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JohnC

Modern day v pre-ban distillation procedures

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This will be a fairly long post and maybe I'm answering my own question as I write but I'd like to place a problem that's been puzzling me for some time in front of an audience of experts.

 

My reading about modern absinthe distillation techniques suggests that the process is essentially hands on with plenty of subjective judgement on the part of the distiller in respect of taste,colour and smell at different points in the process. Quantities produced are tiny, often in the scores of litres per run. The resulting product is marketed as hand crafted (it is) and priced accordingly. Despite the endeavours of the craftsmen distillers their products aren't always well received by informed absinthe drinkers and sometimes vary considerably between one batch and another e.g. Montmartre editions 1 and 2.

 

Turning to pre-ban absinthe. Although bottle aging may play a part, the consensus amongst those lucky or wealthy enough to have tried some (not me!) seems to be that it was always a superior product. This is true right up to the Tarragona products of the 40's.

 

In my ignorance I'd assumed that the Pernod distillery at Pontarlier, say, must have been full of alchemists scurrying round the alembics tasting, tweaking etc, etc, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the late 19th century two workers, presumably following strict procedures, managed 26 stills and 22 colorators (info courtesy Virtual Absinthe Museum) capable of producing 20,000 litres per day of high consistent quality. After all Pernod was the leading international brand.

 

I guess my question after this lengthy preamble is why do we find so difficult today to do what two 19th century workers on the day shift at Pontarlier found so easy?

 

I don't buy into the 'they had 100 years experience' argument as clearly Pernod management didn't have 100 years production line experience. Is it volume? Perhaps the ex-Pernod stills at the Combier distillery don't work properly unless at full capacity. Is it loss of supplier infrastructure? Poor quality ingredients? Have the Pernod 'how to do it' manuals been lost or are they hidden in the company's archives? Or all of these and more. Views sought.

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I think that is an interesting question and perhaps even one that has not been answered a million times in other threads (getting rare). I have no idea as to the answer but await one from the College.

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I too would guess that a consistent supply of high quality ingredients as well as really good tails (100 years worth) along with a fine recipe.

 

I too wonder what happened to that company recipe and if it is in some old forgotten vault somewhere. Maybe, like Benedictine, it's guarded by monks vowed to silence.

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I think the big reason is recipe and equiptment. By recipe I don't mean the "250 of this, 500 of that" type, but rather complete instructions on how to do produce the drink, no guesswork or sampling involved. In addition, they had their setup specifically designed to handle that exact recipe, and even though original equiptment is being used in Combier, it's not necessarily the same setup (keep in mind those stills were set up to make Tripple Sec for the past 80 some years).

 

If the Pernod factory was still running today, I imagine they'd do everything with machines instead of two workers.

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Actually the Pernod factory today does it all with a machine and one worker. He controls how the oils are mixed and where they're sent to. Yuck.

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Turning to pre-ban absinthe. Although bottle aging may play a part, the consensus amongst those lucky or wealthy enough to have tried some (not me!) seems to be that it was always a superior product.

But have those lucky people had the opportunity to try, and compare, different year's issues of the same brand? Do we know much about how even the quality was?

Now, I do guess of course that their products came with quite an even quality, for lot of reasons, but in a way I think it is not impossible that it could vary slightly from batch to batch. After all we are dealing with organic ingredients here, from living plants which I guess could change their compositions depending on environmental conditions (precipitation, temperatures etc.) – not that much like e.g. grapes, perhaps, but to a certain degree anyway.

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In a significantly less global market, I would suspect that the variation and availability of the ingredients was more stable over time. Just a guess, but it may well be that, for example, the fennel came from the same acreage that had produced it for decades if not centuries, from the same plant or seed stock, cultivated by the same family of farmers using the same mules to haul it to market. A slightly more or less rainy season would have less impact on a more genetically homogenous crop in soil that was pretty consistent from one year to the next.

 

We treat nearly every product as a commodity these days, but keep in mind that with wine, the specific vineyard or cultivar of grape can make absolutely huge differences in the outcome, as can its storage and date of collection. German Gewurtztraminer, for example, comes from a specific subset of grape cultivars that are harvested at a specific point in time in their hydration cycle and stored just so, such that a type of grape mold just begins to affect them.

