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.
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.
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.
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.
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.