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November 17, 2010

Absinthe: Unmasking the green fairy

After years of an international ban and a rapid return to mass marketability, small distillers of absinthe are returning the drink to respectability

Banned in most of the world in the early 20th century, absinthe is still struggling to emerge from its shrouded history, despite the lifting of most bans in more recent years.

While the Czech Republic has been at the forefront of the drink’s renaissance, by and large Czech absinth (often spelled without the final “e”) has not been the champion the “green fairy” deserves.

And yet the emerald tide is beginning to turn as a handful of producers return to traditional distillation methods. Among them is Martin Žufánek, head distiller at his family’s Distillery Žufánek in Boršice u Blatnice, on the slopes of the White Carpathian Mountains, who began making St. Antoine’s brand absinthe in 2008.

“Absinthe is a new creation invented in the 1990s which seeks to persuade the consumer that he’s drinking the infamous absinthe,” he said, “the one drunk 100 years ago in France.”
Although spelling is a good rule of thumb when perusing the shelves for top-quality spirits, there are exceptions to the rule.

Most Czech absinth falls into one of two distinct manufacturing methods: undistilled macerates or compounded oil mixes. If there is vegetal material in the bottle (or heaven forbid, a big bug) it’s a macerate, although most brands filter out any herb mass before bottling. The problem with this method is that one component in wormwood, absinthin, is extremely bitter, and it can only be removed through distillation.

Compounded absinths are created by adding concentrated oils or flavorings to an alcohol base. It’s possible that such examples of absinth existed 100 years ago, but no one has yet unearthed any examples. The essential oils used for this method can be distilled from plant matter, but the process is usually accomplished via steam extraction. The resulting flavors can differ from what one would get from distillation.

Žufánek calls compounded absinths “the worst possible absinthe experience.” So then what exactly should absinthe taste like?

“Historically, absinthe was described as having anise as the dominant flavor, and this is born out by the bottles of pre-ban absinthe discovered within the last few years,” said Cheryl Lins, founder and distiller at Delaware Phoenix Distillery in Walton, New York, a company specializing in absinthe.

The traditional process involves macerating wormwood, anise and fennel (and perhaps additional herbs) in high-proof alcohol, followed by distillation. If the final product is blanche (white), the absinthe is ready to go. If it is the more common verte (green), it undergoes a second herbal maceration.

Like Lins, the best distillers of modern-day absinthe have pored over old recipes and tasted samples of famous pre-ban brands like Pernod Fils.

The history of absinthe goes back more than 200 years, and it was first created as a medicinal drink in Switzerland. The first absinthe distillery was established in the town of Couvet, not far from Neuchatel, in the Val de Travers. Within a few years, the same producer established another distillery under the name Pernod Fils in the nearby French town of Pontarlier. For the next century, Pernod Fils absinthe would set the international standard as the popularity of the drink soared.

By the late 19th century, absinthe not only rivaled but surpassed wine as the drink of choice in France. And it is precisely this popularity that initiated much of the negative mythology attached to the drink to this day as the French wine industry vilified absinthe and blamed its abuse for many of society’s ills in an attempt to recapture market share. Because of absinthe’s widespread use, alcoholics of the day were commonly tarred as suffering from “absinthism.”

As the beverage became more associated with the seamier side of human behavior, the nascent science of the day put the blame squarely on a chemical constituent of the plant Artemisia absinthium (grand wormwood), the herb from which the drink gets its name.

The chemical in question is thujone, a proven neurotoxin, and in high doses thujone can indeed be fatal. However, thujone levels in absinthe are so low that one would expire from alcohol poisoning before ingesting enough thujone to cause harm. In fact, by using sage in stuffing for an

American Thanksgiving turkey, one ingests more thujone than in a full bottle of absinthe.
No matter how much some makers tout the thujone content of their products today, we now know from scientific testing that thujone is not and never was hallucinogenic.

As absinthe overcomes past misconceptions, there remain no legal definitions in place, outside of Switzerland, to guarantee what is inside each bottle. But even a legal definition, according to Lins, “wouldn’t prevent bad absinthe, nor regulate production ensuring good absinthe.”

Still, as Žufánek, who has likewise tasted pre-ban Pernod Fils, notes, “Codification of what is and is not absinthe would help the reputation of this delicious drink more than anything else.”

Semantics aside, there are now places in Prague carrying excellent examples of absinthes from distilleries in France and Switzerland, as well as from Distillery Žufánek, and other producers who stick to traditional methods, among them the Hemingway Bar and Absintherie.
In these capable hands, perhaps the green fairy will catch her second wind.

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