Review: Herbsaint Original

There is one known use for Herbsaint, and it’s a big one: In the classic Sazerac cocktail, in which the glass is washed with Herbsaint before rye, sugar, and Peychaud’s bitters are added.

Now Sazerac (the company) is relaunching the venerable spirit with its original 1934 recipe, called Herbsaint Original.

Neither the standard Herbsaint nor Herbsaint Original contain wormwood, so while they both carry a strong anise/licorice flavor, neither is a real absinthe. Nonetheless the liqueur was caught up in anti-absinthe hysteria in the 1930s, and the company was forced to remove the word “absinthe” from its labeling.

I was expecting minimal difference between Herbsaint Original and standard Herbsaint, but boy was I wrong. Poured neat, these are night and day against each other: Herbsaint is electric green and a little scary in its artificial coloring, while Herbsaint Original is a deeper greenish brown (though it too includes artificial coloring). The flavors are different, too: Herbsaint is known for a sharp licorice character and a heavy alcoholic finish, but Original is deeper and richer, still clearly licorice, but less sweet and, surprisingly, less boozy, despite being 100 proof to the standard version’s 90 proof.

One surprise: Herbsaint standard actually performed better in the Sazerac cocktail. While the tastes were similar, Herbsaint Original just weighed things down too much.

Both versions will continue to be sold.

A- / $35 / sazerac.com

Bastille Day Review: Ricard Pastis

Today is Bastille Day, and in honor of the French Revolution, the folks at Pernod-Ricard sent us a bottle of Ricard Pastis (and a pétanque set) to help us celebrate.

Pastis is an anise-flavored liqueur — not the same as absinthe (but it’s the closest category we have here) since it has no wormwood, but it tastes and behaves quite similarly. Flavored strongly of licorice, pastis is high in alcohol (Ricard is 90 proof), and is served with lots of cold water, whereupon in creates a cloudy louche effect. Unlike with absinthe, sugar is not added because the pastis has sugar already in the bottle.

The golden-hued Ricard (which is based on beet spirits) is quite alcoholic without water, but its sweetness and anise still come straight through. It louches into an eggnog color with water, and once diluted to something more approachable (the company suggests 5 parts water to 1 part Ricard), it’s really quite tasty and refreshing. It’s on the sweet side for pastis, but not overly so. The anise is well done, the overall effect being more licorice-candy like, with hints of lemongrass and cocoa powder.

Just the thing for celebrating all that French bloodletting.

A- / $26 / pernod-ricard.com

ricard pastis france

4th of July Cocktail Recipes – 2009

Every time a holiday rolls around, the spirits makers commission all manner of cocktails from their in-house mixologists and professionals in the field. Independence Day is no exception, and this post full of selected recipes is drawn from what is arguably the biggest bumper crop of cocktail ideas I’ve seen since starting this blog. Hope you like red, white, and blue.

The American Collins

1 1/2 oz. Bombay Sapphire
3/4 oz. simple syrup
1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
4 Bing cherries, pitted
8 blueberries

In a Collins glass, muddle the blueberries and cherries in the lemon juice and simple syrup. Add Sapphire and ice and stir briefly. Top with club soda. Garnish: 1 Bing Cherry and 1 Lemon Wheel.

Firecracker

3 oz. Flor de Caña 7 Year Grand Reserve Rum
1 oz. Triple Sec
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. simple syrup (boil and cool equal parts water and sugar)
4 watermelon chunks
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Whirl all ingredients together and pour into a glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.

Stars and Stripes

1/4 oz. Lucid Absinthe
1 oz. Blueberry Vodka
1/4 oz. Simple Syrup
Splash of Lemon Juice
Drizzle of Raspberry Liqueur
Ginger beer
Fresh Blueberries

Muddle fresh blueberries and add syrup, Lucid, juice and vodka. Add ice and shake and pour into highball glass. Drizzle Liqueur and top with Ginger Beer. Garnish with one sugar cube.

Sobieski Star

1 1/2 oz. Sobieski Vodka
1/2 oz. Massenez Créme de Peche
3/4 oz. Pineapple Juice
1 oz. Lychee Juice
1/4 oz. Lime Juice
Garnish: Star fruit

Put all the ingredients in a shaker, shake and strain into a Martini glass.

