|Undiluted Absinthe Duplais
Absinthe is usually bottled at somewhere between 55 and 70 per cent ABV, but it was never intended for the stuff to be drunk neat. (The high strength is actually because the chlorophyll that leaches from some of the herbs in absinthe and gives it the famous green colour is not stable at alcohol concentrations below that: it tends to turn brown more quickly and throw a sediment, which would be rather unappealing.) It is usually diluted with water—and always has been—and I've heard recommended levels of anything up to 8:1 water to absinthe. But more than that, the water is traditionally added slowly, drop by drop.
|Water is added and the louche starts
to form, hanging at the bottom
|More water and the louche dominates,
with the hydrophobic layer showing
distinctly at the top
"Absinthe does take a bit of experience to prepare," says David Nathan-Maister, absinthe expert and MD of absinthe specialists Oxygénée. "It's not like bourbon where a first-timer can pour it, taste it and think, 'Where have you been all my life?' Absinthe is more difficult to prepare, more subtle, and you ideally have to know its history and culture."
Cynics might note that Balesta paints a picture of the novice first tasting the absinthe that he's been hearing all about—and finding it rather nasty. The suggestion is that not only will peer pressure keep him trying until he develops the taste, but also the belief that inexperienced preparation will ruin the drink will persuade the drinker that absinthe isn't actually horrible after all—he is just not drinking it right.
|Nearly there (some might drink it
at this stage)
Cognoscenti of the ritual also seem to value style and flourish—there was even a fashion for adding the water from a great height—but even if we dismiss this as just social ritual, there is still the recurring emphasis that the water should be added slowly. But what is the point of this?
Part of it is surely visual. As you dilute the drink the alcohol concentration drops, reaching the point where the various aromatic oils dissolved in it are forced to precipitate out, forming a milky emulsion—and watching the pretty opalescent patterns gradually swirl and form is half the fun. But Nathan-Maister says it does also affect the taste, as the different oils in the mixture precipitate out at different concentrations. When I spoke to him recently at the Boutique Bar Show in London he suggested there was a "layering effect going on". (So different strata of the finished drink will taste different? I have certainly not found that to be the case.) On the Oxygenee website it is claimed that by releasing the different oils separately you get to appreciate their aromas separately. Does this mean you have to have your nose over the glass as the water goes in? Or do the aromas marshal themselves in different zones of airspace for your delectation?
|Ready to drink!
The Lucid had a sweet anise bouquet with subtle herbal elements, aromatic top notes and what I can only describe as a pleasant rubbery hint. On the palate it showed a broad and balanced spectrum of flavours, with hints of orange and blossom, a dry woody spice and a distinct peppery finish. I expected the Maison Fontaine to be less complex—I guess because of the lack of plant-derived colour—but in fact it had a livelier nose, full of sweet flowers, butter and vanilla. The palate too is floral. Overall, I'd say it is perhaps a bit cloying for my tastes, and I preferred the drier, quieter presence of the Lucid.
Why did these absinthes taste so different? Perhaps the precise dilution is ideal for releasing all the aromatic elements, or perhaps it is true that the gentle precipitation of the oils does preserve their subtleties. But if you find yourself with a bottle of absinthe within arms reach do try preparing it this way and see what you think.
To sugar or not to sugar
|Belgian Victor Berlemont prepares absinthe in his Soho
pub, The York Minster (later The French House), in 1939.
Absinthe was never made illegal in Britain. (Apologies
to Getty: I'm not made of money, you know.)
|Some antique absinthe spoons. See the picture of M. Berlemont to see how they were used, placed over the glass