Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Avant La Fee Verte

I have been tasting absinthes for a few years now, but have never had a chance to write about them. Now that the trend has practically gone main-stream (I hate being a fashion setter) I thought I would put a few words down, especially as I've got a very interesting sample in front of me right now.

Apart from an odd tipple here and there in Prague and elsewhere in Europe, which was largely disappointing, my first real experience was a lovely Suisse Bleu, bought on line. It reminded me mostly of good Pernod, or Pastis, which I also adore. But the flavor was largely anise. Let me admit from the outset, this is not just alcohol, I don't care what anyone says. Not really hallucinogenic, but mind-altering. Making you both alert, inhibited and drunk at the same time. A fantastic combination if you ask me. Not like being too tipsy when you only think you're being lucid. But wide-eyed clarity.

This first trial was done by the book, with water, sugar cube and the fun spoon. The louche is lovely, but honestly, being a hardened veteran ouzo drinker (it's in my blood) I definitely prefer just ice. Similar louche and nice chilling effect without becoming too dilute. Call me untraditional.

Honestly, absinthe has a much longer history than dissolute Parisian cafes and symbolist poetry. That period has its charms, but it's really the 16th centurty that thrills me. And there are recipes, in pharmaceutical texts, Wecker is a good example, that must be considered if not the ancestors of absinthe, then indeed the real thing avant le mot propre. Or sometimes with the word.

So I've been trying lately to get closer to the ur-absinthe. Not too long ago I bought a "Clandestine" absinthe from the Val du Travers, which was really gorgeous. Tastes truly of wormwood and not anise. I've grown wormwood before, but it is so bitter and nasty, that I'm convinced you really need to know what you're doing to make something palatable out of it - i.e. with a still, not soaked in alcohol (though that was also done for medicines in the past - to purge worms of course).

But today there arrived a Roquette 1797, which claims to be an early form of the drink. What immediately surprised me is not only the lurid neon-green color, but that it doesn't really cloud. Maybe a little after sitting in the glass with ice for a half hour, but not dramatically. More amazing is the bouquet, sort of medicinal, like a Chinese grocery store, with a touch of funk. Absolutely nothing of the sweet anise pastis flavor. This is pure distilled wormwood as far as I can tell, with other minor herbal notes, maybe mint, or savory. Something I can't quite put my finger on. But extremely appealing. At first, it's a whopping 75%, like battery acid. But seriously mellows with the ice melting. But it's still flourescent. And the flavor is more rounded. I swear there's something reminiscent of fish. Not in an unappealing way in the least.

Now you can tell me if I've waxed completely incoherent after a few sips. The effects are immediate and intense.

But before I leave, let me give you a recipe invented over Thanksgiving, using the Clandestine.

Take a shot of absinthe and put it in a flute. Pour over good Brut Champagne, two shots of bitters and a fresh lychee. Called an Opal Eyeball. Killer.

Yours, Ken


Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Ah, Ken! You will have to try my homemade version of the Green Fairy when you coming to Sacramento for dinner. I do pure grain alcohol and soak the herbs rather than use the still method, which could make you go blind if I am uncareful...mine does not taste of anise, although there is a little bit in there, and it is neon green. Maybe you will like it - I'd love to get your thoughts, as the onnly absinthe expert I know...

Gary said...

The only absinthe I've tried was home-made (not by me, by a student worker). I did not experience the clarity you described -- there was the alcoholic buzz, but with a side of novocain.

The bitterness was good, though -- and not too strong an anise presence (and I love that anisic intensity in ouzo and pastis).

BTW, one of the reasons absinthe is getting so much press these days is because the FDA is now allowing certain absinthes to be sold in the US -- as a result of changes in the rules regarding thujone amounts permitted. I believe that about five companies are formulating absinthes with legally-acceptable thujone contents. I suspect that they will not offer quite the same experience enjoyed by the Parisian demi-monde a century ago.

Ken Albala said...

Yes, Gary, FDA exactly. And there was an article in the times the other day about a guy in Alameda actually making the first absinthe in the US in a hundred years. For commercial sale that is. I must get my hands on some! St. George I think was the name?

Gary said...

Recently, the Combier distillery began producing absinthe for the Viridian Company, this time with the American market in mind. Tall black bottles of Lucid Absinthe SupĂ©rieure began to appear on liquor store shelves in the spring of 2007 – for the first time in nearly a century.

It's not cheap -- selling for about $70 per bottle (yet another difference from the 19th-century green fairy)