Absinthe seemed controversial only a few years ago. The U.S. ban on absinthe was overturned in 2007, followed by a predictable explosion of new and new-to-us brands on American shelves.
Since then, absinthe has continued to evolve. If you’re among those returning to absinthe after a couple of years (insert “absinthe makes the heart grow fonder” pun here), you’ll find that the playing field has shifted. In addition to the traditional green fairy, you’ll find white and red absinthes too; even an “absinthe bleu” is on the way.
The drink is no longer exclusively the province of Europe, either. Just as gin is now made with New World botanicals, so is absinthe. Among this month’s bottlings, Kentucky’s Copper & Kings is making white absinthe from California Muscat grape brandy and sweet fennel, while California’s St. George infuses brandy with local mint, tarragon and stinging nettles to make its Absinthe Verte.
Absinthe historian, researcher and distiller T.A. Breaux spent many years analyzing vintage absinthe samples to create his Jade bottlings, and he insists that differences between vintage and traditional European pours and “newer American-style” absinthes are apparent.
“Vintage absinthe is going to be a little more rounded, with more anise and fennel on the front palate,” Breaux says. By comparison, American bottlings tend to be “more herbaceous, grassy, citrusy, and not as strong.”
For those who prefer a straight-up sipper inspired by the artists and poets of the Belle Époque, pour a bit into a glass, followed by roughly three to four parts cold water, which “louches” the absinthe to a pearly sheen.
For absinthe-spiked cocktails, use only small amounts to avoid overpowering the drink. For classics like corpse revivers and sazeracs, rinse the glass with about a tablespoon. Some modern takes mix in absinthe to impart a deliberate herbaceous note.
Nouvelle-Orléans Absinthe Supérieure (France; Hood River Distillers, Portland, OR); $100, 95 points. Grab your corkscrew to open a bottle of this absinthe, a tribute to distiller T.A. Breaux’s hometown, New Orleans. The light jade liquid louches to cloudy pale green, releasing gentle fennel, rosemary and fresh basil accented with lime zest and white pepper, plus a long, gentle anise finish. Although it’s easy-sipping when louched, the undiluted spirit is ideal for prepping a glass to receive a sazerac.
Brevans H.R. Giger (Switzerland; Tempus Fugit Spirits, Petaluma, CA); $80, 94 points. This pretty jade absinthe louches to shimmering opalescent, with a hint of sea-foam green. Relatively bold, the pungent anise scent is echoed on the palate, perked up by lively hints of fresh basil and lime peel. Finishes long and rounded, with an earthy Dutch licorice twang.
Jade 1901 Absinthe Supérieure (France; Hood River Distillers, Portland, OR); $100, 93 points. To make this bottling, T.A. Breaux analyzed vintage absinthe, dated circa 1901. It’s burnished gold in the glass, louching to opalescent light gold, and scented with bold notes of anise and licorice. The flavor is mild at first, but shows more anise on the long, rounded finish.
Butterfly Classic Absinthe (Switzerland; DC Craft Spirits, Monarch Beach, CA); $85, 91 points. The backstory is a little complicated: first made in Boston circa 1902, it’s now been resurrected in Switzerland, thanks to a Boston-based historian. The absinthe itself is more straightforward. It louches to cloudy pale yellow, releasing a mild, citrusy aroma. On the palate, the star anise flavor is assertive and bright, even when diluted with water, and backed by lemongrass and ginger.
Lucid Absinthe Supérieure (France; Hood River Distillers, Portland, OR); $60, 90 points. This cocktail-friendly absinthe is mild and herbaceous, hinting at fennel, lime peel, and a fresh hint of celery. Made with beet neutral spirits, it has a faint sweetness that plays around the edges. Light straw in the glass, louching to bright opalescent.
Pernod Absinthe Supérieure (France; Pernod Ricard USA, New York, NY); $70, 90 points. Starting as green-tinged gold, this louches to opal touched with pale green. The mild fragrance shows fennel and a hint of juniper. Although the alcohol level is comparable to other absinthes, it seems to require more dilution to tone down the alcohol heat and tease out a faint sweetness. Even so, it retains a relatively spicy profile, showing fennel, black pepper and hot cinnamon, plus a lingering licorice note at the back of the palate.
La Clandestine Absinthe Supérieure (Switzerland; DC Craft Spirits, Monarch Beach, CA); $80, 89 points. Based on a 1935 recipe, this clear spirit louches to milky white. Silky and light-bodied, this mild absinthe mixes floral notes with licorice candy, though the anise grows bolder with repeated sips. Consider pairing with oysters or other briny seafood.
Redux Absinthe Superieure (USA; Golden Moon Distillery, Golden, CO); $86, 89 points. This mellow, herbaceous absinthe starts out a mossy olive hue, louching to murky yellow-green. The bracing aroma mixes fennel and spearmint, which is echoed on the palate alongside lingering anise.
Sirene Absinthe Verte (USA; North Shore Distillery, Lake Bluff, IL); $60, 89 points. The lime green liquid is beautiful, both in the Art Nouveau-inspired bottle as well as in the glass, where it louches to opalescent yellow-green. The aroma is particularly citrusy, evoking juicy Key lime mixed with fennel. It’s super-light on the palate, with most of the anise coming forward on the finish. Mix into an absinthe frappe.
St. George Absinthe Verte (USA; St. George Spirits, Alameda, CA); $60, 89 points. Made with a brandy (grape) base, this deep-gold absinthe tinged with mossy olive louches to opalescent yellow tinged with green. Consider using a light hand when adding water; once the right balance is found, delicate mint and dried herb flavors come through. Aromatics include fennel, lemon balm, tarragon and a slightly oxidized note, like Sherry.