So. Our in-house genius / inventor / mentalist – Professor Cornelius Ampleforth – has once again found time to ‘dick about’ with botanicals, and the new and exciting rotary evaporation still he was bought for Christmas.
This time – he’s set his sights on Absinthe – perhaps one of the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned spirits in the world. Sit down children, and I shall tell you a story about times past.
Absinthe takes its name from the plant which forms the core of its botanical ingredients – Artemisia Absinthium (‘Wormwood’ to you and me). In the early part of the 20th Century, many countries around the world banned Absinthe as it was thought that the Wormwood contained therein caused a frankly marvellous range of symptoms and disorders. From Epilepsy to Tuberculosis, but most prominently and famously – ‘Madness’.
“They said Toulouse-Lautrec used to drink this. No wonder his legs fell off and his paintings were crap.”
The reasoning behind this claim, it must be said, is pretty sound*.
“See that bloke over there? He drank a massive load of absinthe, now he’s gone all mental. Let’s get rid of the Absinthe.”
“But Dave** – see that other bloke over there – he’s had a load of Brandy – he’s also mental”
“Erm. Well. Let’s start with the Absinthe and go from there shall we?”
Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc? Probably. There is however a decent chance that the absinthe ‘back in the day’ was indeed sending people a bit doolally – for one pretty decent reason. Adulteration. In cheaper ‘imitation’ absinthes – the lustrous green colour was achieved through the addition of Copper (II) Acetate, and the ‘louche’ effect (cloudiness when water is added due to the large amount of oils suspended in the Absinthe being knocked out of solution by the water) was achieved through the addition of Antimony Trichloride. Neither of these additives were particularly nice, and it’s likely that the combination of these, with the questionable quality of the base alcohol used to make the spirit (almost certainly laced with Methanol) would have been responsible for a much greater number of instances of poisoning / ‘madness’ than the wormwood itself.
Indeed, a study conducted recently analysed (properly – using big machines that probably have very complex ring-bound manuals) 13 different samples of pre-ban absinthe and found that the levels of the active chemical in wormwood (Thujone) were less than 1/10 of what had previously been thought (about 25mg/l since you ask), and indeed were well within current EU limits of 35 mg/l.
Okay – history lesson over. Suffice it to say that since the myths about Absinthe were dispelled in the early 2000’s, there has been somewhat of a resurgence in production. Traditional producers such as the fantastic Jade, La Clandestine, and Francois Guy lead the way in high quality ‘boutique’ absinthe, with larger producers such as La Fee now making the move to produce high end ‘XS’ versions of their more ubiquitous Absinthes.
It seems that pretty much every producer making absinthe these days is able to point to a recipe they acquired from someone’s grandmother / a scrap of paper left in an old distillery / the internet which dates from the early part of the twentieth century (or ‘Pre-Ban’). The professor decided pretty early on that he don’t play that. He was going to develop his own recipe and tune the flavour profile to his palate.
When seeking to create his recipe, the professor started with the ‘holy trinity’ of Absinthe – Grand Wormwood, Fennel and Green Aniseed. To this he added a selection of complimentary ingredients – Star Anise, and Dried Bitter Orange Peel. Finally he bunged in a bit of Liquorice for sweetness, then distilled the whole lot under vacuum at room temperature. Cold-distillation is a much more ‘gentle’ process than traditional pot-still distillation. This has 2 key effects:
1) The botanicals aren’t ‘cooked’ or heated up during the course of distillation. This means that the freshness and vitality of the core ingredients remains completely intact.
2) The amount of oil that is carried over is much lower than in traditional pot-still distillation, meaning there is very little (if any) ‘louche’ effect – that cloudiness that develops when water is added. The professor was rather delighted with this point, as it meant he could make crystal clear Sazeracs with impunity.
After distilling his creation, the professor decided not to take the step favoured by some absinthe producers of adding a green tinge to the drink by soaking Hyssop or Petite Wormwood in the final distillate. He wouldn’t tell us why, but we think he just didn’t like the colour. The result is a perfectly clear distillate.
The professor was happy with his work, proud of his creation, and all in all delighted with the result. He even had a cigar to celebrate.
Then came the ‘problem’:
The Problem came in the form of a tiny sample bottle received (very generously) from Stuart Robson – chief blogger for www.connosr.com – containing a Pernod Absinthe from c. 1900-1910. Upon tasting this, the professor took stock and thought twice. The flavour of the sample was quite unlike any other absinthe he’d ever tried – much more delicate and perfumed, with more than a hint of Coriander, and a beautiful zestiness that belied its century of age.
So – the professor revisited his recipe, tweaking here and there, and crucially, adding the two most prominent flavours he’d picked out from the sample – freshly ground coriander seeds, and fresh lemon zest. After a few trial runs, he came out with a final product he was even more proud of than the first batch.
So – ladies and gentlemen – may we present to you the world’s very first Cold-Distilled Absinthe.
Palate: A veritable explosion of flavour. None of the ‘cooked’ flavour, but rather extreme, almost minty summer freshness. Anise is well controlled, allowing the other botanicals to appear in their own right.
Finish: Long and lingering, but with freshness still the watchword.
Now – a word of caution – a third result of the gentle cold distillation of this product is that it comes off the still at a frankly jaw-dropping 91.2% ABV. This is – as far as we know – the world’s strongest Absinthe – but perversely, due to its cold-distillation it’s also one of the most gentle and approachable.
**Probably not Dave. Probably Jacques, or Jean-Baptiste