some small absinthe from Italy, lemon balm, hyssop and peppermint. The whole, underlined by a very slight bitterness ending on this sunny green anise from Spain, we may consider that L’Entêté is astonishing in complexity and will amaze many of you with its perfumed strength.
One more time, it’s recommended to enjoy your Absinthe, in the most common way, poured over a sugar cube placed on a straining spoon resting on top of the glass. Cool water should be run slowly over the sugar, if possible in the traditional manner using a classic Absinthe fountain.
More information on the official website, where you may explore some associated cocktail recipes, in the online store.