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My Absinthe Experiences

Quest for Absinthe

Sometime in either December of 2000, or perhaps late winter / early spring of 2001, a friend mentioned absinthe in passing. Intrigued, I extracted as much information from him as I could... which actually wasn't that much. So, we formed this grand plan to learn as much as we could, and perhaps even get hold of some.

I started searching the web for as much absinthe info as I could. I found many, many pages, mostly linking to each other, stealing each other's artwork... not much original content. The first site I found that actually sells absinthe was Sebor, and so I set my goal: Import a bottle of Sebor! It should be noted that these days (2008 and beyond) the amount of absinthe information on the 'net has exploded, my site & my endeavours are hardly unique any more.

February 25th, 2001 - I confirmed that absinthe is in fact legal in Canada, much to my (and our) joy! I also suggested for the first time the idea of an "absinthe tasting"... I had no idea how that idea would mushroom...

March 2001 - My friend and I had several conversations about this absinthe tasting... it slowly evolved into a full-fledged event.

April 23rd, 2001 - I sent a Request for Quotation (sounds rather formal, doesn't it?) to Betina Elixirs... and received a quick and friendly response. I was just testing the waters at this point, so I didn't place an order right away - I was still figuring out what all this was about.

May 1st, 2001 - a disaster, or so it at first appeared. Official Canadian government documents state that the importation of alcohol (which makes up the majority of absinthe) is prohibited. So I made some calls, to the Canada Revenue Agency, and to the BC Liquor Board, and discovered that it is in fact legal - it's just Canada Post that prohibits it, so if I wish to import, I must do so by courier (the CRA website was not at all clear about this).

May 14th, 2001 - I ordered my first two bottles of absinthe, Mari Mayans and Deva! Anticipation ran wild... they arrived unmolested about two weeks later. There was no apparent leakage, but I could catch a whiff of anise from one of the bottles... very appetising, I almost opened the bottle then and there.

May 15th, 2001 - My friend and I discussed possible dates and guests for "l'heure verte", as we were then calling it - we realised that this was going to be big, and started planning then.

May 24th, 2001 - I ordered a copy of Absinthe: History in a Bottle. Not only was it a great source of information (I read it from cover to cover in one day), it also had some great artwork in it.

May 29th, 2001 - I contacted Betina Elixirs again, and after some interesting and informative e-mails and finally a phone call, I placed an order for both the La Fée and the Suisse La Bleue. They arrived the next week in perfect order.

June 9th, 2001 - I purchased a bottle of Hill's from a BC Liquor Store. Of course, I made a point of asking them if they were planning on stocking any other brands any time soon... and got a rather vague answer. Ah, whaddya expect from a government monopoly? (It should be noted that the sale of liquor in BC is no longer monopolized by the government, there are many businesses in the market now. However, even 7 years later, Hill's is all that's available)

June 12th, 2001 - I finally ordered the Sebor from their online store, it arrived a week later. The first one to discover, the last to acquire. And strangely enough, this was the only bottle to have any sort of customs bother (some extra paperwork to fill out, and an invoice from the courier for "handling fees" arrived a month later, at least it wasn't that much).

June 20th, 2001 - The Mari Mayans and the Suisse La Bleue

The six brands of absinthe that I'd decided to sample had all arrived, so a friend, my sister, and myself, planned an evening of it. After a very tasty meal (and importantly a light one), we dimmed the lights, put on some appropriate ambient music, and began the ritual...

Mari Mayans

This was the first bottle to be opened, and I was, frankly, a little nervous - I had been anticipating this moment for months. At first I had trouble getting the bottle to pour... this was the first time I'd encountered such an elaborate pouring mechanism, but after a minute or so I figured it out (hint: let gravity do its work, and don't try and force anything). The absinthe was a pale green in the glass and smelled strongly of anise, but not unpleasantly so. There were hints of other herbal aromas that I couldn't quite pin down. Upon adding ice water it louched quite well turning a milky yellow-green. My first sip was a surprise; although smelling strongly of anise, the taste was moderate and didn't hit you in the face like some distilled beverages; if you enjoy liquorice candy you'd enjoy this. Along with the obvious anise flavour, I could pick up mint, perhaps real liquorice, hints of something spicy, and a hint of wormwood itself. Altogether the flavours were fairly balanced, with only a trace of bitterness. After several relaxed sips, I began to feel the warming sensation starting in my stomach and spreading through my limbs that I associate with alcohol, but strangely I did not feel intoxicated. It's quite an experience to be feeling half of the effects of alcohol, but to retain an alert mind, with heightened senses (in my case it was my hearing that I first noticed was more vivid). It's been recommended that if you are new to absinthe, you try this one first; now I know why.

