Sunday 6 February 2011

Absinthe: putting the "blind" into blind tasting

Your noble experimenters with some of the samples (that's Doubs in the glass)
I first got interested in absinthe a few years ago when I stumbled across Phil Baker’s The Dedalus Book of Absinthe (2001). It’s an excellent book, though a little out of date now—back then we didn’t have so many earnest attempts to recreate the subtleties of “proper” absinthe and Ted Breaux hadn’t won his battle to legalise it in the States. The focus of my gnat-like attention span drifted on to other things and it was only last year, when Ted’s Lucid brand started making headway and others like La Clandestine, Butterfly and La Maison Fontaine began to see if they could rebuild a market in the UK, that I started thinking about it again.

I have written elsewhere about the general history of the Green Fairy but the business of today’s exercise is actually tasting the stuff. I still had a collection of bottles knocking around, and David occasionally gives me strange samples too, so we decided that we should have a big comparative tasting of everything we had to hand.

I should stress that this was not a scientific analysis of everything on the market—it really was just a curious exercise in comparing those that we had: absinthe is bloody expensive so we weren’t planning to buy anything in specifically for this test. In all we blind-tasted 19 samples, ranging from Czech “fauxsinthes” to recently released distilled recreations of pre-ban styles. But there were notable absences: no La Fée, no Lucid, and indeed no La Maison Fontaine. I suppose it was just an attempt to see whether we really could tell the difference between the fancy brands and the knock-off green-dye-and-essence jobs.

It has been observed that attempting to have absinthe blind tastings will always be hampered by the fact that there is so much variety and subjectivity in how the drink is prepared: different manufacturers recommend different degrees of dilution and there is the question of whether to add sugar. But for the sake of this test we did not sweeten any of them and prepared each sample in the same way: 10ml of absinthe to 25ml of water, tasting them mostly from shot glasses for the sake of space and convenience.

The variety of colours is interesting—note the drinks measure being used
as a makeshift tasting vessel
DBS prepared the samples, so he knew which was which, but I was tasting completely blind. Obviously I could see which were green styles and which colourless “bleue” or “blanche” absinthes—plus there were a couple that were actually verging on the blue or indeed bright red.

The absinthes were presented in no particular order, in tranches of four, and we each aimed to find our favourite overall three. There were four bleue samples, which I also ranked within that category.

To see which absinthes were actually included, see my tasting notes below (bearing in mind I didn’t know what anything was when I was tasting it). David actually has a much sweeter tooth than me (even unsugared, some of them felt too sweet for me, although these perceptions can be greatly affected by what you have tasted just before) and our rankings within the tranches differed, but I think we broadly agreed on the overall favourites. Which were:

First: Butterfly
Second: Angelique
Third: Mari Mayans

These are all green styles—and it’s possible I just generally prefer this style—but out of the four bleues our ranking was:

First: Clandestine (2006 batch)
Second: Clandestine (recent batch)
Third: Eichelberger 68
Fourth: La P’tite

In truth I pondered long and hard over whether I preferred sample 11 or sample 12—much to David’s amusement as he knew they were both Clandestine. One was from a bottle acquired very recently and the other was from an open bottle distilled in 2006 (it handily had a batch date on it). Yet we agreed they clearly tasted different. The older one had a more restrained flavour, but which threw up subtleties when you gave it a chance, while the newer one was more in-your-face with the sweet, floral elements that seem characteristic of bleues.*

The biggest surprise must be the presence of Mari Mayans in third place. I was under the impression that it was not a “proper” distilled absinthe, where the botanticals are macerated in the spirit then redistilled, like gin (although the green colour of green absinthes comes from a post-distillation maceration of certain botanicals that don’t distil well). However, their website says that, “It is made from distilling the leaves and stems of hand-picked Artemisia Absinthium (Wormwood) and is then macerated in herbs.” It is “100% natural” and apparently made to the same formula that the distillery has been using since its foundation by Juan Mari Mayans in 1858.

I was also surprised that the 1901 absinthe from Ted Breaux’s Jade range didn’t score higher, though it was sampled in the same tranche as Butterfly which might have overshadowed it. I did think it was quite interesting, though I  wasn’t quite sure about its pungent aroma. Also in that tranche was Eichelberger 68 which did quite well. We categorised it as a bleue though there is a hint of green about it. It was apparently the result of a competition in 2005 to come up with a better quality German absinthe—15 homemade recipes were entered and the winner made into a commercial product.

Also absent from the field, of course, was any genuine pre-ban absinthe! These do come up now and then and it is on the analysis of these that some of the newer ones are based. Perhaps if we do this again some generous Green Fairy can supply us with a dose for comparative purposes…

