Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Chasing la fée verte

I’ve wanted to try absinthe since I first started reading Hemingway in the 1980’s. Unfortunately, it was outlawed in the United States in October, 1912, considerably before my time. In fact, Hemingway fans reading The Sun Also Rises when it was first published may have found themselves nursing the same curiosity about the spirit, just as unable to try it as I was. The interesting thing is that it was outlawed in France in 1914, in the decade before Hemingway himself was drinking it in Montparnasse (“every afternoon the people one knows can be found at the café”). I guess there were ways for motivated devotees to track down la fée verte.

In 2007, absinthe was officially (re)legalized in the U.S. I began to hear about French or Czech absinthes one could order online, but the prices were a touch high, and I didn’t want an entire bottle until I had tasted it. I finally managed it yesterday. The absinthe in question is brand-new to Texas, and it has a celebrity sponsor (like some tequilas and vodkas): Marilyn Manson. The portmanteau name for the spirit? What else but Mansinthe. Sounds like a 1970’s Kraftwerk bootleg, doesn’t it?

So, I finally caught the green fairy. How was it? Not bad. Not amazing, but pretty good. For those who haven’t tried it, the overwhelming flavors are anise and fennel (one might just as well say double-black-licorice). I happen to like this flavor — I also like ouzo and sambuca —but many people do not. No doubt I’d enjoy it even more were the whole ritual observed: slowly dripping water over a sugar cube to release the full bouquet of la louche, etc., and I have been promised the whole grand affair when I travel to England later this summer (where absinthe has never been officially banned). I had expected that to be my first experience with absinthe, and perhaps it should have been! But as I say, it was pretty good; just a little anticlimactic after all these years.

I actually tried three other spirits at the same tasting which I like more. The first was Boca Loca Cachaça (80 proof). This is a spirit made from fresh sugar cane, so it’s a sort of cousin to rum, but it tastes nothing like it. The aroma is exactly like fresh sugar cane, and the flavor follows the nose closely. Drunk neat, it has a kind of smooth, milky sweetness, a really wonderful flavor. In cocktails like the Brazilian caipirinha (which I’ve had before), the flavor of the cachaça itself tends to be overpowered by the fruit. I tasted it neat and in a cairpirinha at the event. Next, I tasted an organic rye vodka flavored with organic cucumber, Square One Cucumber (80 proof), which was really delicious and refreshing, and then an unclassified botanical spirit, Square One Botanical (90 proof), which deserves some elaboration.

I should start by saying that it was amazing. If I’d had a little more wiggle room in the budget, I would definitely have bought a bottle. It’s similar to a vodka, perhaps closer to a gin, but really, it’s its own distinct entity — a botanical spirit — so that’s what she called it. More unique, which I like. It’s an “organic rye spirit infused with the essence of 8 organic botanicals: pear, rose, chamomile, lemon verbena, lavender, rosemary, coriander, and citrus peel”. Right up my street! I also met the owner of the distillery, Allison Evanow, who was very nice and answered all my questions. She also made us a cocktail, called Pear of Roses: Square One Botanical, Meyer lemon juice, muddled pear, lavender syrup, and fresh rosemary. Boy, was it good! They also make a Basil Vodka, using four different varieties of organic basil, which I’d really like to try.

11 comments:

  1. And, apparently, absinthe doesn't have the kinds of fun effects it was famed for, as Wayne Curtis points out in "The Secret Ingredient: Liquor companies love to claim they use closely guarded, centuries-old recipes. Usually it’s just marketing."

    Square one sounds appealing.

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  2. Right, it’s never had those effects. The absinsthe in actual vintage bottles has been tested, and new absinthe has also been made from traditional period recipes, and the thujone levels in these have all been miniscule — far below causing any noticeable effects, let alone hallucinations, blindness, madness. You’d have to drink dozens of bottles a day before the thujone in absinthe would affect you, and of course, the alcohol would be a problem long before that!

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  3. Here in the "highland" part of central Colombia, South America, the traditional licor is an ouzo-like anise-flavoured drink known as "aguardiente". There are, of course, plenty of other licor's in the Spanish-speaking world with this name (basically: "fire-water" :)) but I am not sure that many are anise-flavored as the local poison is. There's also a sort of "mulled" version, heated with added herbs and stuff, considered suitable for chilly nights (which, of course, on top of the Andes, most nights are). Actually, I think aguardiente has been losing ground to rum locally, and people who want to show off drink really awful whiskey (which is trendy because its imported, and thus expensive, but awful because it's, well, imported but necessarily still affordable locally -- and, really, no one should drink what the combination of those factors implies!). Still, fans of anise-flavoured licors could do worse than track down a bottle of Colombian aguardiente. Not too dangerous, really. :) It's the "palm wine", typically sold in "recycled" 2-liter soda bottles in the tropical regions of the country that will, if you're lucky, only kill you .... ;)

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    1. Thanks for sharing this, Carl. Now I will have to try indeed to track this down! (Not the palm wine, though! :)

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    2. I once tried a Lebanese Anise spirit. I don't know if you know the Spanish version but it was like that but without the sweetness. Quite overwhelming.

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  4. The FishWife3/31/2012 2:26 PM

    I must say that I particularly loved you saying it was "right up your street". Why? Most people say, "right up my alley." You used the word 'street'. I would like to think my growing up on Mint Lane (surrounded by many other botanical, herbal, and spice names) had something to do with your choice!

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    1. No doubt about it, sweetheart! All those spice streets, Cinnamon, Clove, Ginger, Sage, especially Mint ... hold a very dear place in my memory. :)

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  5. So there still haven't been any chemical tests to determine whether it's true that absinthe makes the heart grow fonder?

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  6. Ouch! I still think you can't beat a Pan-Galactic Gargle-Blaster

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  7. I have to admit, I hated the stuff when I tried it, I had 3-4 of them one evening, was extraordinarily sick, then had the worst hangover of my entire life the next day.. and could still smell the liquorice scent for about 2 days afterwards.. it's actually making me a bit sick just thinking about it.

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  8. 'when I travel to England later this summer...'
    Then of course when I got to Return of the Ring, you were not there! So sorry not to have had the chance to meet you, but hope another opportunity will arise.

    All the best

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