This month’s specialist contributor is Ian Hutton, founder of Liqueurs de France, a company which specialises in absinthe, and which has recently developed its own range, Enigma. Ian describes what absinthe is made from and explains how it is distilled and produced and the best way of drinking this wonderful drink.
My interest in absinthe started at the age of sixteen, when I was studying art at school and driving my teacher mad with questions about the strange green drink that was in so many impressionist paintings. When I learned that this drink was referred to as ‘the Green Fairy’, supposedly drove artists mad, and had been banned in France and most of Europe for almost a century, my curiosity was naturally piqued! It was over a quarter of a century before I was fortunate to taste authentic pre-ban vintage absinthe. I was running a website selling antique absinthe barware, the special spoons and glasses used by 19th century imbibers to prepare their beloved drink, when my business partner turned up with an unopened bottle of Pernod fils absinthe circa 1901. The taste was subtle and exquisite, a world away from the bright green Czech spirits that were just starting to appear in bars in the UK and were generally set alight before drinking. I decided there and then that this was a spirit that deserved respect and a wider audience to appreciate it, so I set about finding a distillery that could reproduce the complex flavours I had discovered. I established Liqueurs de France and found a distillery in Pontarlier, the birthplace of French absinthe, which still had their original absinthe stills in place, and persuaded the owner to make a small batch of absinthe to his original family recipe. At this time absinthe was still illegal in France so the pallet was exported to the UK under customs seal, we sold out within days!
Absinthe was first produced towards the end of the 18th century in the Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland, close to the French border, and this Franco-Suisse border region is where the explosion in absinthe production took place during the 19th century. Absinthe takes its name from Artemisia absinthium, the botanical name for the bitter herb wormwood, known in French as ‘Grande absinthe’. It is one of the ‘holy trinity’ of plants that must be present to make absinthe, the others being green anise and sweet fennel. Most distillers however use many more plants in their recipes, common ingredients include coriander, lemon balm, angelica, mint and Roman wormwood, but some absinthes can contain more than a dozen different plants. As with all distilled spirits, absinthe is colourless when it comes out of the still and some absinthes are bottled this way (absinthe blanche). However, most absinthe is green (absinthe verte), and it gets its colour from the mixture of dried plants that are placed in a sack and ‘dunked’ into the distillate (rather like a tea bag!) Absinthe is generally bottled at an abv of between 60% and 75%, this high concentration of alcohol being necessary to keep the essential oils in solution and to preserve chlorophyll which produces the green colour.
Absinthe is usually consumed as an aperitif and because of the high alcohol, it should always be consumed diluted with water, 4 to 5 measures for each one of absinthe is about right. When the water is slowly dripped into the absinthe the oils come out of solution turning the drink milky, the absinthe louche that Oscar Wilde famously compared to a sunset!
Liqueurs de France now sells over 30 absinthes from artisanal distillers in France and Switzerland. We developed our own range of absinthes, Enigma, based on traditional family recipes and distilled to 19th century protocols. These can be enjoyed in the traditional way, with just the addition of water, or in cocktails such as these.
Chocolate Lime Absinthe Cocktail
- 40ml Creme de Cacao
- 30ml Limettengeist Persian Lime*
- 25ml Enigma Verte absinthe
- 10 drops Aphrodite Bitters**
*available from Lion Spirits
**available from Dr Adam Elmgirab
- Blend with shaved ice, pour into a glass, add a squeeze of fresh lime and a scattering of dark chocolate shavings, garnished with lime wedge.
- Highly refreshing, tastes of the traditional retro chocolate-lime confectionery but so much better with the addition of Enigma Verte and the slight spicy kick of the aphrodite bitters (the latter containing cacao, chilli, ginseng, coffee, amongst other ingredients).
- One serving/preparation (approximately 85ml) of Tie Guan Yin Oolong green tea
- 10ml Enigma Blanche absinthe
- 15 drops of Teapot Bitters
- (optional: 3ml cardamom syrup)
Very warming on cooler days and nights, beautifully soft and with a gentle sweetness all of its own, the teapot bitters providing a subtle hint of complexity on the finish. Sweetening not needed but for a sweeter tooth, the small addition of cardamom syrup is a delightful addition.