Where is absinthe made, now and then?
By Miriam Wolf at Absinthes.com
Absinthe. The wormwood-based spirit is experiencing its revival, or at least, to some it must feel like that. Banned, prohibited, hated, cursed, blamed for the decay of society - but at the same time, loved, appreciated, valued and enjoyed. No drink has probably ever triggered this variety of both positive and negative feelings – from it’s invention in 1792, to this very day.
I’ll refrain from yet another rant on the under-appreciated, pitiful spirit that was given a female, fairy-like personality by drunk French artists over the many many years of absinthe’s existence. Who’s interested can read all about it on plenty of absinthe forums, or on absinthe blogs on the internet. I for one enjoy looking forward instead of looking back (which is why I’ll probably never have an absinthe antiques collection in my basement), and I must say I’m quite happy with how things are going for absinthe. Sure, it’s not the most common drink in any country, but it inspires distillers and spirit makers to come up with new recipes all over the world, thus providing us with an enormous variety of absinthe brands.
Where absinthe was first made
As already mentioned, absinthe was first invented in 1792 by a female pharmacist in Switzerland (Val-de-Travers) who produced a wormwood extract to treat digestion problems. Even today, we all know of the positive effect wormwood has on our digestive system (if it only hadn’t this much of a bitter taste…) so people started enjoying this wormwood extract, and from there it slowly evolved to the distilled drink absinthe, made with mainly wormwood, green anise, and fennel. It wasn’t the first wormwood drink in history however, different forms of wormwood wines not just for medical purposes can be traced back to the Antique.
However, as many great and durable things, the Swiss people were responsible for absinthe as we know it today. Since the famous, tiny and beautiful Val-de-Travers is located just a few miles from the border to France, it didn’t take very long until the commercial production of absinthe began over there. For a long time, Switzerland and France were the main large absinthe producers in the world. The most prestigious and first official absinthe distillery, “Les Fils d’Emile Pernot”, outsourced some of the absinthe production from France to Spain (they kept their distilleries there after the 1915 ban, because absinthe was never prohibited in Spain).
Between 1830-1900, absinthe experienced its big boom and historical sources claim there to have been absinthe distilleries in New Orleans, Brazil and even Japan! This was probably the time when a few absinthe makers around the world started experimenting with absinthe. Back then, it wasn’t always distilled, but obtained through maceration as well as some other adventurous techniques, which may or may not have killed a few people.
Where is absinthe made today?
This is the part I’m very proud of: Never in the history of absinthe was there such a large variety of countries of origins. From what I know (based on the absinthes we get to taste at absinthes.com ) this includes:
• Switzerland - still, and always, the best (imagine this sentence being read out loud by Donald Trump)
• France (go here for a great Verte!)
• Czech Republic (not just macerated cheap “absinth” anymore, but really good ones!)
• Germany (there are a few distillers experimenting with both distilled and macerated absinthes)
• Sweden (new and exciting! Currently, there are three absinthe distilleries which all come up with great stuff)
• The US (very interesting, due to the many different climate regions you can grow anything need for absinthe over there. People in the US are really into absinthe. But possibilities are limited through the legal limit of 10mg/thujone per litre absinthe – but that didn’t stop anyone and there are quite a few absinthe distilleries across the states, and even an annual absinthe festival. As with any country who started making absinthe long after Switzerland in France, the American absinthes represent a mixture of new interpretations of old recipes and replicas, and are gradually becoming more and more interesting. For example, the owner of Bryce Distillery went to train in Switzerland!)
• The Netherlands (two brands that have been around for a long time!)
• Austria (one brand, macerated)
• Spain (they focuse on macerated and artificially colored absinthes to please the young crowd, but they make a lot anise-free absinthes which is great for absintheurs who aren’t into the taste of liquorice.)
Does absinthe taste the same, no matter where it was made?
I’d say no. Since I’ve tasted quite a few absinthes and talked to many distillers and absinthe friends, I believe it’s safe to say that the country of origin, or rather, the experience of the distiller in question, has a lot to do with the resulting taste of absinthe.
For instance, when purchasing an absinthe from Switzerland, especially from a Val-de-Travers distiller, you will end up receiving a superb product. The art and expertise of absinthe distilling is uniquely anchored in this area, and has been passed along over generations. There’s basically no going wrong here!
Then again, I’ve discovered that really good Vertes (the green absinthes) are mainly made in France. For some reason, the Swiss distillers seem to have put their focus on clear absinthes (“Blanches”), which may have something to do with the prohibition of absinthe (and the Swiss distillers kicking prohibition’s butt by simply carrying on behind closed curtains). Maybe, they left out the coloring step so it wouldn’t be too obvious what’s in a bottle, in case the government stopped by. In any case, I think that the best green absinthes are made in France – you can find any taste there: earthy, fruity, rich, citrus-y, vintage-y, and so on. My favourite Czech absinthes from the Zufanek Distillery are quite “potent” for example, lower on aniseed and stronger in wormwood and alcohol. The newly arising Swedish absinthes are surprisingly good, and I expect a lot more to come from the Svensk Absint Distillery over there!
