Finally, Czech absinthes start to show some promise
Experts agree that Czech beer is among the best in the world. Similarly, those in the know agree that Czech absinthe isn’t. In fact, aficionados of the mythical elixir, known as absintheurs, have long argued that any absinthe brand spelled without that final “e” is probably best avoided, just like the apocryphal method of lighting the sugar on fire.
Since the European Union instituted standards for liquors containing wormwood (artemisia absintheia in Latin), the ban on absinthe has been dropped in several countries, with the result that absinthe production has resumed across the Continent, from Portugal to Bulgaria.
The Czech Republic, which never had a ban, has led the assault — largely an assault on the true character of absinthe. Only recently have several brands earned grudging recognition as potentially worthy of the final “e.”
Most “Czechsinths” are as far away in taste as they are in years from absinthes distilled in the 19th century. Old bottles of the classics from France and Switzerland do occasionally surface, and are highly coveted by absintheurs. Newer brands in those countries are now applying the original equipment and new, scientific analyses of pre-ban samples to faithfully recreate the authentic taste.
The classic flavor profile of absinthe comes from a blend of numerous herbs, particularly anise, florence fennel and wormwood, with anise in the fore. Hyssop, melissa, coriander, veronica, mint and citrus round out the core group, although the list needn’t end there.
Czechsinths are noted for being long on wormwood, an exceedingly bitter herb, while excluding (or nearly so) anise, which lends sweet notes. Without anise, absinthe will also fail to “louche” — that is, turn a milky color when water is added. Absintheurs prize a rich louche as a very integral part of a quality drink. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing to watch appear, but it’s also essential for developing the full flavor. The water, icy cold and dripped slowly into the waiting glass of absinthe, drives some of the essential oils of the herbs out from hiding in the high-alcohol solution of the liquor, creating the milky cloud and enhancing the resulting aroma and taste.
Absinthium 1792, produced by Trul holding a.s. in Mikulovice, was one of the first Czechsinths to contain enough essential oils from anise to produce an appreciable louche, and thus can be said to more nearly approach the flavor profile of the originals. But the taste is patently artificial, pre-sweetened with sugar (a true absinthe is not) and an unnatural emerald green in color. That said, it is palatable and has been successful enough to expand its market with Absinthium Red, a color which is a bit of an anomaly in the absinthe world, although there is precedent.
Trul’s Absinthiums are basically an alcohol base that’s been cut with water to a still-potent 70 percent alcohol solution, sweetened and flavored with only anise and wormwood oils (no other herbs are mentioned on the labels) and then colored. While this may keep the price low (339 Kč/$14.70), absintheurs maintain that an authentic absinthe should be distilled after real herbs have been left to macerate in the alcohol base.
Kyle J. Bairnsfather, who runs the company Sdružení pro výrobu a odbyt likérů s.r.o., which makes another of the more recent products on the market, Reality Absinthe (425 Kč), argues otherwise. He says, “Today we have exceptional filtration technology that is able to process the macerate, remove the solid herbs and leave the herbal qualities in place in the alcohol.” Reality Absinthe can boast that it is handmade from all natural ingredients, with a darker olive-green coloration. It is strongly aromatic and louches nicely to a cloudy green, though the louche has a tendency to fade as the drink warms. The taste is notably more complex than Trul’s, with a stronger, rawer taste of wormwood, since Bairnsfather opts for less anise because, as he says, “anise really dulls the taste buds.” The alcohol content is a more modest 60 percent.
Toulouse Lautrec Absinthe (720 Kč), a product introduced to the market by Cami Likérka of Dobronice u Bechyně during the past year, has probably done the most of any Czech absinthe to challenge the Czechsinth stereotype. Although it is only another “oil mix” made with extracts added to a 68 percent alcohol base rather than real herbs, absintheurs admit the flavor profile basically adheres to historical standards for a blanche, or clear, uncolored absinthe. Far less aromatic than Reality, Lautrec has a nice white louche and spicy, anise-y taste.
To date, there is still no legal definition of absinthe, which means plenty of pretenders will continue trying to cash in on the myths: that a liquor can make you hallucinate (it can’t), and that a bitter Czechsinth can do it more efficiently (it can’t). While we wait for more and better-tasting absinthes here, these three suggest there is awareness and will among some manufacturers.
The rest just can’t compare.
Quality absinthes can be hard to find. The Tesco at Národní třída sometimes stocks Toulouse Lautrec. Reality can be ordered through the Bairnsfather Web site (www.bairnsfather.net) and may be on the shelves of Dvorní Vinotéka at Ovocný Trh in Old Town. Trul products can be ordered through some specialty liquor stores.