Note that although one is feeling alert, perhaps even stimulated, that does not mean that one isn't intoxicated - the GABA-agonist (sedative) effects of alcohol are still there, even though masked by the GABA-antagonist (stimulant) effects of thujone. One could call absinthe a "natural speed-ball"... Do Not Drive or Operate Dangerous Machinery while under the influence - a rough rule is to allow 90 minutes of sobering-up time for every ounce (28mL) of absinthe you consume (this is assuming 70% alcohol by volume and 10ppm thujone). But don't rely on this, everyone's body reacts differently - best to spend the night, wherever you happen to be drinking absinthe.

Suisse La Bleue #1

Produced (illicitly) by farmers in the Val-de-Travers in Switzerland, there are probably hundreds of different varieties and qualities of Suisse La Bleue, but you'll rarely see the real thing outside of Switzerland. A few online vendors claim to sell absinthe made by these farmers, but considering the difficulty of getting it out of the country and the low profile these farmers try to keep, I have to wonder about the authenticity and/or quality of the brands offered online. In any case, the brand I'm reviewing here is available only from Betina's Elixirs as she buys up this farmer's entire production. Betina's Elixirs also offers varieties #2 and #3, which I will review at a later date.

The bottle was both corked and capped; I was puzzled at first, until I removed the cap and realized that the cork was seeping a tiny bit, and the cap's liner was beginning to dissolve. I guess neither a cap nor cork alone would have been enough. This absinthe was crystal clear (no green colour), and poured smoothly. Adding ice water produced a beautiful louche, a milky-white with a tinge of purple (possibly lighting had an effect here), the overall effect was reminiscent of the underside of a cumulus cloud on an otherwise fine day. The aroma was mainly of anise, and again the first sip surprised me: it was smooth! The anise flavour was surprisingly subdued considering how nicely it louched, but there weren't too many other herbal notes in this one either. Wormwood was definitely present, but even so it was quite mellow. My guess is this absinthe had been aged for a while before being sold, there were no sharp edges to the taste at all. A very pleasant and refreshing drink. My friend who was sampling it with me mentioned that he could drink it like water, it was so good... (which made me shudder, thinking of the cost) By the time I had finished the glass I was feeling somewhat heavy in my limbs, but had no trouble balancing when I stood up, and again my mind was very aware of my surroundings, and my senses of hearing, touch, and taste were all heightened. The effect lasted for about half an hour after my second glass, at which point the thujone probably wore off because I suddenly felt very relaxed and sleepy, until the alchohol wore off (although I could be misinterpreting which effect is caused by which substance). Cost aside, this is the best one I've tried to date, and I think everyone should treat themselves to a bottle at least once (but not all at once!).

June 29th, 2001 - The Hill's and the Deva

My friend and I decided to try the next two brands on a Friday evening... again, setting the mood with lighting and ambient music added to the overall effect. While we drank the Hill's, though, we were playing a "computer demo" called Ambience, which even when sober has the ability to put me in a trance-like state.

Hill's Absinth

First off, one look at the bottle suggested that something wasn't right... it's a bright blue, very unnatural. The odour was similar to the others, although somewhat less powerful, and for some reason the alcohol smell was much sharper (careless distillation?). My friend who was tasting this with me decided to try a sip straight... I foolishly went along with that... all I can say is if you find 40% vodka somewhat strong, don't even think about trying a 70% liquor (the memory of that burning sensation is still with me). Anyway, we both decided it would be best to finish the drink the more traditional way, diluted with water. However, being a Czech brand, we decided to have the sugar the Czech way: granulated sugar in a regular spoon, soaked in a little absinthe, set on fire, burned till the sugar caramelizes a bit, then stirred into the rest of the absinthe while pouring in some ice water. In our state of mind (with some help from subdued lighting and an Aphex Twin CD), this was the coolest part of the whole experience. However, there was zero louche, even though the water was chilled to freezing. The first sip of this concoction was disappointing, though; very weak flavours, consisting totally of anise and spearmint (not my favourite mint)... some people have called this brand mouthwash or Windex... it reminded me vaguely of electric pre-shave lotion, both in colour and in smell. It felt a bit like a chore to finish the glass, and afterwards there was no heightened focus or sensation that I've come to associate with absinthe, only the heaviness and fuzzy mind that you'd expect from a high-alcohol drink.

Deva 70

Unlike the Mari Mayans, this bottle was straightforward to open ;-) Colour was good, the aroma was enticing (licorice candy, anyone?), and prepared in the French manner (absinthe spoon, French sugar, ice water, no uncouth let's-burn-the-place-down ritual), the louche was excellent, better than the Mari Mayans, probably equal to the Suisse La Bleue. Of course, being coloured, the louche did have a green tinge to it (which lends to the character), and I'm still fascinated by the actual louching process itself... as you dribble in the water it remains clear, then swirling density gradients appear, and then quite suddenly it goes milky, which deepens as you add more water. A very satisfying sight. The taste more than made up for the Hill's that we had tried earlier that evening, it was quite smooth, very refreshing, with a broader taste... Anise and fennel were present, but as usual I had trouble distinguishing the other herbs, although peppermint was probably present, along with a tangy herb I couldn't identify (almost citrus). In my opinion better than the Mari Mayans, light years ahead of Hill's, and not too far behind the holy grail, Suisse La Bleue. The aftereffect was more in line with "proper" absinthe, the focus of mind, the heightened senses... it even nullified the dull feeling that the Hill's had produced ealier that evening... but as before, this only lasted for about an hour, and then it all came crashing down and all I could think of was sleep. Absinthe is a remarkable drink for counteracting the effects of alcohol, but I wouldn't recommend drinking a few beers, cider, Hill's, and then proper absinthe, in that order (as we did). Once the thujone wears off all that alcohol comes back to haunt you... One thing that I would like to try soon is to drink nothing but absinthe for an evening, and see where the thujone without the additional alcohol takes me.