How to become a great absinthe distiller
Apart from the obvious influences that factor into the result of an absinthe, such as herbs (and where you buy them from), the recipe, the base alcohol, the stills and your handy-work, there is one thing that every serious absinthe distiller should do in my opinion: Go to Switzerland. Find a mentor, and learn. Get trained by the best and most experienced people! I appreciate that many distillers may think they can get there by themselves, and I’m convinced the absinthe market is big enough for many different absinthe recipes. But I also think that, if you want your absinthe to make a lasting impression, you need to go to the very source of absinthe and find your inspiration. I don’t know why that is, but I feel it’s true.
Building from the foundation of a talk with a Swiss distiller, you can create a unique and round absinthe. And I hope you do, because the world needs more great absinthe!
How do we use the business of physical goods in the digital world?
Alec Ross, former advisor of innovation to the Secretary of State, wrote in his 2016 book Industries of the Future that "data is the raw material of the digital world." This ambiguous statement has left the rest of us trying to figure out exactly how to own and monetize data, just as people have owned and monetized the raw materials of the physical world (land, forests, precious metals) throughout history up to this point. History is repeating itself, and now instead of land, we have "the internet," which is the base platform of our digital lives, now and into the future. This article is for those intrepid entrepreneurs who are looking to incorporate blockchain into their businesses but don't quite know how. Reading this will help you form a concept of how information can be mined and monetized, and how this will develop our digital world.
To convey the meaning of data as a raw material, I'll give an example of how blockchain technology might work in a distillery and the alcohol industry. At Bryce Distillery, we are developing these technologies and smart contracts to become a first-mover into a world that combines alcohol and cryptography. If you own a distillery, you are interested in key pieces of information about your business, including, let's say, revenue. Think of this revenue data as raw material that you would like to "mine." To do this, you create a "token" that can be spent at your distillery as currency. You make it so this token has codes written into it that track the revenue information that you want. For instance, you can incorporate an algorithm into this token that tracks where and for what each token was used, and that information is forever kept in an encrypted code that only you can view. Now you have a tracking system for product and sales that will save you endless hours on quickbooks and applications with the TTB and Department of Revenue. You can then add more complex functions into the token that can include the ability to do your taxes for you once a month, to keep track of inventory, and even to automatically execute contracts and agreements with suppliers, distributors, and retailers. The tokens have the ability to execute all these functions for any business in the alcohol industry from the producer to the end consumer who can spend this token at the distillery or, in the future, their local or online liquor store for the product they want.
Sound a little like artificial intelligence (AI)? That's because it is. The technology to make a single machine to process all this data would cost millions, and that's where the brilliance of blockchain technology comes in. Blockchain uses the computing power of every device connected to it in order to process and store this information, making use of the interconnected consciousness that has come from our increasing involvement in and use of the internet. Still unclear? Let me give another example in how blockchain could be used to unite land developers and conservation advocates.
Imagine a website that is a trading platform for ownership of forest throughout the world. Let's say they are using a token called TreeCoin, and you can use TreeCoin to buy a portion of forest anywhere in the world. There will be a few types of people interested in buying TreeCoin. First will be the timber industries who will need to own and then spend a certain amount of TreeCoin in order to cut down a portion of the Amazon. The second interested party will be the environmentalists and conservationists who, by owning TreeCoin, can protect forests and hold power and sway in the timber industry while watching the value of their tokens appreciate as more trees get cut down and TreeCoin becomes more scarce. TreeCoin in this sense could be used to track usage of lumber: where it is happening, what types of trees, what is the market price, etc., which would greatly improve efficiencies in the industry, helping us work toward a sustainable future, and therein lies the value of TreeCoin in a decentralized network that connects all parties dealing in forestry. The TreeCoin would be created by planting more trees in place of the clear cut that just happened to harvest lumber. More trees = more TreeCoin. Less trees = less TreeCoin with higher value which results in higher cost to continue removing trees.
The logic of platforms with higher connectivity and stores of information, as illustrated above, is the logic driving the adoption of blockchain technology by all industries. Whether you are a distiller, an environmentalist, or something completely different, you are standing in an empty prairie that will soon be developed into a bustling metropolis, so there's no better time to apply blockchain logic to your business in whatever way you can to get that first-mover advantage. We're all in this together, figuring it out as we go. The best thing we can do is start with something small. I am Montana's first registered crypto-currency merchant (you can buy tee shirts and gift cards on my website with Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Litecoin) and that's a small step in the larger plan, but we have to start somewhere.
I offer part-time consulting on creative solutions, design, and implementation of your wildest blockchain dreams. Contact me on LinkedIn for a free, first time consultation. Available to my network only. I look forward to reading your comments below!
