Monday 27 September 2010

Observations on the preparation of absinthe

Undiluted Absinthe Duplais
Even if you are not, for some reason, irresistibly attracted to the romance of absinthe (or indeed have actually tasted some, pronounced it foul and vowed never to breathe its name again) you still probably know that there is a whole ritual to its preparation. But when you ask yourself why, that's when things get interesting.

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
In absinthe's heyday, the preparation involved all manner of paraphernalia. Absinthe glasses often had a demarcated section at the bottom, sometimes a sort of bulb or lobe, which represented the section that was to be filled with the spirit—the rest of the glass was for the water. (See the Lucid glasses in the photos in the post below.) This apportionment was known at the "dose", a fact which doubtless fuels the idea that absinthe was a drug. In a café or bar there would be absinthe fountains, big vessels (usually glass, but I'm told that New Orleans' Old Absinthe House had marble ones) filled with iced water from which taps or spigots projected: you put your glass under one of these and dripped water into your drink. It was usual to sweeten the drink by placing a sugar lump on an "absinthe spoon", a flat, perforated, metal object that rests across the top of the glass. As the water dripped over this it would gradually dissolve into the drink. Absinthe spoons were made in all manner of handsome, elaborate designs; vintage ones are still knocking around and since the absinthe revival many new absinthe disillers offer branded equipment.

More water and the louche dominates,
with the hydrophobic layer showing
distinctly at the top
All manner of stories abound of how ruinous the incorrect preparation of absinthe can be. Henri Balesta in his 1860 Absinthe et Absintheurs describes the almost predatory "professors" of absinthe, just itching to show the novice how badly wrong they are getting it, and offering lessons for a fee. (In Raymond Queneau's 1968 fiction The Flight of Icarus the seasoned absintheurs are so horrified by the carelessness with which Icarus has diluted his drink that they insist it is discarded and he start again.) Modern absinthe maker Ted Breaux is fond of quoting French author and absintheur Raoul Ponchon, who said that if the water is too warm you might as well be drinking "donkey piss or an enema broth". (Never having tasted either I will bow to superior knowledge here.)

"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!
But there is one thing I can attest to. At a Lucid tasting Breaux suggested that one should add water until a specific visual cue is reached: as the cloudiness (known as the "louche") starts to form it hangs at the bottom of the glass, with a dark, transparent, oily-looking layer at the top, technically called the hydrophobic layer. This gradually reduces, and the suggestion is that you should stop dilution when this layer just disappears, or is about to. I put this to the test with Lucid and La Maison Fontaine, a new white absinthe brand, and it was something of a revelation. I had tasted both products before but this time I got much more out of them.

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.)
I've personally never found an absinthe that I felt needed sweetening. (Even the foul, bitter Czech ones just taste foul and bitter with an uninteresting sugariness alongside.) However, historically most absintheurs would have had at least one lump of sugar with their dose. I gather that palates at that time were fonder of sweetness and French drinkers were more attuned to cordials, syrups and sweet liqueurs. One thing you should definitely avoid is the "Czech fire ritual", where a spoonful of sugar is soaked in absinthe, ignited (ostensibly to caramelise the sugar) then stirred into the drink, invariably setting fire to the absinthe in the glass. This was created in the 1990s for practical marketing reasons. "Absinthe has always been a public drink, partly because of the ritual," says Nathan-Maister. "In that sense it's like tequila, with the ritual of the lime and the salt. But the traditional absinthe ritual is slow and contemplative, and that's no use in a modern nightclub. So the UK importer of an early Czech absinthe came up with the fire ritual, developed from the traditional way of serving Sambuca, alight with a coffee bean floating in it." In any case, many Czech "absinthes" don't actually louche—although this is preferable to the practices of nineteenth-century purveyors of low-grade ersatz absinthe, who added antimony salts to create an artificial louche.)

Some antique absinthe spoons. See the picture of M. Berlemont to see how they were used, placed over the glass

1 comment:

  1. The Absente spoons in the pic are not antique, I own several. They come free with bottles of Absente. I would also like to say that the "Ritual of the fire" does give a nicer taste, and in my opinion, a nicer feel. I have never had it ignite the absinthe in the glass, as the method I know has the ice water water in the bottom waiting to greet it, and mixes before the fire is lite.