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Independent Spirits

July 2, 2010

It feels wrong to not write a dedicated post about grilling or summer cocktails on the eve of the Independence Day weekend.  But everyone else is writing about those things, and I have something else I’m burning to discuss.  

Anyhow you probably are already aware that my drink of choice for beating the heat this summer is coconut water with a bit of rum.  Last year I was pushing the Tom Collins.  Both remain magnificent cocktails for the occasion.  If you don’t mind a little irony, you could always enjoy the delightfully British Pimm’s Cup.

Part of me wanted to create an Independence Day cocktail with something from Harvest Spirits, the local farm distillery that makes delicious award-winning spirits from apples grown in their orchard.  But I didn’t really want to do something gimmicky.  Still, they are nothing if not independent.  And what is more American than apple pie brandy.

Last week I wrote about Cheryl Lins and the Delaware Phoenix distillery that exists because of her deep love for Absinthe, and I’ve been dying to talk more about it all week.  She is an independent spirit too.

Despite how awesome it is, I recognize there are people out there who will never even consider trying the stuff.  I can’t say that absinthe particularly goes well with the typical holiday fare.  But it does have French roots.  And the French did help us get out of a pickle in that war we had with England.  So maybe that’s another legitimate reason to buy a bottle to share with your friends and loved ones this holiday weekend.

All kidding aside, I do want to try and break down people’s resistance to absinthe.
It’s not so scary.

As Ms. Lins was telling me about how she makes Walton Waters and Meadows of Love she compared the process to making gin.  She starts off with pure neutral spirits, which are diluted and put in a still with a blend of botanicals.  The resulting distillate becomes deeply flavored with anise and wormwood.

Wormwood is where I think we start losing people.  I know that years ago, when I first heard about absinthe, the very word wormwood conjured up the most unpleasant image of thick wormy wood.  Revulsion is a peculiar thing, and little is more revolting than something wormy.

It’s a bad name.

In reality this core ingredient of absinthe is more like lacy wildflowers that stave off intestinal parasites.  I was told that in the old days if you were inflicted with worms, a little bit of this plant would cure your ills.  It also works on animals.

The flowers are yellow.  And if you nibble them, they taste like flowers.  Bitter, bitter flowers, but flowers nonetheless.

Wormwood has a bad rap of driving people crazy and causing hallucinations, and has been used as an excuse for a laundry list of bad behavior.  All from this beautiful little flower that grows right here in New York.  I say hogwash.  Historically producers have played up this lurid tradition in the marketing of the spirit, and reactionary lawmakers have helped bolster this position.  But if you drink too much of anything, bad things will happen.  So enjoy your absinthe responsibly.  That is not an oxymoron.

The other major component of the spirit is anise.  This really should be the only deal breaker, because there is no getting around that one.  If you cannot stand the taste of black licorice at all, it is unlikely I will ever be able to convert you into an absinthe drinker.  It is a sweet spice that historically was used to balance the bitterness of the flowers.  Still, the Meadows of Love finishes dry with a mouthful of herbs and only a fading memory of anise on the tongue.

I don’t smoke, but I could totally see how sipping on a well-louched absinthe in a Parisian café would pair delightfully with a cigarette.

Some people may also have a strong negative reaction to absinthe’s striking hue.  Green isn’t always the most appetizing color.  Underripe fruit is green.  Mold is green.  Hospital tile is green.  There is a reason none of the fast food companies or major packaged food producers use green in their logos or packaging.

Through understanding comes acceptance.  Good absinthe comes by its color honestly.  The distillate (which as I mentioned is in some ways similar to gin) which at this point is imbued with wormwood and anise is then infused with green herbs.  Things like hyssop and lemon balm are mixed in with the ridiculously high-proof spirits, which extracts not just the flavor of these herbs, but their color as well.

Interestingly, over time this color can change and soften from green to yellow.  This spirit is one of the few that actually goes through changes in the bottle.  Chartreuse, another distilled herbal treat, is another.

But regardless of the color in the bottle, it all fades as you trickle water into the glass.  A faint notion of a cloud forms at the bottom.  It undulates, and it grows, ultimately consuming every drop of the initial dose of absinthe.  The whole experience is a treat for the senses.  And one in which I would encourage you all to indulge.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2010 11:12 am

    Her absinthes are wonderful, unfortunately really difficult to come by in this area. Its nice to see someone going back to the traditional methods of making absinthe, as opposed to so many today where the color is added with liquid color, and a lot of the flavors are artificial.

  2. mirdreams permalink
    July 7, 2010 2:53 pm

    I would argue that color perceptions change within societies and currently green has many very positive connotations of being both healthy (healthy choice uses it, and it’s practically a visual synonym for low fat in some brands) and being eco-friendly.

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