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 /


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 /

Review: Nouvelle Orleans Absinthe

The folks that make the widely available Lucid are expanding their line of absinthes with two new bottlings. At the top of the line is Nouvelle Orleans,a 136-proof traditional absinthe with a yellow-green color straight from the bottle.

Fragrant but not overpowering, uncut Nouvelle Orleans offers light, sweetish notes but is far too blazingly alcoholic for actual consumption without being cut.

With sugar and water you get a nice, milky-white louche, flavored strongly with licorice — more like the candy than the raw anise and fennel herb flavors you get with many absinthes. It’s very drinkable but quite sweet: Traditionalists may wish to use less sugar in the blend than the usual full cube. If that’s too difficult, just try using more absinthe and more water. Share with a friend.

This absinthe contains no artificial colors and is made with whole herbs instead of extracts or oils. While it lacks much in the way of complexity — and carries a stratospheric price tag that makes it the most expensive commonly available absinthe on the market — it’s definitely one of the tops in the current field.

A- / $110 /

Drinkhacker’s 2008 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

What better gift is there than a bottle of booze? Not only will your giftee think you’re incredibly sophisticated, chances are he’ll let you drink a good amount of it before he realizes his terrible mistake. What’s the best booze to put under the tree this Christmas season? Of course you want to offer something a little unusual — something that your buddy couldn’t pick up himself on a routine trip to the grocery store, at least — but above all it has to be good. Here are my picks for the absolute best booze to give for 2008, split up by type (and with at least a few good, affordable options for the budget-conscious).

Bourbon – Eagle Rare 17 Year Old (2008 Edition) – $65 – An awesomely sweet bourbon that’s just the right age. Jump on this near-perfect spirit for yourself, too. For a bit more check out Four Roses Mariage Collection, though it can be tough to find. At just $40, Basil Hayden’s is always a worthy present that won’t break the bank and is on just about every liquor store shelf.

Scotch – Highland Park 18 Year Old – $100 – Yeah, it’s expensive, but the quality is second to none — and other top picks released this year, like Glenlivet XXV, run twice as much money or more. HP18 is generally accessible in the market, and it’s sure to liven up any holiday gathering.

AbsintheObsello – $54 – The best absinthe on the market today is also one of the cheapest. This Spanish number is suitable for absinthe newcomers and veterans alike; it goes down easy while still offering complex, intricate herbal flavors. The new Pernod is also worth a look.

Gin – Whitley Neill – $30 – Some good gin to be found in 2008, but I like the African genesis story behind this unusual gin from Whitley Neill the best. Bluecoat‘s also good. Both are pretty widely available and will make any G&T fan perk up.

Vodka – Xellent – $40 – If you must give someone vodka this year (and really, I beg you to think a little more creatively), try this strikingly-bottled vodka from Switzerland.

Rum – Rhum Clement Cuvee Homere – $85 – So many good rums out this year, but the Cuvee Homere Clement is too good not to recommend, and the bottle design alone makes it absolutely perfect for gift-giving. Hard to go wrong in this category though, with Zacapa, Oronoco, and Atlantico all good alternatives. Click the “rum” button at right for even more ideas.

TequilaJose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Anejo 2008 – $100 – If you can find and afford it. Alternately try anything from the Cielo line, which is uniformly good from blanco to anejo.

Brandy – Delamain Extra de Grande Champagne – $399 – Didn’t try many brandies this year, but this number from Delamain was easily the best of them, among the top spirits I’ve ever had. Delamain also has a gift box of three of its cognacs in mini-bottles that would be a great gift.

Liqueur – Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur – $32 – Many iffy liqueurs came out this year, but Canton is an exception, by far the most intriguing of the category. You can add a few drops to just about any cocktail recipe and discover something new, and giftees will absolutely adore the packaging even if they never open it. St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur is another winning concoction that everyone totally loves.

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: Pernod Absinthe (2008)

If you’re looking for major names in absinthe, they don’t get much bigger than Pernod. The company started making absinthe in 1792 (which earns it the title of the “original” absinthe producer) and was the biggest brand of absinthe up until the 1915 ban. After that, the company moved to Spain and continued to make the stuff. Now, with absinthe back on the market, so is Pernod, selling an authentic absinthe worldwide once again.