If you are a little crypto-curious and want to learn about cryptocurrencies, blockchains, and more, I suggest listening to a podcast called Bad Crypto. Check out their website where you can listen to every episode for free! Bryce Distillery was mentioned on Episode 35: How Blockchain Will Disrupt 30+ Industries.
Absinthe is at a strange point in its history. It's as if it was cryogenically frozen over a hundred years ago, and now it's been brought back to life and is learning slowly and awkwardly how to make it in the world of 2017. That's like bringing Thomas Edison to 2017, giving him some pocket money and telling him to go sell his inventions. You have to have a little sympathy for the green fairy. She's the one holding a cardboard sign on the corner looking for work, still trying to figure out where she is while clinging to her memories of where she came from. But I believe in a future for the green fairy. If you're not familiar with the absinthe ritual or the types of absinthes available on the market and how to tell the good from the bad, the "real" from the "fake," you're in the right place. If you're a seasoned absintheur yourself, you might find some new bottles and some new tasting notes below. Whether it's a Suisse Blanche or a traditional Verte, whether it's NGS-based or made from eau-de-vie, whether French style or Czech, every absinthe has its niche, and every absintheur has theirs. Here's a buyer's guide based on some absinthes I have sampled, organized by distiller and type of absinthe.
Every absinthe here was prepared in the traditional method, as I described in a previous blog post that you can read here if you're not familiar with the fountain, spoon, and sugar ritual.
Swiss White, Suisse La Bleue, Suisse Blanche, Absinthe Jeune
The heart of absinthe lies in Val-de-Travers, Switzerland, and no one can argue that. That is where absinthe was born and where it will never die. Even when absinthe was banned in Switzerland in 1910, distillers continued to produce small amounts of absinthe for their families and neighbors. It was during this 97-year ban that white absinthe became popular, on the grounds that it was not as obvious to scrutinizing authorities as its green predecessor. Today absinthe is legal in Switzerland, and, according to local distiller Claude-Alain Bugnon, there are over 200 absinthe distillers in the small valley, most of whom remain clandestine.
A good absinthe blanche tastes like springtime in a bottle. A characteristic of Swiss absinthe in particular is the strong floral aroma that comes from the wormwood used to make it, which presides over even the anise aromas in a good bottle. This may be due to the distillation techniques, but is more likely due to the quality of the wormwood. This is a good absinthe to taste if you want to familiarize yourself with the unique taste of artemisia (wormwood) without too many other flavors in the mix. This style of absinthe would be my choice for a refreshing, post-dinner nightcap.
The three images above are absinthes from Switzerland whose origin is unknown. I found two of them at an absinthe bar, Die Greune Fee (read my article about drinking 14 absinthes here!), and another at a spring-fed absinthe fountain out in the woods. Travel to Val-de-Travers and you may get similar opportunities!
The absinthes below are all Swiss-made, white absinthes. Though all the absinthes below are good, my personal favorites were the ones that brought out the deep, round, woody and floral aromas of the wormwood while bringing their own special degrees of complexity to the palate. My top pick is Absinthe Suisse: Blanche Traditionelle, distilled by Oliver Matter. Mr. Matter consistently produces excellent absinthes that both stick to tradition and offer unexpected character for the discriminating palate. While this one comes at a high ABV and a high price, it is one of the best absinthes I have sampled to date. The second is La Belle Epoque, distilled by Francis Martin. Mr. Martin is another excellent distiller whose specialty seems to be the white absinthes. Everything you can taste from his distillery is certainly going to leave an impression, but the way La Belle Epoque brings forth the artemisia essence with artful tact and intensity makes this one stand out from all the rest.
The others that are also very good are pictured below. I'm not going to lead you astray by putting a bad absinthe on here, no, no, no. I personally preferred some over others, but everyone's taste is different, so here are some other exceptional Suisse La Bleue absinthes:
From Distillerie Celle A Guilloud: Fee Verte, a traditional absinthe blanche, and Guilloudtine, stronger and more complex than the former. The distiller, Mr. Matthey, loves his craft and has no interest in growing his distillery to be any larger than its current state, so you will either have to contact him individually or go visit the distillery in order to get a bottle (or go through me!). I am currently translating his website to English.
From Distillerie La Valote Martin: Fee Verte (which is actually blanche, not verte), Nirvana, Aphrodite, l'Originale. As I mentioned above, Francis Martin is an outstanding distiller who specializes in absinthe blanche, and every one of these has its own unique characteristics worth the taste. My third pick was l'Originale: true to the spirit of the valley.
From Distillerie La P'tite: Green Velvet (actually white, not green), and Absinth'love69. Distiller Gaudentia Persoz is the only female distiller I know of, and she does an outstanding job with her absinthe. I personally prefer her Absinthe Verte varieties. The Absinth'love69 struck me as a bit strident, but I think that had something to do with drinking a cup of milky-white liquid that came from a bottle with an ejaculating penis on the label. I told this to Ms. Persoz and she laughed, as if her master plan was working out perfectly.
