Sunday 8 March 2015

Terminus: the absinthe to end all absinthes

Ted with his two new products, Terminus Oxygénée Absinthe and Coeur de Jade
Thursday was National Absinthe Day in the US, marking the day in 2007 when the ban on absinthe, introduced in 1912, was lifted. One of the men responsible for getting the law changed is Ted Breaux of Jade Liqueurs but he was actually in London at the time launching a couple of new products, and I met up with him in the Punch Room of the London Edition hotel

Ted conducts a webcast from the bar
Being out of the country on such an important day didn’t hold Ted back, as he was able to do a live webcast, answering questions that were texted to him. I admire his powers of concentration, being able to do that using a laptop in a noisy hotel bar, and I resisted the temptation to photobomb, perhaps drifting across the background swigging from a bottle of Ted’s finest…

Ted’s new absinthe, Jade Terminus Oxygénée Absinthe Supérieure, gets the name “Terminus” from the fact that he claims it is the last absinthe he will launch (or at least the last in his “portfolio of historically accurate absinthes”). “Oxygénée” represents the special historical process that Ted has recreated for this product.

Ted is a native New Orleanian with a background as an environmental scientist. He became curious about the famous Old Absinthe House bar that still stood in the city, a testament to the era when New Orleans, with its French connections, was the country’s absinthe capital. There has been a lot of voodoo talked about absinthe, what it had been, the psychotropic effects it had on the brain, etc.* Ted was in a position to use modern scientific techniques (mass spectrometry and gas chromatography, I believe, though don’t ask me how they work) to analyse exactly what was in extant samples of pre-ban absinthe and the bulk of his Jade range are recreations of specific products (though I believe that for legal reasons he won’t necessarily spell out which ones on the label).

Before the ban, the Cusenier distillery in France produced Cusenier Oxygénée Absinthe Hygenique, a product that they subjected to an oxygenation process that they claimed made it uniquely “hygienic” and safe, an attempt to stem the growing tide of opinion that absinthe was deleterious to the health. It sold at a considerable premium. Ted’s new product uses the same botanicals as the original (as well as a unusual species of Artemisia from the foothills of the Alps, rarely found in absinthe), and is also subjected to a “hot oxygenation” process that closely mirrors the original technique. Ted doesn’t give too much away but he observes impishly that it involves pure oxygen and hot distillate and, consequently, he makes sure there is no one else around when he does it. (If you hear reports that the Combier distillery has exploded you’ll know why…) Prior to bottling the spirit is rested for three years.

Terminus on the left and V.S. 1898 on the right, neat
I line up a sample of Terminus against Jade V.S. 1898 to try and get a handle on its character. Although it’s hard to see in the photos, the Terminus seems slightly more yellow to me. Neat, the V.S. seems to have high, sharp notes of caraway on the nose, while the Terminus is softer, broader and grassy. Add water and the general distinction continues, with the V.S. having high, lean, clean, aromatic notes, with a hint of violets, while the Terminus is softer, earthier, more buttery, a bit more pungent, with a dash of orange peel on the nose and more “dark” notes (e.g. woody cinnamon) than the V.S.

Terminus left, V.S. right, louched (1:2.5 absinthe:water)
The other product Ted had with him was his new Coeur de Jade. It’s not an absinthe at all but an eau de vie, the base spirit that he uses for the absinthes. “People would taste it and ask me why I didn’t bottle it,” he explains, “so I did.”

It is a colourless grape spirit (mostly Chenin Blanc), double pot-distilled as would have been done pre-ban. I’m intrigued by this because it is surprisingly smooth for an unaged spirit (it is 42% ABV), and I might have guessed that over 100 years ago they could not have produced something so clean, but Ted assures me it is authentic. In fact it is the use of the less “efficient” pot still, rather than a modern Coffey still, that enables the spirit to retain its flavours and be more than just “neutral” alcohol.

