Last night I went to Delilah's, where they were having an absinthe tasting. The owner, Mike, has been obsessed with absinthe for a long time and frequently traveled to Europe to get it--you can imagine how excited he was when it became legal here. So he bought a couple bottles of every single absinthe that is currently being sold in the midwest (16 types, all told) and had an awesome tasting at his bar. I will tell you all about them!
No, there were no hallucination. Long story short: there was a devastating infestation that killed a lot of the grapes in France (drastically increasing the cost of wine) and lowering the quality of grapes that did survive (making the expensive wine taste terrible).
Absinthe was already quite popular, and there was a very real chance that it might have become the national drink of France. The wine industry responded with a huge PR campaign that made Reefer Madness look like High Times: absinthe is deadly, it's a hallucinagine, and it will make you go mad and kill your family. The world fell for it, and one country after another declared it illegal (with the curious exception of Spain, where it's apparently never been outlawed).
Europe began to change its mind in the 90's, and finally in 2007 America legalized it as well. The exciting ingredient (the chemical thujone, provided by the wormwood) is restricted, but this limitation is generous and apparently the absinthe that is legal now has just as much thujone as old school absinthe ever did. It may well be a hallucinagine if you eat a straight brick of it, but in reality it's the sheer amount of alcohol that affected your vision, if anything--the absinthes last night ranged from 120 proof to 138 proof, with only one at 90 proof.
Anyway, people who enjoy absinthe currently have it very good indeed, because on the one hand there is a fascinating, rich tradition of absinthe, complete with mystique, ritual, heroes and legends. And on the other hand, everyone is starting over more or less from scratch. The largest absinthe company in the world, Pernod, has only been making it since 2000 (although they no doubt saved their recipes from before it was outlawed in France). Because of this, tiny distilleries like North Shore (in Evanston!) are not at nearly the disadvantage that, say, California wineries were at when they first started. In addition, although there aren't a lot of varieties available (just the sixteen I had last night, so far) they are almost all the same price (around sixty bucks a bottle, give or take).
Sadly, absinthe tastes like anise. If you hate black liquorice, you won't like absinthe, end of story. If you like that taste, however, there is a huge variety of very complex, rich and robust flavors even among the sixteen that are currently available. They recommend that I try a sip or two of the straight absinthe, and then try it again with sweetened water, which I did. It is really amazing how drastically the character changes with the addition of sugar and water!
Apparently most people drink one-third absinthe to two-thirds water, or occaisionally four-fifths water. After enough water has been added there is a dramatic change in color--the glass becomes cloudy, and the emerald becomes jade. This process is called "louching", but the glasses last night were too small to add enough water. Really, the entire tasting needs to be done again, with bigger glasses and more absinthe!
Here are the absinthes that I tried last night, in the order that I drank them, along with the notes that I took throughout the process.
Versinthe Absinthe Superior, France This was the first one I tried, and I really liked it--very sweet, "soothing", I said. I got a chance to try it again at the end of the night, though, and was less impressed. It felt a bit flat compared to some of the really good ones. This was the only bottle less than 120 proof--at only 90 proof, I wonder if that caused the lack of body.
Sirene Absinthe Verte, Illinois
Made by the first distillery in Illinois since prohibition, and one of the very few American makers of Absinthe. They've really done a lot of work to make this in the traditional manner, and it shows. The first sip was like nothing I'd had before--still a strong taste of anise, of course, but with very strong floral notes. My notes say that it was "almost musky, dark. Added sugar and regretted it". This is the one bottle that I'm most likely to buy--it was one of the ones I liked the best, it was by far one of the most distinctive, and they're local heroes, from Evanston. They'll be setting up distillery tours by the end of the year, they hope.
St. George Absinthe Verte, California
This was the next one that I tried, and it's also based on the traditional recipes. Incredibly strong, and extremely bitter (that's the wormwood, I'm told--not that it necessarily indicates a higher percentage of thujone, just that the wormwood taste is allowed more prominence). Perhaps I could develop a taste for this in time, but it was way too strong for me now. Certainly unpleasantly bitter straight, but even with sugar water it was still too much.
Trillium Absinthe Superior, Oregon
This and St. George were the only two absinthes that I really disliked the whole evening. I grew to like it a bit more (and after adding sugar water) but it was still too strong for me. Not as bitter as the St. George, but very strong. A simple note here: "V. strong indeed. My lips hurt!". Mind you, 120 proof alcohol oftenhas a strong taste, but for absinthe this is actually on the low end. There were bottles at 138 proof that were infinitely more smooth.
Pernod Absinthe Superior, France
This was a huge surprise, because at one time Pernod was the acknowledged King of absinthe. Collectors still pay more for 19th century Pernod than almost any other absinthe. In addition, Pernod is an unfathomably large corporation--it turns out that they own AbsolutandBeefeater. In theory, if a small distillery in Evanston can make wonderful absinthe, then one of the largest corporations in the world with centuries of experience should be utterly transcendent.
Sadly, Pernod has apparently decided to go the route of Miller Lite. They only make one absinthe, and it is entirely inoffensive. It burns a bit straight up, and with water and sugar it becomes very mild and unexciting, with a strong anise flavor. That's it. Really, Pernod? Biggest disappointment of the evening (not that it was such a huge disappointment, just that the evening was awfully nice).
Nouvelle Orleans Absinthe Superior, France
Here's another absinthe that should have been incredible in theory. This time, it actually was! Ted Breaux is a chemist and microbiologist, and amassed a huge collection of vintage absinthe. He then extracted samples from each, and analyzed the chemical components in order to reverse engineer the original recipes (and wouldn't that violate the DCMA?). Using this knowledge, as well as a huge amount of historical research, he designed his own (and also designed Lucid, for another company).Wired Magazine covered him a while ago, and wrote a really cool article about it here.
