Absinthe Crash Course: Part 2, Styles.

So you’ve had your first glass, tasted real absinthe, and now you want more. Well, you could just stick to the same ol’ bottle, which is a safe bet if you like it. Or you could go exploring. I like exploring, so here’s a rough field guide to absinthe variations.

Part 2: Styles.

Once again I’m going to bring in history as my litmus test for absinthe here. Sure, you can find all kinds of colors, and styles, and grades, and whatever marketing gimmick of the day catches your eye. Most of that is made up and is about as relevant as one flavored vodka to the next. Here’s what historically went down.

The two historically authentic styles of absinthe are verte and blanche, meaning green and white respectively. There’s debate about which style came first, or which was marketed first, but that is superfluous. In the heyday of absinthe, green and white were both on the market.

Vertes

Verte absinthe was and still is the most common. This absinthe is made with a basic set of herbs soaked (macerated) in neutral spirits which are then distilled. After the clear liquid comes out of the still it is steeped with coloring herbs, which add another layer of flavors and the chlorophyll in the plants dyes the mixture a natural green. If this color is left to age in sunlight, heat, or oxygen it will often turn yellow or brown. This is called “feuille-morte” or dead leaf. Dead leaf is not necessarily a defect but many people prefer the green color. Dark bottles to block the UV light are often used to preserve the color of vertes.

Historically there are regional variations for verte absinthes. Most of these have to do with the producers of one region using one or two extra herbs, or substituting another. Sometimes the ratios were changed but overall they were more similar than different. A good resource for those interested in these regional variations is the Duplais Distilling Manual of 1871. These are just rough guidelines as to the ingredients, not necessarily the flavor. I’ve tasted two Pontarlier-style vertes side by side and noticed drastic differences in flavor. Each brand will always be unique in its own way.

Not covered in the Duplais manual are the Spanish Absentas, with their typically more citrus notes, the subtle Swiss Vertes, and of course, modern interpretations of absinthe.

I’m not one for too much tradition. It is very important that we recognize and learn about the past, but we should never be stuck there. To this end, many distillers take these recipes and offer a spin on them, either by changing the ratios or adding different and unique herbs. The biggest thing to look for in a verte is complexity and robustness.

Blanches

I’ll be honest, I’m more of a verte drinker, but there are some blanches that are out-of-this-world tasty. A good blanche is indeed a treat. In the distilling manual linked to above, there is a recipe for a blanche and you will notice that there are a lot more herbs present in the distillation.

The reason for this is that without the additional flavors from the coloration herbs, blanches wouldn’t have that complex of a flavor. Indeed, even today many blanches are known for being simpler in taste. This is not always the case, as many good blanche absinthes will round out the basic set of herbs with more flavors and create a wonderfully complex drink.

There is also a subset of Blanches known as “la bleue” absinthe. These absinthes come out of the Swiss tradition of distilling absinthe – even when it was illegal to do so. Originally the term “la bleue” was used as slang much like the American term “moonshine”. Today it represents recipes that were made during absinthe prohibition. The Swiss chose blanche-style absinthes to easily conceal the true contents of the bottles.

Another subset is what I call the “green blanche”. These are blanche absinthes dyed green with artificial colors because people expect absinthe to be green. I suggest staying away from such trickery. After all, red dye doesn’t make a white wine into a red wine.

Rouge

Red absinthe. If you want to start a fight at an absinthe convention just say the word “rouge”. Historically, there is a wonderful poster advertising Rosinette Absinthe. That’s it. There are no surviving bottles or recipes. We know nothing more than the poster. Hell, it could’ve been a mock-up for something that never made it to market. I for one am intrigued by this mystery and as soon as I get somewhere with figuring out this conundrum, I’ll blog about it.

Somewhere along the lines there was a theory that a rouge absinthe became red through the use of hibiscus in the coloration step. There’s ZERO proof of this available to anyone. I’ve heard of a super-secret hidden recipe. But without the ability to verify such a claim, that recipe gets filed under the “rumor” section.

Nowadays, many people make a blanche absinthe and use hibiscus for red coloring. Anyone familiar with hibiscus tea knows the floral tartness of the flower and it comes across heavily in many of these rouge absinthes. That isn’t to say they are not good, but be prepared for a shockingly tart taste when compared to a verte or blanche.

Also, like the green blanches that I mentioned above, there are many rouges out there that are simply blanches artificially dyed red.

In any case, caveat emptor.

Other

Sometimes you will see a word on absinthe labels. This is a word meaning fake bullshit. This word is “Bohemian”.

It is honestly a sad story when you get down to the bottom of it, and it is hard not to have some sympathy for the devil. Bohemian refers to Bohemia which is a region of the Czech Republic. To understand how absinthe became associated with this place, you first need to understand a bit of Czech history.

The Nazis, followed by the Soviets wiped out Czech culture and history. I mean, wiped it right the hell out. Historical records burned, people executed, underground clubs sought out and destroyed. There is a fascinating story of an underground tea club that hid in fear of death for exploring TEA! (Mutineer #18) We are talking oppression for decades.

In 1989 the Czech people somewhat peacefully fought their way to freedom. They were left with almost nothing. To this end was an attempt to create, market, and brand a culture that no one remembered as it was wiped out by complete assholes. Oddly enough they started a fight with Germany over the invention of the Hamburger. This was political backlash. Then they took beer recipes that had survived the Soviet Era. Now they were known for booze. What else could they capitalize on?

