Behind the Awards

Time to post one of the oldest pieces sitting in my drafts folder. Alternatively titled “How to Get Blacklisted from the Spirits Industry”.

Before I go into some depth on this rant let me say that I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Most educated absintheurs seem to feel exactly the same way. I also know that some people might hate my guts for this. It’s just a topic that comes up every time someone wins an award for an absinthe.

Let me also say, this just pertains to absinthe. Awards for whisk(e)y, rum, vodka, gin, and whatever else are not on the table here. This is an absinthe blog so this is just relevant to absinthe.

So without further disclaimers let me get straight to the point. Not a single medal ever awarded to any modern absinthe means anything. This might change in the future but just because you see a portfolio that’s heavy with awards or a nice medal sticker on a bottle, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good absinthe. Sure some good absinthes sport an award, but so do many crappy brands and even fauxsinthes.

gold-medal-everyone
Absinthe: More egalitarian than my generational stereotype!

The problem is absinthe’s greatest general problem; a lack of education. More often than not a lack of judges willing to educate themselves. Why care about such a niche market? That’s the greatest problem, and there are others, but for the most part judges don’t know enough about absinthe to know what the hell they are doing. Do they know the difference between the taste of wormwood and tails (huge difference but some newbies confuse the two)? Can they tell if the absinthe is historically accurate by taste? Do they even judge to standards or just to what they personally like?

You can contact the organizations putting on these awards, but if you have my luck you will not get an answer.

Instead of just bitching about how I don’t give any credit to awards I’ll offer up some solutions to the problems that I see.

1. No producers, distillers, brand ambassadors, etc. on the judges panel.
This should be obvious but anyone financially involved with an absinthe being judged has a vested interest in skewing the results towards their favor. You can be sure that even in a blind tasting they can pick their product out of the set. This is a terrible thing to see, but also the hardest to work around. Often the people who know the most about absinthe are also the ones making it.

2. Double blind process.
Speaking of blind tasting here’s another good way to remove bias. Blind simply means that the judge doesn’t know what they are judging. Instead it is listed as “1”, “Q”, or “Square”. You double that up with the person administering the tasting having no clue either. No helpful winks from the lady setting down a glass in front of you. Only those who poured out of the bottles know which symbol relates to which brand, and they don’t get to see the judges until it is over. This method is used in experimental science to remove bias and for any serious competition it should be used as well.

3. Educated judges.
Do the judges know absinthe or have they only tasted one or two before this competition? Why should I trust the results? Did one judge give high marks to an absinthe he said had “Aromas of popcorn, vinyl, wet cement and chalk”? If so, I don’t trust him because that sounds gross, and not like what any absinthe should smell like. Also, for those in the know, that’s not what I think that particular absinthe smells like either.

4. Openness of criteria and process.
I like data. If I see an award the first thing I’m going to do is critique the award. Was the absinthe critiqued on aroma and taste only or did they take into account color and louche? Was the absinthe presented accurately or did a bunch of people drink it straight like complete rubes? Was the entrance criteria focused on historically accurate absinthe or just anything labeled absinthe? If your competition actually means anything then you should have nothing to fear from disclosing your methods. Also, disclose sponsors. If “Brand X” gets double gold and was also a majority sponsor of the event then I have some serious questions that need answers. Are judges forced to give an award to the top few or can they withhold an award? This last one is especially interesting considering the size of absinthe market might mean only three entrants. That’s an immediate medal just for entering, if medals can’t be withheld.

5. No more awards for bottle and label design.
That stuff belongs to art and marketing competitions, not spirits awards. What matters here is what is on the inside of the bottle. There’s a certain brand out there that enters in to any competition they can and has a huge array of awards. Very few of those awards are for what is inside the bottle. Presenting awards for the outside only confuses the consumer at best and outright dupes them at worst. Imagine if people thought the above mentioned brand was actually good because they see awards everywhere? Most would probably think they’ve had the good stuff and say that they don’t like absinthe, when if they had real absinthe, they just might like it.

6. No drunk judges.
Do the judges properly spit or do they drink it down and get plastered? How many absinthes do they review at a time? If I see a competition that goes through 20 absinthes in a row (and I have), I don’t really trust those last 10 results if there wasn’t a healthy amount of time between them all for the judges to let their palates recoup and brains sober up.