From Distillerie La Valote Bovet: Nostalgie, an excellent traditional white, and La Chat. Willy Bovet, though I did not have the pleasure of meeting him, is among the top respected small-scale producers in Val-de-Travers. Nostalgie makes my top choice list for absinthe blanche. The girl on the label of Nostalgie is taken from a famous absinthe poster from the Paris absinthe boom and the emerging of the art nouveau style, and the throwback Chat Noir on the label of La Chat hearkens back to the famed cabaret of Montmartre, which was frequented by famous writers and painters of the time. With marketing roots in French art history it would seem as if Mr. Bovet is a little confused, but he still makes an excellent Swiss-style absinthe.
Swiss Verte, La Fée Verte, Absinthe Verte
Swiss Verte is my personal favorite style of absinthe. While the recipes vary widely among distillers and labels, you can generalize a Swiss verte as having a herbal nose followed by the long, round aftertaste of artemisia. You will also experience a very subtle yet distinct bitterness that grabs the corners of your tongue like a sweet grapefruit. Swiss verte absinthes are what you would classify as "traditional," based on the powerful simplicity that emphasizes the taste of artemisia while providing borderline subconscious notes of different aromas and herbal combinations, all of which typically come together in a single, rounded taste in a good bottle. Some people prefer to break out their absinthe spoons and take a strong verte with sugar. I prefer to taste the full array of flavors in absinthe verte without sugar. Find which one you prefer. Again, if you have no idea what I'm talking about with spoons and sugar, read Step by Step: How to Drink Absinthe...the Traditional Way.
The top two Swiss verte absinthes that I tried were chosen based on both the harmony and individuality of the overall flavor. Also taken into account is the balance of complexity with closeness to tradition. My top pick is Green Velvet by Gaudentia Persoz at Distillerie La P'tite (distillery only...sorry!). As you take a sip of a well-mixed glass, the flavor will make you pause to consider the beauty of things in life, like those simple moments walking in the woods when you just have to close your eyes, smile, breathe deep, and take it all in. The wash is smooth, and the afterglow is like alpine wildflowers with that stone fruit bitterness. My second pick is Mansinthe, designed by Marilyn Manson and distilled by Oliver Matter ($44.65/700mL). I haven't had the chance to speak with Marilyn Manson about this absinthe, but I imagine his contributions are the artwork on the label, as well as ensuring the ABV is 66.6%. In any case, this absinthe tastes remarkably close to a pre-ban verte, boasting the artemesia aromas while creating a seamless blend of background flavors that add to the overall impression as yellow leaves on a green tree in the first days of autumn. In the case of both these bottles, I like the designs because, instead of holding on to some sort of historical throwback for their marketing, they are creating a new, modern image for absinthe, and this is where the green fairy is going to find her future.
From Distillerie Artemisia Bugnon: Angelique, and Butterfly. Both are tasty and traditional. Butterfly stands out to me because Butterfly Absinthe is the name on the label of the only known surviving bottle of pre-ban absinthe in the United States. I have to say, I was a little disgruntled that Swiss distiller Claude-Alain had a trademark on American history, but I just learned that the original trademark owner approached Claude-Alain and asked him to produce the original pre-ban recipe because of Switzerland's 'superior products.' In fact it is a very good product that reminds us that, in fact, even the US had a fling with the green fairy once upon a time.
From Distillerie Guilloud: La Chanvriere a Guilloud (distillery only), which is nostalgic yet nontraditional because it is hemp-infused. There is actually no THC in this bottle, but the image on the label would make you think there was. The current social perspective on absinthe lends itself to the drug culture. While this isn't the best thing for the future of the green fairy, it's a great marketing trend for distillers to capitalize on. La Chanvriere tastes good and the hemp further smooths out the flavors.
From La Valote Martin: Absinthe Sade. Straightforward and traditional - a fantastic representation of Swiss verte by master distiller Martin.
From Distillerie La P'tite: la Valdera Verte. Especially bitter - some extra seasoning for the already seasoned palate. Bold and polarizing, as the best things usually are. Made by Ms. Gaudentia Persoz.
From Oliver Matter: Absinthe Duplais. Typical Oliver Matter creation at its finest. A strong kick and a smooth finish very similar to Mansinthe.
While the Swiss stick to tradition, the French tend toward a different approach in absinthe making, which is marked by spicier and more complex absinthes that deviate from the mostly artemisia-based Swis recipes. Because French absinthe has a lower limit on the amount of wormwood that can be used in their recipes, the emphasis in flavor is normally on anise and other botanicals.
It's hard to lump "French absinthe" into a single category, so I can't rightly give a favorite. I'll give you my top picks in bold along with the reasons I picked them.