The Roman Candle

4 oz. Korbel Brut
1 oz. Tuaca Italian liqueur
Garnish with dried cranberries

Combine in a tall flute.

ZICO Doodle Dandy

2 oz. ZICO Mango
4 oz. Skyy Infusions Vodka all natural passion fruit
1 oz. Cointreau
Splash of cranberry juice
Slice of orange
Strawberry

Mix all ingredients together in a shaker with ice. Strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with a fresh strawberry and enjoy.

Old Forester Summer Julep

1 1/2 oz. Old Forester bourbon
2 oz. Lemonade
1 oz. Pomegranate Juice

Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain over ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

The Roman Candle

In a tall flute add:

4 ounces Korbel Brut (a sparkler for your Independence Day entertaining)

1 ounce Tuaca Italian liqueur (the Italian heritage lends itself to the cocktail’s name)

Garnish with dried cranberries

Revisiting Absinthe: Seven Bottlings Re-Sampled

absinthe-posterAbsinthe is the subject that keeps on keeping on — some of the forum battles over the intricacies of the subject here are legendary — and in honor of Vieux Carré‘s fine showing, I thought it would be personally instructive to revisit some of my most highly rated absinthes — and a few I didn’t like so much at first — in a side-by-side-by-side scenario.

This is an informal review, just a re-sampling of several of the more noteworthy bottles from prior reviews. But I thought it would be fun to see whether my opinions have changed since the early days of the blog, when some of these absinthes were initially reviewed. They appear below in my order of preference (with gut reaction ratings), based solely on this limited sampling.

To clarify: This is not a comprehensive sampling of EVERY absinthe on the market or even every absinthe I have on hand, just a ranking of seven I thought merited a re-taste. Some very good products are not included here.

On to the absinthe, starting with the best.

Obsello – 100 proof, gorgeous milky louche. Relatively subtle flavor; goes down incredibly easy. Interesting additional herbal notes but nothing overwhelming. The comparatively lower alcohol content is noticeable when compared directly to others in the group. Shockingly, also the cheapest real absinthe on the market. A

La Clandestine – 106 proof, clear/louches to a milky white. Sweetest absinthe of the bunch, and very mild. Anise is practically an afterthought, here. Extremely easygoing. A

Pernod – 136 proof, big and muddy green louche. Artificially colored. Huge, bittersweet flavor. Almost like licorice candy. Pleasant but different than lighter style spirits, and by a wide margin the strongest flavor in the group. A-

Koruna – 146 proof, pale color with no louche. Tart character, with clearly citrus overtones. Lighter in style and dominated by alcohol rather than anise/wormwood. I’m still a fan. A-

Kübler – 106 proof, clear/louches to milky white with yellow notes. Heavy lemon notes are love-it-or-leave-it, I think they clash with the anise here — which may be why this didn’t strike me as especially good on first review. I’d dismissed it as a bit boring originally, but it’s indeed unique when you put it side by side with the others. Still, though, not a favorite. B

Lucid – 124 proof, pale color with light yellow louche. Weirdly bitter and not altogether pleasant on first taste. Grows on you over time, but there’s much better stuff out there. C+

Le Tourment Vert – 100 proof, blue-green with (contrary to popular opinion) a slight louche. Artificially colored. Amazing how wrong I was, and I humbly have to give credit to the commenters on this one who told me I was nuts. (I plead youth: It was the first absinthe I formally reviewed, back in the day.) Really strong chemical flavor and psychedelic coloration combine in negative ways for me now. It’s got a huge mint character, which is probably why, in combo with the coloration, people make comparisons to mouthwash. I’d give this a much lower rating today, though it has some charms. C

Interesting that the lighter-flavored absinthes tended to do better in my ranking, with the exception of Pernod, whose strongness surprised me just as much as the backlash against it has. And in case you’re looking for more “top” absinthes out there, in addition to the top 3 on this roundup, add Vieux Carré, Nouvelle Orleans, and St. George to the list of “absinthe bests.”