Of course you might be confused. “Pernod” the brand has never gone away, and in fact has been probably the most popular pastis for decades. Pastis is an anise-flavored liqueur, but it isn’t absinthe. At 86 proof, it’s powerful stuff, but Pernod’s pastis still ain’t absinthe.

Hitting 136 proof, the re-released Pernod absinthe ties with La Fée for the most alcoholic of absinthes that I’ve sampled to date. Served with sugar and just a little water (maybe 2:1), it louches beautifully and reveals itself as a very fine product. The flavor is very mild for absinthe; anise is predominant but hardly overpowering, and the sugar really balances the bitterness perfectly. Like Obsello, this is a very easy-drinking absinthe, but it packs a real wallop. Pernod is deceptively milder than its 68% alcohol would indicate and can easily get you into trouble.

Side by side with Pernod pastis, the similarities are uncanny, perhaps unsurprisingly. The absinthe is stronger, obviously, but the flavor profile is about the same; maybe a little less sweet. Many have surmised that the new Pernod is drawn more from the pastis than from the pre-1915 recipe; but I’ve got no 100-year-old absinthe here to compare against, alas. Anyway, it stands as a word of warning for those ordering Pernod in a bar: Make sure you’re getting what you pay for.

At $70 a bottle, the new Pernod isn’t cheap, but the premium is probably worth it — if not for the flavor alone, then at least for the history inside.

Update: Recipe reformulated in 2014, see full review.

A / $70 /

Pre-Release Review: Obsello Absinthe

I love getting a sneak peek at stuff before it hits the market, but it’s even better when the stuff is good.

Joanna Haruta presents Obsello Absinthe

Joanne Haruta presents Obsello Absinthe

Obsello, come tomorrow, will be the first Spanish absinthe for sale in the U.S., and even then only in San Francisco. (New York is coming soon.) Obsello’s Joanne Haruta (pictured) is in town for the launch and was good enough to drop by today with the last few ounces of personally-imported Obsello she had left. (The American-bound Obsello comes in a different bottle than the one she’s holding and is currently sitting in U.S. Customs for one final night.)

Spain and absinthe have a long history: When France banned the spirit in 1915, many absinthe distillers simply hopped over the border to Spain and continued to produce. (Even Pernod relocated there.) Spanish absinthe is typically called “absenta,” and they are said to be sweeter due to the use of a different type of anise in the blend.

Obsello has the classic verte color, lightly yellow-green, with fragrant anise and fennel on the nose. At a “mere” 100 proof, I sampled it straight and was immediately surprised. Obsello is proud to tell you it contains not a hint of bitterness, and this was completely true even in a straight sip. Fiery hot, sure, but palatable and even pleasant. I was immediately reminded of St. George Absinthe, which is also tolerable straight.

Served in the traditional method with sugar and water (Obsello recommends a relatively alcoholic three to one ratio of water to absinthe), it’s even better, a silky, mouth-filling cocktail of sugary absinthe flavor. Not too heavy on the anise and fennel, though they’re clear and prominent; some curious cinnamon notes in the finish. The best news: That bitterness from many absinthes, a result of the use of dried herbs and cheap grain alcohol for blending, is completely absent here. Obsello is made from eau de vie, the base spirit for brandy, making for a considerably more complex way to start your spirit.

Obsello finishes clean and leaves you refreshed and thirsty for more. I don’t think I’ve ever finished off a glass of absinthe as quickly as I did Obsello, and the last drops of the bottle were gone far too soon. Can’t wait to see Obsello on shelves in the near future, and best of all, at a mere $54, it’s just about the cheapest absinthe on the market.

I could drink this all day. I won’t, but I could.

A / $54 /

Review: Mata Hari Absinthe Bohemian

Mata Hari absinthe is an Austrian spirit, distilled (per the bottle) from the original Belle Epoque recipe from 1881. Of course, the actual Mata Hari would have been just 5 years old at the time the recipe was created, so we’ll assume the recipe came first, the name came later.

Made with Grand Wormwood and Salvia, Mata Hari is considerably less intense than many of its counterparts. The anise flavor is — intentionally — played down in this absinthe, so if you’re looking for something more herbal, less licorice, this is a good one to try.