From Distillerie GUY: Francois Guy, Magie Verte, La Pontisalienne, and Garcon une Verte. Francois Guy is the fourth generation owner of the distillery, and is the man responsible for absinthe becoming legal in France, so the absinthe Francois Guy is made in his name. This uses the same recipe as his great grandfather used in the pre-ban era, minus a slight amount of wormwood. Francois Guy is my favorite traditional French absinthe verte and the closest you will get to a Swiss absinthe. The other absinthes listed above and pictured below are limited edition recipes. Distillerie GUY produces a different absinthe every year, experimenting with different herbs and interesting methods such as aging the absinthe in wine barrels. Unfortunately for the buyer, these limited editions are hard to find outside of the distiller himself or an enthusiastic collector (such as myself :)).
From Les Fils d'Emile Pernot: Absinthe Pontarlier, Vieux Pontarlier, and Sauvage (79eu/700mL). First, take into account that Les Fils d'Emile Pernot was the world's first commercial absinthe distillery, allegedly inheriting its recipe from Dr. Ordinaire himself. They have over a dozen different absinthes in production, each of which is exceptional in its own merit. Absinthe Pontarlier is an excellent white absinthe. I like Vieux Pontarlier because it is made from wine-based spirits, which is how absinthe was produced all the way up to about 1860-1870, depending. It's a bit of a trip back in time. Sauvage by Pernot is my overall favorite absinthe verte due to the complex merging of its very strong botanical aromas. It is anything but traditional. Sauvage, meaning wild in French, is named after the wild harvested wormwood used to make this absinthe. The overall impression is also powerful and untamed.
From Jade Liqueurs: Espirit Edouard (65eu/700mL), Jade Terminus (65eu/700mL), and Jade 1901 (65eu/700mL). The distiller at Jade Liqueurs is an American expat named Ted Breaux who produces absinthe out of Samur, France in the Val Loire, a big region for French wine production. This is the perfect spot for him because all of his absinthes are made from wine eau-de-vie, sourced from the Loire valley. Like I mentioned earlier, wine spirits is the original base for absinthe, so Broux and his strong historical ties stay true to their brand and produce some extremely high quality absinthe. My favorite wine-based absinthe is Espirit Edouard by Jade Liqueurs, distilled by Ted Broux. The wine base is strong without being strident or overpowering as many lower-quality attempts are. The flavor of the wormwood comes across clearly in the aftertaste, as do many more subtleties that tantalize the tastebuds. A very special liqueur indeed.
From Absintherie Bourbonnaise: Verte de Vichy (38eu/500mL) and Napoleon III (47eu/700mL). Distiller Philippe Fumoux has created five absinthes, each in the image of a historical point in French history. Napoleon III stays true to the Belle Epoque stlye verte, while Verte de Vichy offers some different tastes, including notes of saffron and cloves - a toast to the future of absinthe. These are my favorite bottles because the lid is a one-ounce shot for measuring your drinks! These are also the best-accomplished deviations from traditional absinthe. You can tell these recipes go light on the anise because you have to pour very slowly and delicately to get the absinthes to louche whatsoever. Some anise-haters might find this to be their favorite absinthe distillery! regardless of preference, a proper pour will yield a spicy and delicious absinthe to sip.
From Distillerie Awen Nature: Absinthe Fine Blanche and Absinthe Rouge. These absinthes come from Rennes, a city near the north coast of France. The Absinthe Blanche is a powerful drink that, true to the French way, is spicier and more complex than most. Very well executed, and there are not so many French whites out there, so this one is worth a try! I would describe the Absinthe Rouge with one word: bad. This drink might be a good mixer and one would not notice the bad taste if they used it as a wash in a sazarac, but my rules for tasting stick to tradition, and this one just tasted thin and lacking of any character.
From Distilleries et Domaines de Provence (France): Absente. This is the one that comes in the cardboard packaging featuring Vincent Van Gogh on the front. Van Gogh, a romantic and ardent absinthe drinker, would scoff at the stuff. The second ingredient on the back of the bottle is sugar, and it's actually made with plant essences rather than real plants, then colored with vibrant green food coloring. The webesite boasts the "tradition" of setting the sugar cube on fire and serving over crushed ice, or even drinking it neat. Whatever you do, don't let this hallmark absinthe brand of today be your only absinthe experience because it will leave a bad taste in your mouth, like a king size package of Twizzlers at the movie theatre.
From Fischer Schnaps (Austria): Absinthe Mata Hari ($43.99/750mL). The website for this absinthe claims to be derived from an original absinthe recipe dating back to 1881, but then they go on to say that they reduced the amount of anise in it (another source says they removed anise entirely) and redesigned the recipe to be a "mixable" absinthe. The back of the bottle says it would go good with cranberry juice, and I can see this because the dominating taste is vodka. This was not good to drink traditionally, and unfortunately it's the only impression I have of Austrian absinthe. Sorry, Austria.
In the steep hills of Montmartre, dreams have both lived and died. It's a community of struggling artists and it always has been. Some characteristics of the Parisian neighborhood (besides the steep hills) are the graffiti, the sex shops which are all boasting their new product: the Eiffel Tower dildo, the dirty sidewalks lined with cigarette butts and empty beer bottles, the vast number of bars and live sex theaters, and the cliques of artists selling sketches and paintings on the street. I feel strangely at home here, comforted by the fact that nobody is going to judge me for ordering coffee before my meal, and that Montmartre is still just like it was in 1900. It was here that artists like Van Gogh came to live, drink, and wallow in their own filth before inevitably ruining themselves like so many great artists before them.