There’s not a single award given to absinthe that doesn’t fall prey, in a large way, to at least one of the above. So both large and small I discredit all awards and competitive events when it comes to absinthe. There’s just not enough awareness and knowledge among the general population to trust a “judge”. I know because I’ve tasted winners of the same event with vastly different impressions. I see high medals given to oil mixed cheapsinthe, fake absinthe, and artificially colored nonsense which ruins the credibility of these awards.

Some of you may be asking why bother with repairing these awards at all? We have websites with consumer reviews and averaged scores, so what gives, just use those? The answer is simple. Average Joe at the liquor store will see a medal and make a decision. They don’t want to surf the web for half an hour to get reassurance on a $70 bottle. That medal gives the consumer a sense of reassurance, and marketers know this. Medals are great for separating the good from the bad, but only if they actually mean something. Otherwise it’s a duplicitous endeavor that hurts the category by turning otherwise interested people away. Absinthe is coming back, slowly. As a niche category it’s even more important that standards be upheld, lest real absinthe be lost to history yet again.

Pernod Comes Clean?

There are several absinthe sites out there with news of Pernod finally making an absinthe without artificial colors. They call it “The Original Recipe”. Excuse me while I don’t hold my breath. Pernod has done quite a bit to earn skepticism with many absintheurs over the years.

Their current absinthe product tastes like essential oils mixed with vodka and it is artificially colored green with food dye. It’s pretty much as bad as fauxsinthe while still maintaining just enough of a flavor profile for a few to consider it an absinthe.

As of March 5th the TTB approved their new label for sale in the United States (Yep, U.S. Absinthe Day). The label is actually important. Many European bartenders found out that the current Pernod was artificially dyed due to the United States requiring any food coloration used to also be listed on the label. The EU Spirits regulations have no such law and such information wasn’t disclosed over there. On the new label we see a few changes as well as some different PR on the back.

NewPernodFront
Pernod’s New Front Label
NewPernodBack
Pernod’s New Back Label

The change that is attracting the most attention is the lack of artificial dye listed. This means that they are legally obligated to use a natural coloration process instead of artificial coloring. This is a plus no matter how you cut it as any absinthe worth drinking should never have artificial coloring, if colored at all.

Another change is “The Original Recipe” being used on the front label. Pernod Fils had a few recipes over the years so they could choose from many. In any case I’ve tasted a few vintage Pernod absinthes and I’m skeptical about this claim. Not to mention the company hasn’t made a true absinthe since the 1960s. Tastebuds will be the true test. Hopefully it will be an authentic absinthe, but I’d bet that it still cuts corners of some sort.

The Swiss are happy that Pernod no longer claims the be inheritors of the first ever absinthe distillery and instead they now claim the first one in France. This is finally a correction on a long running historically inaccurate claim in their previous copy. It is also finally true, although Pernod-Ricard is not exactly the same as Pernod Fils in many ways.

Aside from the other more minor changes, this brings up an interesting dilemma. Do absintheurs embrace a change towards the better, especially by a spirits industry giant? Or, do we hold the company accountable for the falsehoods it peddled the past few years while claiming to have an actual absinthe on the market?

It’s hard to say but without the hard work of artisan distillers making actual absinthe that is historically correct, would Pernod even bother with this change? The absinthe market knows many woes but a change towards historical accuracy has been winning, especially in America. Has this forced Pernod’s hand to re-do their product or is their another motive, such as the ever heated EU definition of absinthe currently being debated?

Even so, why give money to an industry giant who has been getting away with outright lies for the past few years? There are many distillers involved with absinthe who have never cut those corners and who deserve your money more than those making a quick buck with oil mixes and food dye in vodka.

For the average consumer this will be a change for the better. How many people look at vodka, rum, tequila, whiskey, or other spirit labels for authenticity? My guess is that the general public doesn’t.¬† For them this is a good change, as it will hopefully give them another mass market product that is actually absinthe (aside from Lucid who has been historically accurate since day one).

For the rest of us, the absintheurs, we already know what’s good. Many of us have tasted pre-ban, memorized scientific papers and have forgotten about more historical data than Pernod has locked away. Connoisseurs like us owe it to those who dared to spare no expense and make absinthe the right way. Sure I might buy a bottle of the new Pernod to see what it’s like. But when it comes to buying bottles again, both my knowledge and tastebuds will do the shopping.