Technically it is a fine (made just from grape juice), as opposed to a marc, which uses the leftover lees, skins, stalks, etc, from the winemaking process, in the same way that grappa does. (I’ve had some delightful marcs, but they can be huge, filling the room with their aroma.) It is an intriguing product, because it is subtle but with a distinct character. It is reminiscent of grappa (and I gather that the Italians were the most vocal in wanting Ted to bottle it), but more delicate than most grappas I have tried. There is a floral, almost candied, fruit nose from the grapes, with elements of apricot, almond and strawberry. The mouthfeel is relatively rich, sweet and smooth for an unsweetened spirit, and I get a distinct impression of rosewater on the tongue.

Subtle as it is, I’m immediately struck by the mixing possibilities, perhaps blending with light vermouths to make a fragrant summer cooler. And indeed the obliging barman in the Punch Room makes a Sazerac with Terminus absinthe and the Coeur de Jade in place of whiskey or Cognac (depending on your personal feelings about how a Sazerac should be made), which works very well indeed, with the distinctive fresh fruit fragrance of the spirit coming across clearly and harmonising with the aromas of the absinthe.

Jade Terminus Absinthe Oxygénée can be had for £68.95 and Coeur de Jade for £29.95, both from the Whisky Exchange.

* Even Phil Baker’s excellent The Dedalus Book of Absinthe from 2001, one of the first volumes I read on the subject, asserts that pre-ban absinthe contained perhaps 25 times as much thujone as modern examples, and it was this that gave it its mind-bending potency. In fact subsequent analysis shows that absinthe from this period contained no more thujone than modern versions, and it is unlikely that this chemical is responsible for any special effects absinthe is perceived to have. Ted himself does believe that absinthe has a particular physical effect on the drinker, the famous “lucid intoxication”, and believes it can probably be attributed to the combination of stimulant and sedative plants in the botanical mix.

Sunday 1 March 2015

Armagnac, Gascony's sleeping beauty

I was intrigued to be sent a pack of samples from an outfit called Rueverte, an online spirits retailer based in Germany but clearly aiming for a worldwide reach. As the name suggests, they began as an outlet for absinthe, and in fact the co-founder is the great absinthe guru David Nathan-Maister, but have now branched out, with sub-sites at, and The impression is that they prefer to handpick lesser-known gems rather than attempting to cover all the obvious bases—their Cognac section only has one brand, Tesseron, and none of the well-known names in this high-profile category.

My sample pack is one of their “Explore Sets”, containing three 50ml phials, in this case of three different blends from Armagnac house Goudoulin, enabling you to do your own comparative tasting. (Master of Malt do something similar here in the UK.) The bottles are square in shape and fit snugly in the dense foam insert of the presentation packaging, protecting them in transit.

The Armagnac section of is better represented than Cognac, with six brands to choose from, though only one (Darroze) of which I had previously been aware. Despite being less well known than Cognac, Armagnac is apparently the oldest type of brandy in France (700 years old in 2010). Its chief defining characteristic is that it is made in certain regions in Gascony, specifically Bas-Armagnac, Haut-Armagnac and Armagnac Tenareze, each with its own soil type that influences the white grapes that go into the spirit. Cognac is mostly Ugni Blanc grapes, plus Folle Blanche and Colombard while Armagnac typically adds Bacco too (and in fact the official Armagnac authorisation body allows some ten different varieties). Whereas Cognac is distilled twice in batches in a pot still, the traditional Armagnac still is a column design enabling continuous distillation.

I was under the impression that the invention of column distillation (where the vapour rises up a column containing metal plates that encourage the undesirable heavier components to condense out and fall back down) allowed for a purer spirit. But it seems the 19th-century Verdier design traditional in Armagnac is much less efficient that the Coffey still, producing a “rustic” distillate at the relatively low strength of 52%, compared to the Coffey’s 96%, meaning that Armagnac retains more, and more varied, flavours. Years in the barrel naturally erode this down to bottling strength, meaning that it is seldom diluted, again helping to retain a breadth of flavour. (Cognac, by contrast, emerges from its second distillation at 70%.)