It's made in extremely limited batches (the entire city of Chicago received 36 bottles lat month, and they retail for $120 a piece). However, although Nouvelle Orleans was at the top of this list for me, as far as favorites go, it was notwayat the top--I'd pay $10 more for it instead of, say, La Clandestine, but not $60 more.
This and Libertine both started out very clean, like good vodka. After the initial taste, though... well, I'll refer you to my notes. Mind you, this was the sixth absinthe I'd tried, and I hadn't had any dinner yet. "Nouvelle Orleans--nothing up front, then POW! HEAD ASPLODE WITH BITTER SWEET ANISE BOMB. YUM!" I added that it calmed down a bit with water, but still managed to retain its edge (unlike Pernod).
Mythe Absinthe Traditional, France
Straight up I found this absinthe to be very bitter, a lot like the St. George. With the addition of sweetened water, however, it was much tastier. It also reminded me of Sirene, although I did not like it as well. "Dark, with a sweet finish"
La Muse Verte Absinthe Traditionelle, France
This was one where it was too strong for me to drink straight, but it lost its character when I added sugar water. It's possible that I should have used regular water, or that I could have found just the right balance to make it work. Without water, though, it was "smoky and sharp, hard but not bitter".
Libertine Absinthe Superieure, France
Like Nouvelle Orleans, there was a distinct lack of taste up front, followed by a rush of flavor. In this case the flavor was less intense and less interesting--mainly just a nice anise. I spoke to the Libertine representative for a bit, and he claims that there are actually a lot of very subtle notes--it's quite likely that with more experience I'd be able to detect a subtlety that would make it more interesting, but currently I didn't notice the delicacies of it. My notes also tell me that its bouquet was "chemical", unlike a lot of the others (especially Sirene) which had a bouquet of "damp leaves". I think the damp leaves were a good thing, but the "chemical" sense wasn't unpleasant either.
Lucid Absinthe Superieur, France
This was one of three absinthes that I'd had before (thank you, Libby!) but it was really interesting to taste it in context. The representative from Libertine told me that he felt that the wormwood notes in Lucid were disproportionately strong--he said that essentially the designer (Ted Breaux, who makes Nouvelle Orleans) was making a deliberate statement. I wasn't able to detect anything like that explicitly, but it was more bitter than others. "All up front", I say in my notes, "a burst of bitter, but then nothing". So, to an extent this is the reverse of Nouvelle Orleans. (Or so it seems--I'd love to try them side by side). I added sweetened water, and it became "spicy, but comparitively unexciting".
Kubler Swiss Absinthe Superieur, Switzerland
This was getting towards the end of the night, and the end of the absinthes. I found Kubler, La Clandestine, and Absente to all be of very similar quality and flavor, which is to say excellant in both.
If I understood the representative from Sirene correctly, these three are all in the "Bohemian" style--the absinthes that Czechoslovakia started making in the 1970's and 1980's--as opposed the the traditional style. So, they have fewer herbal notes and more punch, and were also generally more sweet. Comparing these to Sirene (which is the more traditional style) is like comparing Reisling and Merlot--you might prefer one to the other, but they are very different flavors.
All three of them were extremely good to drink, and if I could afford a second bottle (not that I can afford an initial one!) it would be one of these. Sirene was exciting and interesting and very complicated, a great absinthe to start with, but these were less demanding while still being interesting and tasty. Kubler was one of the very few that I could drink straight up (which isn't how anyone really drinks absinthe, it seems) and with water it became "very pleasant indeed". I should add that when I say "pleasant", I don't mean the inoffensive pleasantness of the Pernod, but a very tasty, interesting drink that was relaxing and enjoyable. I liked it a lot.
Grande Absente Absinthe Originale, France
This was another of my favorites, and the other absinthe that I enjoyed undiluted. At this point in the evening I'd had an awful lot of high-proof alcohol, so I would love to go back and revisit just these three. My notes say, simply, "Also nice w/o water--sweet, pure like sugared moonlight. Some burning, and no mistake. I may be drunk. My tongue hurts. V. similar with sweet water, but less edgy"
La Clandestine Absinthe Superieur, Switzerland
Again, I don't have a clear understanding of the differences between this and Kubler or Grande, but I liked it a lot. I'm not sure how it tasted straight as opposed to dilute, because my notes only say, "THIS IS A GREAT PARTY!"
Absente Absinthe Refined, France
I liked this one almost as much as the previous three, and it was one of the few that I enjoyed almost as much with or without the sugar water. At this point my note taking had become more or less incoherent: "V. anise! Nice, but w / water it becomes even better. A good friend, warm and anise. Friendly and sweet!"
Le Tourment Vert, France
Of the absinthes that Libby bought, we strongly preferred this to the Lucid. Last night, however, it tasted almost medicinal by comparison to the others. Again, I'd love to try it again under better circumstances, but even the color looked artificial (not that that's a deal breaker, or anything, but since almost all of these are the same price it's ok to be picky).
Mata Hari Absinthe Bohemian, Austria
Well, I never thought that I would know enough about absinthe to be able to declare something "novelty absinthe", but this is it. This was the third absinthe that Libby had bought previously, and so I knew what it tasted like already (there's still a quarter-bottle at home, I think). I saved it for the end partially because I knew I liked it, and partially because I wasn't sure I'd still be standing.
It's very tasty, and I quite like it, but the anise has been all but obscured under the strong cinnamon flavor. It isn't as complex as a lot of the others, but is very good in it's own way, it just doesn't make too much sense to compare it to the rest. Note that although it is primarily cinnamon in tone, there is still enough anise to put off people who hate that taste.