Definition and production
Venerated in artistic circles and widely held as a muse, absinthe or “the green fairy” also became a popular daily tradition among the general public: it was common practice to gather in bars and bistros for ‘l’heure verte’ (‘green time’ or the ‘green hour’).
Absinthe is a strong alcoholic liqueur obtained from a blend of alcohol and distilled herbs or herb extracts, mainly from wormwood and anise, but primarily also from three other aromatic herbs: Roman wormwood or small absinthe, sweet fennel and hyssop.
There are different ways of producing absinthe:
- Modern or industrial absinthes are generally made from a blend of alcohol, natural or synthetic flavourings and colouring. These absinthes already existed before 1915.
- Traditional absinthes require a maceration stage followed by distillation.
Step 1 – The base
- The plants: Absinthe is made from plants, three of which, when combined, form the ‘holy trinity’ of anise, fennel and wormwood. Other herbs may be added to this triple base: hyssop, melissa, star anise, small absinthe, angelica root and spices such as coriander, veronica, juniper and nutmeg. The quality of the finished product will depend on the quality of the herbs, which varies according to soil type, climate and growing and harvesting techniques.
- The alcohol: The base alcohol may be either a beetroot or grape brandy. In France, premium absinthes are made from a wine-based brandy.
Step 2 – Production methods
- By distillation: Traditional absinthe is made via maceration followed by distillation, with herbs and spices among the ingredients. The maceration stage is carried out in a vat where the alcohol (85%) and a blend of plants are steeped for several days. At the end of this step, the liquid is filtered and reduced with water before being placed in an alembic still to be distilled. Distillation involves removing the heads and tails, and retaining only the heart.
- By mixing: As with some gins, this production method results in absinthes of lower quality compared to those made using the traditional distillation process. It consists of blending the alcohol with absinthe flavourings.
Step 3 – Blending, ageing, filtering and bottling
At the end of the distillation process, the new distillate will contain about 75% ABV. Once reduced with water (Blanche or Bleue absinthe), it can be bottled or left to age in casks.
- Colouring: Colouring, both natural and artificial, is frequently used in absinthe production. In terms of natural colouring, a final maceration stage is carried out after distillation. Traditional absinthes are coloured by the chlorophyll contained in the various herbs used, such as hyssop, melissa or small absinthe. During this maceration phase, the alcohol takes on a subtle green hue and gains in aromatic complexity. This is known as green absinthe (Verte). Alternatively, a red colour can be obtained from hibiscus flowers.
- Bottling: Artificially coloured absinthes are very stable. They do not require any special treatment. However, naturally coloured absinthe needs careful monitoring, as the chlorophyll it contains is extremely fragile. When exposed to light, these absinthes gradually change colour, shifting from green to yellow and ultimately amber. This explains why old bottles of absinthe can vary in colour. Despite serving as proof of age, this change in colour is unpopular in modern absinthes. Because of this, natural absinthes are now sold in opaque bottles.