Review: Vieux Carré Absinthe

It is fortunately far easier to drink Vieux Carré Absinthe than it is to type Vieux Carré Absinthe.

This absinthe is produced by Philadelphia Distilling (which also created the fine Bluecoat Gin) and is composed, as the bottle tells us, of “grain neutral spirits distilled with herbs with additional herbs added.” No mention of artificial color, and in the glass it indeed looks authentic, a deep yellow tinged with green.

At bottle strength (120 proof) it is extremely boozy but offers surprising depth of bittersweet anise character. When prepared traditionally, it creates a medium to strong louche, with a curious, thin foam-like film on top. Not at all unpleasant, but noteworthy and unusual.

The prepared absinthe is extremely easy-drinking and very pleasant, a licorice kick with gentle sweetness and a bittersweet finish. Difficult to pick out specific herbs that might be used in addition to classic wormwood, anise, and fennel, but there’s a faint muscular flavor to it — almost like hints of chimichurri sauce, which I happen to love.

As for the name, it’s drawn from the French phrase for the French Quarter in New Orleans. The bottle is also of note, a thick, heavy, and beautiful decanter that, when full, is completely illegible since it’s covered in an opaque, lacy green design, making the spirit inside look far darker than it actually is while wholly obscuring the label (the bottle shot below must have been lit with a hundred halogen lights). Luckily, you won’t need to read this one closely: You’ll know it when you see it. As absinthes go, it’s an excellent value too, by the way.

A- / $60 / vieuxcarreabsinthe.com (website is currently buggy)

vieux-carre-absinthe

New York Times Rates Absinthe

Ever so quick to jump on the absinthe bandwagon, the New York Times has finally weighed in on the absinthe phenomenon, and has even gone so far as to rank its favorite absinthes, as determined by a tasting panel which went through 20 bottlings. (I shudder to think of the aftermath of that event.) Their results:

1. Kubler
2. Grande
3. Pernod
4. Emile Pernot
5. St. George
6. Jade Nouvelle-Orleans
7. Obsello
8. La Clandestine
9. Lucid
10. Mansinthe

I haven’t tried a few of these products but overall the rankings are fairly agreeable. I think Kubler is overrated here, and Obsello deserves a higher spot, but otherwise (not including the three I haven’t tried), this seems like a pretty fair list.

I’m sure many will find plenty of room for disagreement in the comments…

This Can Only End Badly…

Virgin America will be offering Le Tourment Vert absinthe for sale and consumption at 30,000 feet, starting in May.

Via Boing Boing:

Incidentally, Virgin America (which today started service to/from Orange County) is also expanding the number of craft in its fleet that offer in-flight WiFi. Absinthe + internet + idle time? Can’t wait to read the mile-high tweets that result.

Personally, I can’t wait for the airborne grousing from the absinthe nerd crew that Le Tourment Vert isn’t “real absinthe.”

Review: Djabel and Green Fairy Absinthe

Admiral Imports, which is bringing the incredibly controversial (based on the comments on this review, at least) Koruna Absinthe to the U.S. market, isn’t just quitting with one. It’s also bringing these two absinthes — Djabel and Green Fairy, both also from the Czech Republic — to the States.

green-fairy-absintheI’m lumping these two reviews together because Djabel (Czech for “devil” — also note some sources spell this product as “Djable”) and Green Fairy are pretty obviously close siblings. They use the same bottle. The labels are strikingly similar in design. The color is nearly the same — Djabel is a tiny bit darker — and both rely heavily on artificial coloration. The only obvious difference to the outside observer is the alcohol content: Green Fairy is 120 proof, while Djabel is a racier 140 proof. (Djabel is, somewhat expectedly, also $5 more expensive per bottle.)

And how do they taste? Without water, they both come across like unadulterated firewater — though Djabel is far stronger than Green Fairy thanks to that 10 percent bonus alcohol kick.

Add sugar and water and, like Koruna, neither louches at all, leaving you with a Scope-looking concoction that you can see straight through. The Djabel is again a little darker in hue, but otherwise they’re impossible to distinguish from one another.