The under-regulated country was becoming known for drug tourism so a few enterprising people, now known as the Czech Absinthe Mafia, decided to market a unique drug, absinthe. They had no clue what it was but according to pop culture, it had wormwood and it would make you hallucinate. So they set about to fleece tourists with industrial alcohol soaked with wormwood and often dyed greener than comic book radiation. Then, this “Mafia” needed a way to attract attention to the drink. They noticed that flaming shots were popular with their target market so they invented a flaming ritual for absinthe to attract attention to the drink. Since the drug/hallucination bit was always false, some producers added things like marijuana to get a drug effect as there isn’t any with real absinthe. This caught on over many holidays for ‘daring’ college kids on break and so a trend was born.

There you go: fake (bohemian) absinth(e). The problem was that the la bleue distillers did know what real absinthe was, they just couldn’t exactly let everyone else know, because what they were doing was illegal. Some historians were in the same boat having pre-ban in their possession. Not to mention, a boring story about absinthe truths would’ve never suited the movie industry’s penchant for exaggeration, jokes, and fantasy.

To the credit of the Czech Absinthe Mafia, they sparked interest in a drink that had otherwise gone so far underground it would’ve never resurfaced. The newfound freedoms of Prague became notorious among college kids from wealthier nations and they returned home with stories of this absinthe stuff in the 1990s. There was no way these kids could’ve known that it was fake. The internet’s gift of quick information wasn’t in everyone’s home yet. You would’ve needed to delve deep as hell in obscure history books to find out the scam. So it continued, and twenty years later Bohemian absinthe has become a tradition in Eastern Europe, even though it is completely fake.

The Czech scam artists sparked an interest that lit the fires under some of the people who could delve deep. These people were scientists who had the chemistry knowledge to reverse engineer pre-ban samples, lawyers to overturn Swiss laws and legalize clandestine distilleries, and historians worldwide. Bohemian absinth has a place in absinthe history for, at the very least, drawing the world’s attention to absinthe again.

But that doesn’t make it any less fake.

The Absinthe Crash Course:
Part 1: Your First Glass.
Part 2: Styles.
Part 3: Myths.
Part 4: Further Education.

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6 thoughts on “Absinthe Crash Course: Part 2, Styles.

  1. Yeehaw says:

    “The Nazis, followed by the Soviets wiped out Czech culture and history. I mean, wiped it right the hell out”

    Yes, they erased everything! Like the aliens do when they abduct you and stick probes up your ass. How Europe must envy the lush cultural oasis of modern America.

    • Sorry you took offense to that. Both groups, were in fact, very unkind to the Czech people. I’m pointing this out to the reader unfamiliar with Czech history so they understand why there is a gap in history and culture. Granted you can’t wipe out everything and people are still uncovering things, but a large part was sadly lost.

      I ran this by two friends with Czech ancestry, one actually born and raised in Prague. They felt that the comment was fitting to what happened.

  2. Viseguy says:

    Just getting into absinthe (well, the idea of it; haven’t actually tried it — yet) and was glad to run across your very helpful Crash Course.

    One quibble: You say, “[After 1989 the Czechs] took beer recipes that had survived the Soviet Era. Now they were known for booze.” But Czech beer had been renowned for centuries before the Berlin Wall fell. It was especially prized (and hard to come by) in the Soviet Union, as the beer produced there was well described by the German phrase “warme Pisse”. In 1973, in the height of the Brezhnev era, I was driving through the Caucasian mountains on the Georgian Military Road. A motorcyclist pulled us over. He had noticed the small “USA” sign in our rear window. Beaming, he pulled four or five *cold* Czech beers out of his sidecar, passed them around, and drove off. He may as well have been handing out hundred-dollar bills.

  3. Ondrej says:

    Re: “So it continued, and twenty years later Bohemian absinthe has become a tradition in Eastern Europe, even though it is completely fake”

    There are 2 producers of several excellent absinths in Czech republic at least; St. Antoine, La Grenouille and l’Anciene are world top class absinths and Bairnsfathers absinths are very promising too.

    • True, but the wonderful Zufanek absinithes (whom I mention elsewhere) are not “Bohemian” style. Although they come from the Czech Republic, they are all vertes. I highly recommend La Grenouille and L’Ancienne.

      I would never pay for the Bairnsfathers offerings. They claim to not distill their absinthe. This makes it not absinthe. Distillation, contrary to their belief, is not as “destructive” as they claim and is necessary to make a historically accurate absinthe. Sebor, Bohem, Reality, and the rest of their line are well known as fakes.

      The Bairnsfather website also has a wealth of unverified misinformation about wormwood and thujone which they use to market their product. None of the claims are cited and all have been disproven by actual science that passed the peer-review process for scientific journals (see http://www.thujone.info for those articles). They can claim all sorts of things but history and modern science prove them false. In short, they are a great example of how fauxsinthe producers are trying to stay alive as the consumer base for absinthe becomes more educated to the reality of absinthe.

      • Ondrej says:

        I am glad you like Zufanek’s absinths. I thought the same thing about Bairnsfather absinth as you. After I met people who know both producers personally I changed my mind little bit. When you consider producers according to their web sites you see only business side of it and you cannot estimate the passion and care they give to their job.
        I tasted several Bohemian macerates from different companies and the taste was really awful. Bairnfathers Extra Anise was just an experiment for me, but it was a big surprise also. I did not expect any louche effect, but it was decent. The taste was very strong but good at first, especially for my wife, who loves the anise taste. Because the absinth is not distilled, the aftertaste is very bitter. It is not pleasant, but it is not so bad. If the Bairnsfather distill it, it will be excellent absinth – believe me ;) I must admit that after this brand of absinth I feel different. I don’t know if it depends on thujon or anything else from macerate, but it has got definitely strong effect. I prefer distilled absiths, but believe me, Bairnsfathers extra anise worth a try after all.

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