Van Gogh painted this in Montmartre, depicting the night life of Paris in which there is always a "night with no black." Van Gogh drank absinthe and painted incessantly on the streets of Montmartre, eventually driving himself to shooting himself in the stomach and dying a slow and painful death at age 37 in 1890. On the subject of his cafe paintings such as Cafe Terrace at Night, pictured above, Van Gogh said he has "tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime."
Contrast this with the drinking life of the bourgeoisie around that same time, as I showed in the previous blog. Absinthe was once a drink of the wealthy, and people would drink it from crystal glasses on white tablecloths surrounded by the highest contemporary art. As absinthe became cheaper, it began to migrate from the purple velvet and vaulted ceilings of the Latin Quarter and Grand Rue cafes to the rat-infested cobblestone streets of Montmartre.
Before riding the tube to Montmartre, Marie-Claude and I first visited a couple more cafes from the Bourgeoisie circles. This really added to the contrast between here and Montmartre.
This is how the cafe looked when it opened in 1903. It was remodeled in the 30s and all the decor was covered up. Later, someone uncovered the beautiful walls and artwork and "retromodeled" it into what is is today. Unfortunately, like all the other cafes, this one does not serve absinthe.
La Fermette Marbeuf
Yet another amazing cafe, and certainly worth the visit if you can reserve a table three months in advance. Judging by how full the restaurant is, they obviously have high demand haha. Notice the absinthe fountain on the bar! Too bad they don't actually have any absinthe.
Here is where we begin our move into the world of absinthe for the "commoners" like us. The first was a very large and popular restaurant called Le Bouillon Chartier, where we had a nice lunch. Notice the lights and coat racks are still the same, but it's a little more casual.
Le Bouillon Chartier
The cool thing about this restaurant is that it's full of middle-class people and families from all over the world. Back in the Belle Epoque, it was much the same. The bourgeoisie had their classy habitations, the starving artists had theirs, but this was a place for the commoners who, usually coming to visit Paris, were able to experience Paris cuisine (including absinthe) in a relaxed atmosphere. Marie-Claude looking like an angel.
This brings us to Montmartre, home to the famed Moulin Rouge. Like I mentioned earlier, this place is exactly like it was over a century ago: a place for the "alternative lifestyles." Though the streets would have been lined with cafes serving absinthe back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (as Marie-Claude writes, Paris had over 30,000 absinthe cafes as early as 1870!) there is not a single absinthe cafe that survived the ban. This is a neighborhood that stays with the times, accepting new trends as quickly and easily as it spits them out. I imagine that, after the illegalization of absinthe, cafes simply stopped serving and moved on.
The above images are places in Montmartre that used to be popular dive bar and cabaret destinations for absinthe drinkers, including the famous Chat Noir which has since become an apartment complex and is commemorated on a faded plaque. Another has been turned into an organic grocery store, and two more have become a hotel and a dive bar (that serves 120 liquors but no absinthe!).
Okay, enough of history. Now I'm more interested in where you can find absinthe in Paris today, so Marie-Claude takes me to the one place in Paris she knows of that serves over 60 different absinthes.
It's your typical punk-rock bar in 2016. Heavy metal playing over the speakers, the bartender is a tattoo-covered thug with a few facial piercings. What's 2016 about it is that the bartender is also a well-trained "mixologist" as it were, and every bottle you see in the picture above is a different type of absinthe.
Marie-Claude leaves with some goodbyes, then Maeva leaves with some goodbyes, and I am left in an empty bar on a Tuesday night with the bartender and my thoughts about the 2016 election that is going to be decided tonight some time after I fall asleep. I proceeded to drink 16 absinthes and chat with the bartender. I tried some really good absinthes at this point. The best ones, as always, were from Switzerland.
I also tried one from the Czech Republic, where absinthe rose back to power in the 1990s and where the celebrated shots and the burning of the sugar cube were invented. This was the worst absinthe I have ever tasted. Even after diluting with water and adding two sugar cubes, it still tasted like making out with the green fairy, except she is really slutty, has been smoking cigarettes all through her three-day bender and is wearing enough perfume to fumigate an apartment full of feral cats. I think the distiller would be better off switching from Eau de Vie and producing Eau de Toilette. Here's a picture of it so you can look out and dodge a bullet. Notice the art in the background :). Love it.
Think what you will, but this bar is objectively awesome, and everyone who goes to Paris should visit it and experience the new absinthe scene of Montmartre. Instead of clinging on to a history that is firstly long-gone and secondly not the bar's own, Cantada II is giving an absinthe a personality in this day and age. Now, the heavy metal and sado-masochist hellions may not be your vibe, and it doesn't need to be. But if absinthe distillers like me are to survive, we need to do things like Cantada II and redefine absinthe from "what it used to be" to "what it is now."