 

Obviously, the more variables involved, the more Pierre's fennel will vary from Lars's. Under that analogy, I would think it more likely historically that Pernod, for example, bought their fennel, anise, etc. from the same groups of growers using similar methods and plant stock year after year.

 

I also concur with Mindshifter that even if there was noticeable variation from year to year, it's not likely that many modern tasters would have had the opportunity to make the comparison due to its scarcity.

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It's not so much a matter of experience as it is continuity. They made the stuff constantly. When something is mass-produced under quality controlled conditions, it assures a good degree of consistency.

 

If a sort of solera system were applied to that huge output, even yearly variations in botanical quality would be greatly diminished of effect.

 

Some of the newer artisan distillers only get into the distillery several times a year. One couldn't reasonably expect that kind of consistency.

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Very true, I didn't mean it as a slam, just a way of answering the original question:

 

Despite the endeavours of [modern] craftsmen distillers their products aren't always well received by informed absinthe drinkers and sometimes vary considerably between one batch and another... why do we find so difficult today to do what two 19th century workers on the day shift at Pontarlier found so easy?

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I guess my question after this lengthy preamble is why do we find so difficult today to do what two 19th century workers on the day shift at Pontarlier found so easy?

 

Here's the answer to your question:

post-39-1142707828_thumb.jpg

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Exactly. Hose is where it's at.

 

I don't think enough can be said for what time is capable of. A year to five of rest for an already well-crafted absinthe can buff the minor flaws right out -- sometimes, it can imbrue an inferior product with an ambrosial perfume, a chocolate tang with a scent that twines through candy wormwood blossoms. Then again, it could end up tasting like anisated BBQ-n'-wormwood turd.

 

If a sort of solera system were applied to that huge output, even yearly variations in botanical quality would be greatly diminished of effect.

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Many thanks to the absintheurs who took the trouble to reply to my posting. All replies were enlightening and I now have a much better understanding of the difficulties faced by modern day distillers.

 

It is clear from Oxy's and Grim's replies that consistent pre-ban quality was maintained by a solera style system which smoothed out seasonal variations.

 

But no one, however distinguished, has really cast much light on how two guys, tending their 26 alembics during their 11(!) hour shifts in Pernod's still room, were able to produce absinthe of the quality to be piped downstairs into the solera system in the cellar. I guess we'll never know.

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This is an interesting discussion and I've often wondered what the reasoning behind this is. But at the same time, many of us like many of the better brands out there, so does it really matter? I've never had a pre-ban taste either (I'm not that loaded), but I can say that there are many other iterations which, even if they are not a perfect replica of vintage Pernod Fils, are simply outstanding in my mind. Who's to say that vintage Pernod was the cream of the crop anyway? I mean, it was the most widely circulated, correct? Then to me, that equates to other widely circulated drinks and things like Budweiser come to mind - only serving to further the thought that the most drank drink may not be (or have been) the best.

 

All that said, I would still love to try some pre-ban, simply to have a reference point.

 

Has anyone here tried any pre-ban? And if so, is there a modern iteration of absinthe that you would say is closest to it (while it may be quite far away in reality)?

 

Good post.

 

Aaron

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I've never been able to afford preban myself, but thanks to the great buddies I've made in this community, I've gotten a chance to sample some. The flavors are strong and bold and blend amazingly well (the blending is most likely due to the age). The best commercial approximations are probably the Jades. The beef most people here have with Jades is that in addition to that nice strong flavour, there are also other not-so-pleasant flavors that creep in there as well. The preban I had was absolutely clean tasting, nothing but good flavors.

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From the few pre-bans that I've tasted there is a creaminess to the mouthfeel that I've yet to notice in modern commercial absinthes.

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I've never been able to afford preban myself, but thanks to the great buddies I've made in this community, I've gotten a chance to sample some. The flavors are strong and bold and blend amazingly well (the blending is most likely due to the age). The best commercial approximations are probably the Jades. The beef most people here have with Jades is that in addition to that nice strong flavour, there are also other not-so-pleasant flavors that creep in there as well. The preban I had was absolutely clean tasting, nothing but good flavors.

