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.

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