Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Some Random Thoughts on Nano-Distillation and Absinthe

I have been thinking a lot about the distillation of spirits, in general, and about absinthe in particular. While most of my recent professional life has centered around wine, I find that I have become increasingly drawn to spirits and liqueurs. Perhaps it has to do with the alchemy that happens during the distillation process, or it's the notion of infusing a base spirit with fruits, herbs, and other botanicals that I find both intriguing and appealing. I have been reading about the phenomenon known as nano-distillation. This is the contemporary term that once was known as making "moonshine," and is a fancy name for home distillation. Nano-distillation has increased in popularity in the past decade, with hundreds of regional nano-distilleries mushrooming across the land. People who once dedicated themselves to home brewing have turned their attention and efforts to making hootch--granted, this ain't gran' pappy's corn liker, but the spirit that drove those early pioneers is alive and well in the new generation of distillers. What sets most of these nano-distillers apart from their predecessors is the desire to make a spirit that is both unique, and the perfect expression of their art, and not so much a question of making a financial killing, or making spirits that are cheaper than can be bought in the marketplace. This is craft, and one of the holy of holies is making a genuine absinthe.

Legally unavailable until recently, absinthe has experienced a renaissance ever since the federal government rescinded the ban on its manufacture, and legalized (although regulated) the active ingredient found in wormwood, thujone. After years of legal wrangling with the federal government, spirits importers and distributors managed to get the ban lifted, and Americans were able to sample absinthe from Switzerland (its birthplace), France, Spain, and the Czech Republic. Once confronted with the real deal, American distillers, and nano-distillers figured they could make the genuine article right here in America. To date, there are now about thirty-odd domestic absinthes commercially available in the marketplace; a few of these come from what could be characterized as nano-distilleries, such as Delaware Phoenix in upstate New York. The brainchild of 51 year-old Cheryl Lins, who until three years ago had never even heard about absinthe. She encountered an article about the spirit in the New Yorker Magazine, and reading the piece set her off on a three-year odyssey to set up her own nano-distillery, and produce her own versions of absinthe. She now has two absinthes that are commercially available through mail order, or in limited distribution in New York. She was recently the subject of a profile in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/23/dining/23absi.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Delaware%20Phoenix&st=cse). Her drive and stick-to-it-iveness to achieve her dream is what nano-distillation is all about; near obsessives driven to create something artisanal, unique, and ultimately, both drinkable and good.

My first encounter with absinthe only occurred recently. I got a bottle of Vieux Carre absinthe, distilled by the Philadelphia Distilling Co. (www.philadelphiadistilling.com/), took it home, and guided by a set of instructions culled from The Wormwood Society website (http://www.wormwoodsociety.org/), I poured the absinthe into the reservoir at the bottom of the glass, placed my slotted spoon on the rim, with the optional cube of sugar, and slowly dripped chilled water from the carafe. The absinthe seemingly magically began to turn an opalescent white color; this process is known as the "louche." Upon tasting the absinthe, I found out what all the fuss was about; the stuff is delicious! There were some very nice, subtle anise and fennel flavors, along with some minty wormwood notes in the background. I found the lightness of the anise flavor far more to my liking than what one normally gets with Spanish anise, which can be syrupy and cloying. The fennel doux added a nice light sweetness that played well with the light anise and floral wormwood. The genepi, which along with hyssop, are frequently added to the "holy trinity" of anise, fennel, and wormwood, added a nice roundness to the overall flavor and texture. The finish was something else; it lingered for a good long while, leaving a pleasurable taste and a slight numbness in my mouth. If I had one criticism it's that this particular absinthe did not hold up very well to "excessive" watering; anything more than a 3:1 ratio and the absinthe falls apart. It flattened out, and some subtle chlorine or bleach-like notes became unpleasantly noticeable.

I can easily see how absinthe became addictive. Thankfully, the 60% A.B.V. (120 proof) of this absinthe acts as a natural deterrent to excessive consumption. Now that I've been properly introduced to this great spirit, it's time to try it out in a cocktail. What could be more appropriate that a Death in the Afternoon; Ernest Hemingway's contribution to absinthe lore: substitute Champagne for the water, and use a Champagne flute rather than the traditional absinthe glass. Here's to you!

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