What kind of flavors do you mean by "creeping" in there? Like staleness? Or funk in general? Or an overpowering herb or two?

 

I mean, I guess I'll have to break down and try some NO and some Edouard, but I wasn't paticularly impressed with the Verte Suisse, so if either of the other two taste anything like that, apparently I don't really care for pre-ban either.

 

Huh...this is complicated.

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I wasn't paticularly impressed with the Verte Suisse,

 

Neither was I when I got it -- but after some ageing (after all, it was a relatively young distiller's proof), it's turned out very nicely.

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But no one, however distinguished, has really cast much light on how two guys, tending their 26 alembics during their 11(!) hour shifts in Pernod's still room, were able to produce absinthe of the quality to be piped downstairs into the solera system in the cellar. I guess we'll never know.

If I had to guess I think I would say setup and experience. By the time the pre-ban many have tasted was made those making it had tons of experience and a time tested setup. Kind of like watching any expert do their stuff, they make it look easy.

 

Those making it now don't have near the same experience and most of it is in small batch distillation.

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Maybe its me, but I personally like that about absinthe. I mean the fact that it is usually smallish batch production and that the taste changes little by little every time. I mean, everytime you buy vodka, what do you get? Vodka. From every single mass-marketed producer, you get "vodka." Nothing more, nothing less. Of course now we have flavours, but anyway...

 

The point is that one of the appealing factors about absinthe to me is its artisinal value; that is to say, the fact that much of it is (by today's standards) hand crafted. And that means a lot to me...

 

Anyway, that doesn't really fit with the discussion. I'm just making my case for why I don't think one should necessarily dwell on the fact that most (if not all) absintheurs consider pre-ban the best.

 

Aaron

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The point is that one of the appealing factors about absinthe to me is its artisinal value; that is to say, the fact that much of it is (by today's standards) hand crafted. And that means a lot to me...

What he said.

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Even those who do should be careful about exaggerating the point spread. It's good stuff, but as modern makers re-learn the tricks of the trade, the gap narrows. I have no doubt that within a few years it will not be uncommon to find a plentiful supply of a variety of brands that are every bit as good as Pernod Fils, Oxygenée, Berger, et al.

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Having missed the boat on pre-ban so far, I've certainly enjoyed the products available. Perhaps one day a pre-ban will land in front of me for the tasting. The handcrafting is definitely appreciated.

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It is clear from Oxy's and Grim's replies that consistent pre-ban quality was maintained by a solera style system which smoothed out seasonal variations.

 

But no one, however distinguished, has really cast much light on how two guys, tending their 26 alembics during their 11(!) hour shifts in Pernod's still room, were able to produce absinthe of the quality to be piped downstairs into the solera system in the cellar. I guess we'll never know.

 

What do you think additional employees would do? In any large automated distillery, there are only a handful of people (or less) actually supervising the alambics in operation.

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I don't think one should necessarily dwell on the fact that most (if not all) absintheurs consider pre-ban the best.

 

 

They don't.

 

Depends on which one - the Pernod Fils from the recent Cannes find (which even still looks somewhat green!) is awesome.

 

Of course, rumour has it that HG has made quite some strides since I last had a sample, too.

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There's some clandestine stuff that's coming pretty close to nailing the pre-ban taste, but as I said above, in my experience—a couple Pernod Fils, some Edouard and Tarragona—pre-ban isn't galaxies ahead, just a few hops.

 

JohnC, just to clarify: is the emphasis of your question on how Pernod produced such quality absinthe in general or simply how it was done by so few people?

 

If the latter, Oxy's right, what's there to do? Once you've got your process down, it's just a matter of labor: throw x bags of anise, fennel and wormwood in the alembic, fill it to here with spirit, crank up the steam, watch the gauges (not the hot teen one in the tartan skirt).

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There's some clandestine stuff that's coming pretty close to nailing the pre-ban taste, but as I said above, in my experience—a couple Pernod Fils, some Edouard and  Tarragona—pre-ban isn't galaxies ahead, just a few hops.

 

There's a marked difference between all of those vintage absinthes - Tarragona from the sixties is not the same thing as earlier Tarragona, let alone good Pernod Fils.

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