Tasting notes (all tasted blind):
Tranche A
1. Angelique Very pale, with just a hint of green. Strong louche. Gentle, fresh nose
and rich taste of rubbery anise and caramel. More complex and sappy than no.3.
2. La P’tite A bleue with a buttery, slightly sour nose, and a hint of dark berries. The buttery element carries on to the palate, where there is anise too, though that fatty/floral element—like an over-ripe flower—dominates. DBS is unimpressed: “not really absinthe”.
3. Mari Mayans Solid louche; greener than no.1. Not much nose, though a hint of old varnished wood. Flavour is a shade waxy, but also with a lot of anise. DBS likes this aniseed “punch”.
4. Pernod Less louche. Not much going on; taste is warm and sugary and a bit synthetic.
Best of this tranche: 1 with 3 a close second
Tranche B
5. Dedo A lot of blue in the green colour; light louche. Nose is strong, sweetish and reminiscent of coffee. Aniseed warmth on the taste but a bit thin and bitter.
6. Van Gogh Pale yellow-green and light louche. Not much nose, not much taste apart from a bit of anise; remarkably sweet.
7. Duplais Mid green, good louche. More interesting nose, with something resinous, piney. Seems strong ABV. Taste is more bitter with vegetal elements.
8. Hapsburg Red Bright red, no louche whatsoever. Smells candy-sweet. Palate: clumsy synthetic fruit flavours, recently snuffed candles. Not much aniseed. Just silly.
Best of this tranche: No.7
Tranche C
9. King of Spirits Gold Pale yellow-green, no louche at all. Little smell, though vaguely like a urinal. Very bitter attack but with a sweetish finish. It has a rubbery aromatic element, like a fake pint scent—perhaps this reminds of toilet cleaner, hence the “urinal” reference! Not pleasant at all.
10. Hapsburg Green Bluish-green, virtually no louche. Nose: sweet orange, maybe a hint of parma violets; palate too reminds me of some childhood confectionary. Bit like drinking sweetened cologne. [Note: I am informed by Dale Sklar, the owner of Hapsburg, that the different colours of the product all taste the same, just vary in ABV and colour. Mind you, he also insists that they louche, which clearly they don’t.]
11. La Clandestine (recent batch) Bleue; good louche. Nose: rubbery, buttery, slightly sour. Palate: fresh and meadow-floral, well balanced with just the right degree of sweetness for me. Can’t decide if I would find that butteriness a bit cloying after a while.
12. La Clandestine (2006) Bleue; less louche than 11. Seems less sweet on the palate, a shade more astringent, more restrained but still interesting. Can’t decide if this has less going on than No.11 or just more restrained.
Best of this tranche: toss-up between 11 and 12
Tranche D
13. Eichelberger 68 Essentially a bleu but with a hint of green; good louche. Fresh nose with a citrus element; palate on the bitter side, with a bit of cinnamon.
14. Butterfly Strong louche and darkest green yet (DBS describes it as like “off lime juice”). Warm with rubbery anise and big, fascinating aftertaste—tea, apples, bit of grapefruit.
15. Jade 1901 Pale grey-green; moderate louche. Nose: floral and remarkable pungent, almost gamey. Palate: good balance and interesting subtleties of bracken and twigs.
16. Absinth Original Very pale green with no louche; looks like a glass of soave. Nose: none, apart from a hint of solvent. Palate: mostly just bitterness; very thin.
Best of this tranche: No. 14, followed by 13 then 15
Tranche E
17. Fruko-Schulz Absinth 70% Dark purple-red, no louche. Smells of nothing. Tastes of watery toothpaste.
18. Sebor Pale mid-green, no louche. Nose: piney; not bad but a bit artificial and sweet. Palate: bitter-sweet, some dusty herbs.
19. Doubs Vivid green, mild louche. Nose: cinnamon, menthol, pine. Palate: very menthol, like Vick’s VapoRub. Bold but artificial, possibly the most artificial-seeming yet.
Best of this tranche: 19 (best of a bad batch)

* I subsequently mentioned this to Alan Moss of La Clandestine. This is his reply: “I asked Claude-Alain [who distils it] about the difference between four-year-old Clandestine and one that was much younger. He's not surprised. In his view, an older blanche would typically taste "softer," maybe more rounded in the mouth (a bit like our wine-based Clandestine). We've always said that our absinthes, being completely natural and the product of the terroir, can also vary from year to year (and on a lesser scale from batch to batch).”

It's a tough game, this blogging, but someone has to do it


  1. An excellent summary, a good call on the top 3, I'd be happy with a year's supply of any of those (wink wink!).
    I like the last picture I cam see evidence of at least 4 tastings there, vodka, bourbon, alcoholic ginger beer (on the table) etc....

  2. Diluted green absinthe always reminds me of Lalique glass.

  3. Jade: the pungent aroma sometimes fades after storing the opened bottle for a few months. I have found it to vary greatly between batches, so not at all sure if it is intentional or a quality control problem. Same with the other Jades. They are more difficult to appreciate than the instantly satisfying Butterfly - they depend more on slow preparation, correct temperature etc. So, maybe not suprising if it performs badly in a shot glass.

    La P'tite: very surprised, I have tasted all the 'quality' brands here and would rank it 1 among the bleues. Also very forgiving about preparation, but I guess you just don't like it's special character. Mainly chamomile, I think.

    Generally, great experiment - I have done many comparisons, though never blind, and would add that it is difficult to compare in one sitting, as for instance one bad absinth heavy on anise or bitter wormwood can ruin anything following that. As with wine, you need to be careful about the serving order. Also, what impresses initially can be less interesting in time.

    Anyway, if you haven't yet, then try Sapphire and Opaline - to me even better than your winners, more rustic, whatever that means :) Maybe they just have more wormwood.. (Opaline needs ageing in the bottle, initially bitter)

  4. Thanks for your input, Anonymous. Agree with all you caveats—particularly the order of tasting. Absinthe can have such powerful and singular flavours that you are aware that they affect your perception of each other, particularly in terms of upfront impressions versus long-term satisfaction, as it were—a test like this will inevitably favour the former.

    Perhaps I'll go back and have another look at La P'tite. Like many of the samples it is from a bottle first opened around 2006: don't know if that is significant.

    We are already planning another blind tasting in which we actively seek out all the likely contenders right now and compare them with the top few from this test. I'll make of point of trying to include Sapphire and Opaline.