P.S. Although it may seem like I’m just out for Pernod-Ricard’s blood, it’s only for how much they fail with absinthe. For an industry giant they are otherwise a respectable company and their BARSmarts program for bartenders is actually worth taking. I don’t hate the company at all, just their lame attempt at absinthe.

Happy Absinthe Day!

Happy Absinthe Day to all Absintheurs!

I raise my glass to all of you who are creating a wonderful return of absinthe both worldwide and in America.

A Junod Absinthe Ad
A happy day indeed!

This also marks the 1 year anniversary of my blog!

Sante!

2012 In Review

What a year! Both for Absinthe and myself  this has been a busy, busy year.

Here’s me padding my postcount with a review of the top posts of 2012, because the year was just that awesome!

March 5th: I start this blog on National Absinthe Day. This is kind of, maybe, quite possibly significant for the blog.

June 8th: A terribly short post about the first ever Great American Absinthe Festival. It was awesome and I can’t wait for the next one. Of significance was a testing of the new review guidelines from the Wormwood Society, which turned out to be a great success.

July 11th: I fan the flames and report on some inside politics of the Absinthe business. Not surprisingly this was a love it or hate it moment for many readers and associates of mine. I follow up with several other articles later on in the year continuing my trend of alienating my audience.

July 23rd: The Absinthe Crash Course. To date one of the most widely read articles on the blog. If you haven’t gone through it, I’d suggest starting there.

September 10th: A bit of personal history and some shaming of a large alcohol company trying to cash in on the Absinthe trend with designer bottles and little else. Once again I’m making more friends and enemies. Taking a stance can be terribly polarizing to your social group.

November 19th: Some friendly advice for the trendy “craft distilling” movement that is cropping up in the United States. A must read for those who want to make Absinthe a part of their professional life.

December 29th: I end the year with advice aimed at bartenders and serving Absinthe. Think of this as an afterward to my Crash Course.

With that year behind us I can only tell you guys to stay tuned. There are three posts in my drafts folder that are requiring a bit of extensive research and patience. I’ll continue to post news and tidbits as well. Needless to say it’s going to be a wonderful year ahead for the blog and American Absintheurs from coast to coast.

Until next time!
Woof!, er… Sante!

Absinthe 101 for Bartenders

I have to do this, enough is enough.

I know that right after telling craft distillers “how to do their job” that I’m coming off as shoulder-chip-lecture-man but I just can’t help it anymore.

Let’s say you’re a bartender, and you don’t know shit about absinthe. You don’t want a lecture either, all you want is a short guide on what to do with it behind the bar. This post is for you.

How to Correctly Serve Absinthe

First you need to make sure that what’s behind your bar is actually absinthe and not some fake product. For that see my Absinthe Crash Course. However, unless you’re the General Manager, Head Bartender, or Owner you probably don’t get to stock the bar.

Here’s what to do with what you’ve got.

1. First make some ice-water. Fill up either a water carafe, shaker, bar glass, or a fountain with ice and water. For each glass of absinthe you’ll need 3-5 ounces of cold water, depending on proof. More on that later but for now chill some water.

2. In a 6 ounce glass, or absinthe glass, pour AN OUNCE of absinthe. If your bar has you pouring more just adjust the following ratios accordingly.

3. Sugar and spoon. Unless the customer requests otherwise, put a sugar cube on a slotted spoon and wet it with a few drops of water. This pre-soak will help the sugar dissolve easier.

4. Pour the ice water (without the ice) over the sugar until you are at three to five ounces of water per ounce of absinthe. Absinthes with a lower proof (90-120) require less water and higher proof (120-160) require more. If you want details head over to this handy tool.

Van_Gogh_Vincent_Glass_of_Absinthe_and_Carafe
Just like in the old days, thanks Vincent Van Gogh!

Ta-da! The original method. This is necessary to do as absinthe was, and still is, bottled at a high proof to preserve the botanical content. All those good flavors are trapped in ethanol, and are meant to be diluted and released. Which brings me to my next point.

How to Fuck Up Absinthe

Here’s what most of you are doing. It could be apathy, ignorance, a combo of both or whatever. I don’t care what your excuse is but you are fucking it up and people think they dislike absinthe all because you can’t serve it correctly.

1. Serving it straight or as a shot. It’s high proof so this burns out tastebuds for whatever comes next as well as not releasing all the flavors of the absinthe. If people say that it tastes like nail polish remover, then this is usually why.