Les Caves du Roy
Van Gogh, Picasso, Lautrec, Verlaine, Cros, Baudelaire, Manet, and Hemingway all have one important thing in common: they all drank absinthe regularly in Paris. Coincidental to say the least, but what's even more surprising is that many of these men also drank together at the same absinthe cafes and even shared their ideas and inspirations with one another. I came to Paris to travel back in time and uncover the cafes of the Belle Époque where the "greats" drank, painted, wrote, and discussed their work. Marie-Claude Delahaye is an intrepid adventurer as well as one of the world's most knowledgeable absinthe historians and my tour guide for this urban adventure. She has studied absinthe for 35 years and has written 25 books on the subject, but she has never been on a tour of the old absinthe cafes of Paris. Here are some photos and little blurbs of us discovering the cafes together. This is day 1 of a two day shindig.
La Train Bleu, 1905
This restaurant in the Parisian train station, Gare de Lyon, is named after an expensive overnight train that went all the way to Rome. Popular with the wealthy bourgeoisie, absinthe was consumed here as well as on the train. The ornate interior displays paintings depicting every destination accessible from this train station. Marie-Claude: every bit as elegant as the interior of this incredibly beautiful cafe. As you can see, Parisian "cafes" are a little different than the neighborhood coffee shops most of us in the states are used to!
This cafe, pictured above, was the favorite haunt of writer Paul Verlaine. The concierge at the door informed us that it was also frequented by much more famous people such as Marie Antoinette. Marie-Claude said we weren't interested (ha!) and he showed us Verlaine's favorite seat by the window.
Another favorite of writers such as Ernest Hemmingway, Brasserie Lipp resides in the heart of the St. Germain district, also known as the Latin Quarter. With the island-like flora decorating the tiled walls, I'm not surprised that Hemmingway, who loved Cuba and Key West, felt at home here.
Café de Flore
Marie-Claude is leading me and our translator, Maeva, around with the energy of a kid at Disney World. Pleased as can be, she brings us to one of the more famous cafes in Paris: Cafe de Flore. This cafe was most famous for the writers it harbored: writers such as Wilde, Hemmingway, Poe, Cros, and Baudelaire. The cafe is large and is still full of hard-working writers clicking away at their laptop keyboards. The coolest part about the Cafe de Flore is that it still supports the literary community. Every year, it hosts an award ceremony for the greatest writing accomplishments in Paris that year.
Les Deaux Magots
For those whose initial reaction was anything like mine, "magots" in French does not mean "magots" in English. It is actually a species of old world monkey that, in English, we call macaques, so the name of the cafe is "The Two Macaques." This cafe is full of original furniture and seating arrangements, which means they can place a picture of the famous person of choice behind their seat of choice. The one below is Pablo Picasso's. Below that, Marie-Claude is hoping to write her own way into the history books!
Restaurant Montparnasse 1900
It doesn't look like much to write home about from the outside, but the inside is amazingly beautiful. Almost as beautiful as our lovely translator, Maeva.
It was about this time that I began to realize that, in 1900, absinthe was not a drink for vagabonds and alcoholics. If you look at the interior of all these cafes, you can make an assessment of the type of clientele that came in to these places. They are not the dive bars that I expected them to be before we started our tour. In fact, every one of these cafes has been very open, well-lit, beautifully decorated, and all-in-all, inspiring. Perhaps the "muse" of the green fairy wasn't the drink itself, but the cafes where it was consumed! We sat down here at Montparnasse 1900 for lunch before moving on to some more historical cafes.
Even if you have not heard of the painter Amedeo Modigliani, you might recognize his art. Even though this was also the favorite haunt of Pablo Picasso, the walls of La Rotonde are adorned with Modigliani's paintings. It's actually a pretty funny story. You see, the owner of the cafe in the early 20th century had a bleeding heart for writers and starving artists, so he let them pay their tabs in paintings. Evidently, Modigliani was one of the most starving artists in the city because La Rotonde displays nothing but Modigliani art! With a contemporary like Picasso, Modigliani must have been constantly frustrated with his inability to sell paintings, but look at him now. Not a Picasso painting in sight, and all because Modigliani was forced to pay for his absinthe in artwork! I guess the lesson here is that sometimes is pays to be poor and underappreciated as long as you have passion and a little bit of skill.
With a ceiling like that, who could resist taking a selfie?
Las Closerie des Lilas
This cafe was home to Charles Cros among other famous writers who I honestly didn't know. Marie-Claude was really excited about it though! The building is enormous and wonderfully ornate with Napoleonic limestone architecture that displays the grandeur of Paris everywhere you go.
Whether marble, tile, or mosaic, every surface of this building are stone. Goes to show you what it took to stand out as a cafe in Paris in the early 20th century! The picture below on the left...mosaic. Tiny, tiny, mosaic.