At 120 proof, it’s heavily alcoholic among its counterparts, and with sugar and water it louches only moderately, still somewhat transparent lightly bluish-green rather than completely cloudy. The nose is moderately full of anise, but there’s virtually no licorice on the palate. The sugar in the preparation is up front, followed quickly by the flavor of dried herbs in a kind of chalky texture. The finish is surprisingly bitter and lasts moderately long, perhaps more bitter than any other modern absinthe I’ve tried to date. After finishing a glass I was extremely glad to be drinking it as a digestif, after dinner. It’s much too bitter to work early in the evening. Maybe adding a second sugar cube would help if you demand your absinthe to be sweet, but even with the bitterness is still pretty easy-drinking.

Mata Hari and others have suggested using the absinthe as a traditional mixer, with suggestions for blending it with everything from Champagne to Coke. I haven’t tried any such concoctions yet, but it’s certainly on my to-do list.

B+ / $55 /

Review: La Fée Absinthe Parisienne

This new kid on the U.S. market arrived on our shores only a month ago: La Fée Absinthe Parisienne was the first absinthe to be commercially produced (starting in 1998) since the country’s ban of the spirit in 1915.

Absinthe purists will appreciate its grand wormwood base, but the bright green color (yep, that’s the spirit in the picture; the bottle itself is clear) is wholly unnatural. Yes, it is artificially colored (and from the looks of it, heavily so) but I understand that for some drinkers, the nuclear green color is part of the appeal of absinthe.

At a mind-boggling 136 proof, tasting La Fée straight could send you to the hospital (I tried), but served in the traditional fashion with sugar and cold water it produces a lovely and lasting cloudy louche.

The taste is a surprise: While you might expect something equally artificially flavored, La Fée comes across quite naturally, with no saccharine character at all. There’s far less licorice flavor in La Fée than in most other absinthes; here there’s a more herbal, woodsy flavor that dominates the spirit. The best way I can describe it is tasting a bit like pine cones, with a strong, herbaceous, bitterness backing it up.

Also in the vein of pine cones is the weird aftertaste: When I sampled La Fée, every time I would have this curious feeling of having a scratchy throat, almost as if it had been dusted with something granular. It fades with time (and drinking a little water), but it’s still disconcerting. After a couple of glasses one starts to wonder if the scratchiness isn’t all in one’s head. That giant green eye on the label will turn you paranoid, quick.



Review: St. George Absinthe

The first (and, perhaps, only) American absinthe on the market, St. George Absinthe is arguably the best absinthe going today. If you can find it (and afford it), you’ll want to snap it up.

First off, it’s greener than Lucid and far more powerful in flavor. While the nose is equally anise and room-filling, on the tongue it pops with a variety of herbal and some fruit flavors. Lemon peel is apparent as is pepper. Lots of green and grassy herbs — maybe rosemary? it’s hard to tell — which work well with the fruit and spice and, of course, the anise. The flavors work well together, and the spirit is very balanced on the whole. St. George is easy to drink without being simplistic and watery.

At 120 proof, St. George immediately hits the head, and if you’re going to see the green fairy after any absinthe out there, I suspect it will be with this one. It’s hard to find, but I’m sure true absinthaholics will appreciate the results of their chase.

A- / $78 /

Review: Kübler Absinthe

Kübler is the next big name you’ll find on liquor store shelves in the newly budding absinthe section. Made in Switzerland, it’s 106 proof (comparably light for absinthe) and unique in one particularly (and uniquely Swiss, reportedly a means of end-running the absinthe ban of that lasted there for about 150 years) way: It’s nearly completely colorless, a see-through spirit that, if you didn’t smell it, could easily be mistaken for water. This is known as absinthe blanche.

With sugar and water it louches into a milky, murky concoction, but still has no color. The flavor, though, is unmistakably absinthe. Intriguingly, Kübler suggests a blend of 1 part absinthe to 5 parts water, whereas most other bottles lean toward a 1:4 ratio. The ultimate blend is of course a matter of personal taste, but no matter how much you water it down, the flavor of anise is powerful in the glass.

It needs very cold water, but the sweet and licorice-like taste is easy to drink and generally pretty good. It lacks much nuance beyond the anise, however. I had hoped for more herbal character make things more complicated, but Kübler shows its hand early and doesn’t try to hide behind its roots. (Get it!? Sorry.)

B / $54 /