2. Lighting it on fire. The fire ritual, or bohemian style, was invented in Europe as a way to attract attention to fake absinthe at tourist traps (see this post for evidence). All those flavors trapped in ethanol you now burn off. Once again, it tastes horrible.

3. Just lighting the sugar on fire. I doubt you can pull this off without also lighting the absinthe on fire, so this is never really an excuse but once again you are adding that burnt absinthe nail-polish flavor as well as burnt caramel to absinthe. No fire, ever, got that?

No Fire!
Seriously.

4. Under or over-watering. Too strong and you shortchange the absinthe of its full potential. Too diluted and it tastes weak. If you are worried and want stability stick to three parts water to one part absinthe, and give the patron a glass of ice water, which they should already have.

But…

1. “In bartending school…” Stop right there. Half of what you learned is bullshit meant to promote specific products, and not just the absinthe section either. I’m BARSmarts certified and they just glossed over absinthe, horribly. Screw the school, you’d be better off barbacking and learning the ropes the old-fashoined way.

2. “I went to Europe and…” You went to Europe and got conned, get over it. I have Historical and Scientific proof to your tourist trap and frat house rumors. I was conned once too, now I know better.

3. “Absinthe huffing like in Vegas!” Seriously? You really didn’t think before blurting that one out, did you? They took your paycheck and revealed your idiocy. Twice over most likely.

Cocktails!

I’d give you a list or something but Drinkboy teaches better, and you’re not getting all my secrets.

Sante!

… and many thanks to those who treat the Green Goddess with the respect she deserves!

The Microdistillery Boom and Absinthe

The next big thing in American drinking seems to be craft distilling. Much like the craft brewing trend a few decades ago this has some ups and downs. I’m all for it. We will get some duds but that will sort itself out after a while. What does seem to be interesting is the idea for each craft distillery to try their hand at Absinthe.

As I love the Green Fairy there are a few things I would like to point out to these intrepid distillers in the hopes of keeping domestic Absinthe at the high quality that it has surprisingly enjoyed since 2007.

First things first, you’re not first. While you might be the first in your state you are by far not the first American craft distiller to do a historically accurate Absinthe, not by a long shot. There are Absinthes out there with tweaked traditional recipes and those that are spot on recreations down to the antique style pot-still used. Do some homework on the most respected brands from America to see what you’re up against. While you’re at it, get some imports as well, especially if they are for sale in America.

Speaking of all this, do some research. What does real Absinthe taste like? What are the historical traditions? How do you prepare it? What style variations exist? If you haven’t already done so, check out my crash course for a quick and dirty answer to these questions. As a distiller it would be wise to do some more research, especially if you find a direction to move in.

Respect tradition. I’m not saying you have to be a purist. By all means put your artistic spin on your product and make it stand out in the marketplace. You’ll need to if you want to survive. Just know where you come from. A vodka should “taste” like vodka, not tequila. Gin should taste like gin, not whiskey. Absinthe should be recognizable as Absinthe, not something completely different.

Respect Absinthe. If you know what Absinthe is, then you know what it’s not. All these ideas of wild, near drug experiences are just rumor and you know it. Please don’t market your product with gimmicky nods to false promises and shock-value stupidity. There’s an established Absinthe scene in the states and they hold the misaligned spirit dear to their hearts. Don’t spit in their face and treat them like some naive goth kid who is only out for a shock, you’ll regret it if you do.

While this might seem obvious to my readers I feel that this mini-lecture should be out there. I’ve already tasted and reviewed one domestic Absinthe that mimicked horrid fauxsinthe all too well. For the most part American Absintheurs have enjoyed decent to superior Absinthe being made in the states. It would be a shame to see our craft distilling boom take that away from us.

American Drinkers are Slobs

Google’s latest acquired rating service, Zagat, released a nice article about the Ten Most Annoying Cocktail Trends as voted by the readership. Although Absinthe didn’t make the list, some things point out why Absinthe has a difficult time coming back among Americans.

1. Too Many Ingredients. Fine I can sympathize with this one. If some cocktail has twelve ingredients and I skip one, you should notice. If you don’t, then it doesn’t need to be there. There are some cocktails with many ingredients where if you skip one it’s ruined, but I have a feeling those are less in number than people might think. Likewise, improving a cocktail by removing an ingredient is a sad realization. That Absinthe rinse you do to every cocktail better be worth it, and better not screw anything up.