The Armagnac column still (from the Goudoulin website)
In each case the spirits are then aged in oak barrels—in Cognac it is Limousin or Tronçais oak which softens the spirit, while in Armagnac it has to be black Monlezun oak which imparts more colour and vanilla/toffee notes. Both types of spirit are often blended. In a three-star or VS blend, the youngest spirit must be at least two years old; in a réserve three years old, in a VSOP four years old, a Napoléon or XO six years old and an Hors D’Age (optimistically “beyond age”) ten years old. Armagnacs are more likely to have specific vintages or age statements.

The house of J. Goudoulin was named after Madame Jeanne Ménal Goudoulin, who married into the business in 1908, but lost her husband in 1925 to injuries sustained during the First World War. She learned to manage the growing collection of spirits laid down by the house and from 1935 formed J. Goudoulin, running it for the next 30 years. Her nephew Christian Faure took over, selling it in 2009 to Michel Miclo of the family firm G. Miclo (who make some fine eaux de vie).

The emphasis here does seem to be on building up a stock of old spirits to sell and to blend. Goudoulin has an impressive portfolio of single vintages (Rueverte offer a 1938 and I’ve seen a 1914 for sale elsewhere) as well as blends where the youngest spirit is as old as 60 years. My sample set offers the eight-year-old blend, the Hors D’Age and the 20-year-old blend.

(Left to right) 8-year-old, Hors D'Age and 20-year-old

The eight-year-old immediately strikes you with notes of pear and marzipan on the nose, perhaps with a slight bitterness at the end. This is followed by plain chocolate, coffee and toffee. The palate is dry and spicy, but with a pronounced and wholly unexpected floral element, like rose and violet chocolate creams, or perhaps Turkish delight. There is pear tart too. I really am struck by the complexity here, combined with an absence of the fiery fumes that Cognac often seems to lead with. It evolves in the glass but even after half an hour or more it still has a striking combination of fruit, flowers and dry chocolate on the tongue. I realise it reminds me of the flavour of a cigar too, with something of tannic but aromatic cedar wood about it.

I try the Hors D’Age next, as I am assured it (or rather the youngest spirit in the blend) is ten years old. The pear, marzipan and chocolate elements are still clearly there, but now there is a strong aroma of apricots too. The palate is less obviously different, perhaps with those floral notes less pronounced and a bit more chocolate; maybe a bit less dry, though still not sweet. Toffee and caramel emerge and an underlying aromatic wood character.

Finally we come to the 20-year old. I notice less of a clear change from the Hors D’Age, though I think there is less of the apricot and a bit of cooked apple. The palate seems softer and maybe with a bit less fruit and a bit more of the chocolate.

I dig around for some Cognac to try it against and unearth a bottle of Courvoisier VSOP Exclusif, a blend intended for mixing. It immediately strikes me as having more tight, dry, high notes, with an emphasis on orange and orange blossom. The palate is immediately fiercer; it subsides quickly to a softer, chocolate balance but it is undoubtedly less complex. I also have a bottle of regular Courvoisier VSOP: here I get pears as well as chocolate, plus an element of tea, perhaps from wood tannins. But it is frankly rougher than any of the Goudoulin Armagnacs.

In fairness a VSOP need only be four years old, half the age of the youngest of the Goudoulin samples. But the best price for Courvoisier VSOP I can find is £32.50, while the 8-year-old Goudoulin is not much more at £38 (though with Rueverte you’ll have to spend £150 to get their free delivery, otherwise it is a hefty £9 for that one bottle).

I was highly impressed by these samples. I had previously dipped a toe into Armagnac waters on more than one occasion but hadn’t really thought about it much in recent years. That may well change now, not least because, for the age and complexity of the spirits involved, they do represent pretty good value.

The Goudoulin Explore Set is £20.50 plus delivery.