La Fée Verte
At this point, some of you might be thinking, "wait, where is the absinthe?" Well, dear reader, I was thinking the exact same thing when we were going around the city visiting all these famous absinthe cafes. In fact, only two of the places above actually serves absinthe today. The first place we encountered said with a hint of irony that it was a special bottle served on request that the bartender keeps in his sleeve. The second place denied that they served absinthe at all, but there was definitely an absinthe fountain and a bottle of Pernod on the counter! I asked every place if they served absinthe and every place was the same reply: there's just no demand for it. That and absinthe is a bit taboo these days. When you order absinthe somewhere, EVERYONE looks at you and whispers to each other. It's not any different than it is here in the US.
Fortunately, there are in fact a couple of locations in Paris who serve absinthe in bountiful quantities, so we went to one to cap off our first night of cafe tours.
I hope you enjoyed that! Read about DAY 2!
It has come to my attention that many people reading this have never tried absinthe before. Absinthe is above all a satisfying, delicious and refreshing drink when enjoyed properly, but it’s served unlike anything you’ve probably seen before. To be honest, there is really no “wrong way” to drink absinthe. You might run into some highbrow folk who will tell you that the spoon, the fountain, and the slow drip (explained below) are the only way to enjoy an absinthe. Not true. Tradition is one thing. Intuition is another. And enjoyment is something completely independent of the two. Tradition will help you learn the rules while intuition might help you break them, but you need a little bit of both to find a place for absinthe in your heart. Here’s your reference pamphlet for enjoying your first glass of absinthe the traditional way – modify as you see fit:
Step 1: Set aside a little time.
Absinthe is best enjoyed at a time when you can relax and enjoy yourself.
Step 2: Gather the materials.
You will need a bottle of absinthe. The best absinthe comes from France and Switzerland because they have been doing it for centuries and because their laws allow a higher thujone content than absinthe made in the US. Thujone is a molecule directly related to the flavor of wormwood – the absinthe plant. Note the traditional “absinthe glass” is heavy and inversely conical, but any glass will do. The absinthe fountain is not for absinthe, but for ice water. We’ll get into its use later. Finally, an optional piece is the absinthe spoon which is flat and slotted for the infusion of sugar into the glass if you prefer your drinks a little sweeter.
Step 3: Pour a shot’s worth of absinthe into a glass.
The fairy is in the building.
Step 4: Place glass under fountain.
At this point you can put the spoon over the mouth of the glass and place a cube of sugar on the spoon. Adjust the fountain spout so that it sends water forth at something between a slow trickle and a fast drip, dripping onto the sugar cube if you have one. What’s the difference between a slow trickle and a fast drip? It’s kind of like the difference between mostly sunny and partly cloudy.
Step 5: Observe.
Watch, wait, and converse while your glass fills. Dilute with three parts water to one part absinthe. This will yield the same alcohol level as a glass of white wine, more or less, and when you drink it, you should barely taste alcohol over the strong anise and wormwood aromas. The high proof alcohol retains a vault of flavor which is released into the solution when water is added – evident as the liquid turns from clear to foggy and then milky. That’s why a good absinthe shouldn’t be taken in a shot.
Step 6: Turn off spout, remove glass, make a toast, and enjoy.
There is no fire involved whatsoever (that’s a tradition that came from the Czech clubs of the 90s, and they weren’t even drinking the real thing!). It’s not going to make you hallucinate (this is a rumor that came from propaganda aimed at labeling absinthe as a menace to society in the early 20th century!). Absinthe is packed with a variety of flavor that will activate the taste buds of your entire tongue. You don’t need to smell it or swish it around in your mouth to get the flavor. Just drink the absinthe like you’re sipping on a glass of orange juice during breakfast.
See the blog entry “ET, go home, you’re drunk” for a description of what you will taste and how you will feel after a dozen glasses. As a generalization, a good absinthe will be sweet, refreshing, and floral, leaving a glowing aftertaste like an orb floating between the center of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. At the same time, the slight bitterness, like a sweet grapefruit, will massage the corners of your tongue by the rear molars. If all you taste is fennel and your tongue is getting numb, you haven’t added enough water.
Like I said, absinthe can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. Besides being enjoyed with water, it can also take a cocktail from “ass” to “class” just by the addition of an eye-dropper’s worth. Try pouring a shot of vodka on the rocks and add a small amount of absinthe – not even one thimble full – and taste the difference. Disclaimer: will not make Nikolai taste good! If the Fantastic Four made an agreement with the Justice League, who made an agreement with the Greek Gods, who made an agreement with the Roman Gods, who made agreements with Jesus, Mohammed, Albert Einstein, Ghandi, and David Blaine to make everything in the world good, without fault, Nikolai would still taste horrible. Absinthe, on the other hand, needs no help - only that of a caring distiller.
Lee Roy is a dreamer and a simpleton who wants to produce the finest liquors in the world at his distillery in Missoula, Montana. He is traveling via couchsurfing and AirBnB with his "business backpack" to the places where the best liquors in the world come from in order to learn the craft.