2. Drinks over $15. Granted, a well Martini shouldn’t cost more than a few bucks but I can make a fancy one that costs $12 before any markup. If you want a fancy drink with top-shelf ingredients, then prepare to pay fancy top-shelf prices. Some bars with more style than substance might overcharge for crap (there’s one in my town), but for the most part respect the years of technique that not only go into crafting exquisite booze but also the fine-tuned cocktails from a knowledgeable bartender.

3. Weird Vodka Flavors. I want to sympathize here but I can’t. The market has tons of these and most are gimmicky low-brow attempts to sell stuff to people who don’t really like booze. However, there’s a baby in this bathwater and I have seen some bars do wonders with the right flavor extractions. Again, there’s one in my town that makes their own flavored vodkas and they do it well, even though it’s not my style of bar. Whether they use Bacon, or Tobacco these vodkas actually add something to the cocktails they are in. Let the craftsmen experiment. Vodka is only truly flavorless by American definition anyways, so show some international hospitality and allow for this backdoor.

4. Molecular Cocktails. So the name is douchetastic. There’s also the danger of someone using liquid nitrogen incorrectly and having your stomach removed. Like any trend someone is going to take things a bit too far. But most people don’t realize is that this is an old trend. From the flaming citrus garnish to the opening up of a scotch with a few drops of water, the sight smell and flavor can be enhanced on a small molecular level. Marketers know that we drink with our eyes first and design labels on that premise. Tasters know the incredible value of scent while imbibing. So once again let the craft be creative. Just because you don’t know why it’s important doesn’t make it less so.

5. Twee Serving Vessels. This goes right in hand with the trend towards old style cocktails. Most of those were made with higher proof booze so a four ounce glass was just fine. We migrated towards bigger drinks with the trashy trend of mixers (gasp, yes it was a trend at one time) and the lowering of class, er… proof down to the common 80. If you made a truly historic cocktail with the correct ABV, and you doubled it to fit an eight ounce glass, one would hammer you. Sometimes a smaller glass just fits the recipe. The Chrysanthemum is a great example of something that gets drowned in modern sized glasses.

6. Herbal and Floral Infusions. Fuck you. I love herbal and floral tastes. Your palate of cheeseburger and soda might not but then again I don’t want fat and sugar all over my cocktails. Let’s agree to disagree here. Back to my blogs topic of Absinthe, this is one point of the American palate that prevents us from enjoying Absinthe. We can’t tell the difference between Star Anise, Aniseed, and Fennel because we don’t eat that kind of food. Most Americans would say all three taste like licorice, whereas international gourmets would be damned to make that statement. On behalf of America, I’m sorry Europe.

7. Bacon in Drinks. Again not my cup of tea but let people experiment. If you don’t like it then don’t drink it. Let those who do have their fun.

8. Enough with the Retro. I somewhat agree here. The elitist hipsterism of bartenders looking like some 1920’s nobody can get on my nerves. Retro cocktails though, are amazing. Cocktails that were made as good tasty drinks instead of covering up prohibition’s bad booze are a retro goldmine. It’s all about taste, and I personally love cocktail onions. Another problem with retro is that it’s presence might stifle creativity. My Chrysanthemum and Sazerac aren’t a purists dream but I’ll bet you ten to one that they taste better. Honor your roots but don’t let them hold you back. As for Absinthe, it has no choice but to be retro and slightly hipster, as it was banned before banning booze was cool.

9. Metal Straws. Straws are for kids anyways, what are all you immature people ordering?

10. Cocktail Snobbery. This is more than slightly hypocritical to say at the end of this rant but I hate it too. I’m no mixologist but rather a cocktologist, for a reason. If you are trying to look like a gentleman and order a drink in a fedora then you fail anyways as a gentleman takes his hat off indoors. Developing an ego solely based on what you drink is sad and you have some serious self-reflection to do. Please have some style but for fucks sake do it right and without the hipster ego. This might have more to do with going to the wrong place. Don’t expect a hip speakeasy to have the same style of patrons an old-door saloon does. Why are you wearing a hoodie in a Martini Bar (guilty) or a full suit at the Punk-Rock Dive (guilty as well)?

In the end, grow up and have some style. Whether it’s the leather jacket and whiskey at the biker bar or the retro love affair of multi-ingredient infused classics with a molecular twist, have yours and let others have theirs but have some at least.