Note, a few years ago I did finally try that with Mari Mayans, a total of 6 ounces of absinthe over the course of about 6 hours. It was an interesting experience... I found that I very badly wanted to express myself artistically in some way, but lacked the discipline to do so. At first anyway. Most of the time I placate the muse by programming (in C mostly), that night it took me a few hours to realize that technology was a hinderance for that evening, best to excersize the writer in me, using old-fashioned pen & paper... I should also note however that I was somewhat out of sorts the next day, the malaise persisted into the afternoon, when it suddenly lifted. (whether this was due to the absinthe or to the depression that has been with me for over a decade, I can't rightly say)

July 6th, 2001 - The Sebor and the La Fée

The next Friday, my friend and I deemed it an appropriate time to try the last two brands. I'm actually kind of glad that we did it in this order...


Again with the bottle opening problems! It took me a minute or so to figure out what needed to be cut in order to get the cap off... the scary thing is that the cap itself doesn't screw on tightly, it slips when you get to the bottom of the thread, so it's impossible to get a solid seal. Might explain why there was noticable leakage in the package when it arrived (about 10mL or so).

The aroma was unusual, almost earthy, with the usual anise, but also other scents lurking around. At 55% this one was almost drinkable straight, so I tried a sip as is. It's actually fairly pleasant, but this one was the most bitter of the six (not that the other five were all that bitter). I decided to finish the drink with some sugar and water, as per the traditional ritual. This manufacturer recommends neat over ice, and unlike Hill's, if you use sugar they do not recommend caramelizing the sugar first before stirring it in. There was zero louche at all when adding the water, even though the water was pretty much at freezing point. Sebor has an unusual colour, bordering on yellow-green, which suggests that it might be naturally coloured by maceration, although it seems a bit dark for natural colour... its colour remained pretty much the same as I diluted it with water. The first sip was surprisingly free of anise, which although present, was very subdued. Other herbs made up the majority of the flavour - it does have a strong flavour, but it seems to span a large range, with anise being a small part of the whole picture. Even diluted the bitter finish was moderately strong, suggesting that wormwood plays a big part in flavouring this brand (possibly through maceration instead of distillation?). Mint, sweet basil, hyssop, lemon balm, and many others also appeared to be present.

Altogether, not a bad entry, much better than Hill's... and I'd hesitate to say that it's worse than the others, because it's so different, it's difficult to compare. If we are assuming that it's supposed to be a classic absinthe, then it falls short of the mark, but if we instead assume that they are trying something new, branching out in a new direction, then it's not a bad liqueur. I'd call it an "absinthe-inspired" herbal liquer, and not an absinthe. The after effect was not as strong as the other brands, but was noticeable unlike Hill's, which is what I would expect considering the wormwood flavour.

La Fée

Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe we've found the lost art of absinthe! First off, the label had a very appropriate hypnotic eye staring back at you, second, the liquid was a very dark green (probably artificial, but it looked right). The aroma is hard to describe, strong in anise, but there were other sweet-smelling herbs in there as well, altogether a rather complex bouquet, very inviting... in the background was a scent that brought up memories of some sort of candy that I might have had as a child, perhaps barley sugar.

Upon adding the water (over French sugar on a La Fée spoon, of course!), it louched beautifully, turning a light milky apple-green. The first sip was definitely something... like the aroma, the flavour was complex, dominated by anise, but with a healthy amount of other herbs calling attention to themselves, the usual mint, hyssop, and other herbs I don't know the names of, and possibly nutmeg? Like the other good brands, the overall taste was quite refreshing, and deceptively easy to drink (I suspect that a 700mL bottle could easily disappear in one evening with two people working on it). However, the after effect was not as strong as I was expecting, it was comparable to the Mari Mayans. I found that I was "coming down" sooner than with the Deva or Suisse La Bleue (of course nothing can touch the latter at 70ppm). I'm not sure why I was expecting more seeing as how it's only 10ppm, I guess the authentic flavour and aroma got me hyped up for something bigger. But overall, very enjoyable, I can see why this is considered one of the best.

July 26th, 2001 - It's now official: invitations for "The Green Hour" (as it is now called, due to a widespread ignorance of Canada's other official language) were sent out.

July 31st, 2001 - Preparations for the "The Green Hour" begin...

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