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American Absinthe: A Misunderstood Spirit Arrives Stateside
Over the last two and a half centuries, absinthe has divided opinions and earned quite the rap sheet. Accused of being addictive and psychedelic, the spirit has been outlawed almost everywhere at one point or another. When a Swiss man murdered his family in the early 20th century, absinthe was blamed and subjected to global vilification. On the flip side, its herbal flavors were praised as medicinal and it was (falsely) believed to help fight off diseases such as malaria. The truth is, absinthe has always been something of an enigma.
Even as it experiences a modern renaissance, the stuff is still mired in ambiguity. On a basic level, it’s a highly alcoholic anise-based drink. Most absinthe is made roughly the same way: a variety of minced herbs steep in approximately 85 percent alcohol, which is distilled, colored or flavored using more herbs, and then diluted to 55 to 75 percent alcohol (which is still extremely potent). Since absinthe production in most countries doesn’t have strict guidelines (unlike brandy, gin and whiskey), distillers have artistic freedom to ensure that no two spirits taste alike. It’s even distilled using a wide range of alcohols, from brandy to bourbon and more.
Today absinthe is legal to drink all over Europe, in China and throughout most of South America. The U.S. lifted its absinthe ban in 2007. Like anything new, absinthe excites us, but it also requires some insight from the pros. We’ve asked Will Elliott of Maison Premiere, an absinthe bar in New York, to point us in the right direction. He’s suggested a handful of his favorite absinthes and offered his preferred method for drinking them.
*Note: There are many ways to drink absinthe. As a general rule, dissolve a sugar cube in a mixture of one part absinthe and three parts water. Here’s our full guide to drinking absinthe.
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Ridge Distillery Absinthe Verte
The word “verte” refers to the spirit’s green color, which usually comes from chlorophyll in the botanicals. Described on the bottle as a romantic spirit, this absinthe comes from a romantic place: Montana. It’s distilled with a number of herbs, including grand wormwood, anise and fennel. 68% ABV
The Bartender’s Take: “A very extracted, aggressive, and mildly bitter ‘verte’. I would drink this with a classic 4:1 dilution. I prefer this without sugar.”
Our Take: Definitely a doozy at 68% ABV, this drink smells and tastes like straight fire before you mix it. Don’t drink it straight unless you want to hurt. Super herbaceous but well balanced with with sweetness and good texture.
St. George Absinthe Verte
Another absinthe verte, St. George’s iteration has a slightly amber color. It’s made from brandy and infused with different herbal concoctions twice: first with wormwood, fennel, and star anise; then with mint, lemon balm, tarragon, hyssop, meadowsweet and stinging nettles. 60% ABV
The Bartender’s Take: “Starts bigger and bolder than it finishes. Try as an absinthe frappe with a teaspoon of grenadine.”
Our Take: It looks a little like pond water, but smells really wonderful and tastes like black licorice, citrus and stuff from the garden. The texture is almost oily in the mouth, which we liked. One taster described it as “salt water taffy”.
Germain-Robin Absinthe Superieur
Using an antique Germain-Robin cognac still, apple-honey mead gets macerated and distilled with a variety of herbs — rose geranium, wormwood, lemon balm, among them — to create a really elegant absinthe. It resembles dessert wine. 45.15% ABV
The Bartender’s Take: “As a low-proof, low-louche American absinthe, dilute no more than 3:1 to find its best expression.”
Our Take: This wasn’t what we thought a “traditional” absinthe would taste like; it was lighter in color, sweeter and more citrusy than the other absinthes we tried. There was also some serious mint flavor, which had a chewing gum quality, but in a good way.
Letherbee Charred Oak Absinthe Brun
The bottle and the liquor could pass for bourbon, before you taste it. The absinthe’s color comes from its stint getting barrel-aged in charred-oak casks. Letherbee is bottled in Chicago by a distiller that also makes gin and Besk, a Swedish liqueur. 63% ABV
The Bartender’s Take: “This barrel-aged absinthe from Chicago is fantastic by itself, but shines brightest in cocktails. Just try the Chicago Zephyr — with Aquavit, grapefruit, lemon, orgeat, caraway — at Maison Premiere.”
Our Take: We got notes of overripe fruit, like bananas. It’s musty, sultry and tastes “like you’re sniffing an old man’s neck”, as one of our editors said. He didn’t mean that in a bad way.
Delaware Phoenix Meadow of Love Absinthe Superieure
Hailing from a small distillery in upstate New York, this absinthe has a rich sage color and comes highly recommended by the Wormwood Society, a nonprofit absinthe advocacy association. The same core six herbs — from the U.S., Italy and Spain — are used in Delaware Phoenix’s other absinthe, Walton Waters, but a seventh gets dropped into Meadow of Love: violet. 68% ABV