The flavor? Very light and mild, minimally sweet (though saccharine in character), and barely flavored with licorice. Djabel has a slightly more herbal character — think cloves and allspice — but it lends an astringency to the drink where Green Fairy comes across as sweeter. Again, in the case of both absinthes (and I’ll let the absinthe geeks bicker in the comments over whether either spirit is truly absinthe at all), they’re very mild and mostly harmless experiences. And that’s really the problem: They’re drinkable, but just not very interesting. Whether you prefer a deeply anise-flavored absinthe or a more approachable, sweeter version, either way you’re going to be disappointed with these two spirits. Provocative labels aside, you can think of them both as the lite beers of the absinthe world.

Green Fairy: C / $59
Djabel: C- / $64

greenfairy.com.au

djabel-absinthe

Review: Koruna Absinthe

I pity the bartender that sells both Koruna and Corona, but after a glass or two of this top-notch absinthe, I expect the drinker won’t have much of a problem making his requests known.

Koruna, a “bohemian absinth” — using the alternate spelling — from the Czech Republic, makes its intentions well-known from the label, which bears a fierce gargoyle and a 146-proof notice staring out at you. Immediately you’ll notice two things about Koruna: It’s very pale in color, a light greenish-yellow, lighter even than yellow Chartreuse, and it has a good layer of solid sediment at the bottom of the bottle. That sediment is some of the wormwood and herbs used in the preparation of the spirit, and while it doesn’t likely do much for the flavor, it really gives this absinthe a unique look. It’s a gimmick, for sure, but as gimmicks go (and these days, every new spirit has one) it’s not a bad one.

Koruna (the name comes from the term for Czech currency) is made with all-natural ingredients and no artificial colors. The spirit base is distilled, surprisingly, from molasses — which I guess technically makes this a sort of flavored rum.

Sure enough, Koruna is rum-sweet (and quite pleasant), both straight (only try that once, seriously) and in the traditional preparation with sugar and cold water. The herbal character here is very sedate compared to most absinthes, with a comparably mild licorice note, backed by some slightly bitter orange peel character. For something with herbs in the bottle and 73% alcohol, the easygoing nature came as a bit of a surprise.

One other note: It’s not a blanche absinthe (and though it’s light, it’s not totally transparent) either. In fact, in one way it doesn’t behave like absinthe at all: Koruna does not louche, and with water added it looks a lot like a glass of sauvignon blanc. (I believe this is because of the way the herbs are utilized in large pieces instead of being mashed during the production process, so particles do not suspend in the liquid after water is added.) Whether that detracts from the absinthe “experience” is a question better left to the individual, but I found it a little surprising and disconcerting. Either way, considering the alcohol content and smoothness of this absinthe, tread with caution.

A- / $79 / admiralimports.com

koruna-absinthe

Review: La Clandestine Absinthe

Part of the rare but growing segment of “blanche” (aka “la Bleue”) absinthe, La Clandestine is a Swiss absinthe with a recipe that dates back to 1935. The main difference: Blanches are clear, without the traditional yellow/green tint that has earned absinthe its noteriety and its famed “green fairy.” (The reasoning dates back to absinthe’s illegality: The clear color could fool the authorities into thinking you’ve got something else in the bottle… the aroma, however, is a dead giveaway.)

Coloring aside, by and large, blanche absinthes smell and taste much like the standard variety. La Clandestine is an absinthe much in line with what appears to be a trend — sweeter, less bitter products that are more accessible to a wider audience entranced with the absinthe mystique. That’s not a bad thing: Many absinthes have a harsh bitter aftertase that makes them difficult to drink without copious amounts of sugar and water. La Clandestine needs only minimal doctoring; the company itself even suggests it can be consumed without sugar, and sure enough, though it’s 106 proof (actually on the light side for absinthe), it’s even sippable straight… though that’s definitely not my recommendation.

With its clear anise notes and heady aroma of fennel and sugary sweets, this is a very drinkable and easygoing absinthe. But what I actually like the most is the interesting and unique lavender color of the louche. La Clandestine is an absinthe you can stare it for hours, getting lost in its milky swirls while you get quietly drunk off your ass.

A- / $80 / laclandestine.com