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Mayzandas

Training the Nose and Palate?

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Hi, all-

 

I'm very new to absinthe. So far I've only tasted Un Emile 68, Verte de Fougerolles 72, (these two at the same time) and two other absinthes that I didn't get the name of.

 

My wife and I took a wine tasting class many years ago. The first night of class, the teachers provided us with several "doctored" samples of wine. They took a relatively innocuous bulk wine and then added various ingredients to it: one sample had sugar added, another had some sort of tannic tasting extract, another had acid, another vinegar, etc.. The idea was to give us a basic idea of what standard terms like "sweet," "tannic," "acidic," "spoiled," etc., refered to. The teachers refered to is as "calibrating the palate."

 

So now that I've gotten interested in absinthe, I'm reading reviews and wondering what people are talking about when they mention hyssop, melissa, fennel, and other flavors. How does one learn to recognize these flavors? (And smells!)

 

For instance, tasting the Un Emile and then the VdF, the UE had a bitter woodiness at the back of the aftertaste that I didn't find in the VdF. (And that I didn't especially like, either.) What was that?

 

I thought of going to an herb shop and buying some herbs to smell and taste, but then I read that their flavors and aromas change significantly when they're distilled. So I'm not sure how much use that would be.

 

I'm going to be hosting a blind tasting party for a few friends in a couple of weeks. I've got 20cl sample bottles of the following:

 

(vertes)

Un Emile

Jade Nouvelle Orléans

Jade Edouard

Jade Verte Suisse

Verte de Fougerolles

 

(blanches)

Blanche de Fougerolles

La Ptite

 

I know I can read reviews of all these (I have several printed out already), and try to interpret what other people have written against what I'm tasting. But I'm wondering if anyone has any further tips to offer. Having all these absinthes side-by-side seems like a great opportunity, not just to see what I like and don't like, but also a great opportunity to educate myself!

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For instance, tasting the Un Emile and then the VdF, the UE had a bitter woodiness at the back of the aftertaste that I didn't find in the VdF. (And that I didn't especially like, either.) What was that?

That was the wormwood. Some absinthes have good wormwood, some have crappy wormwood, but all have it. If you didn't taste it in the VdF, just smack your tongue against the roof of your mouth when you take a sip. It's there.

 

The worst wormwood I ever tasted was in the Partisane. Before I knew what wormwood tasted like I didn't even taste it and loved that absinthe. But after I discovered how it tasted that absinthe suddenly tasted like almost nothing but really rank wormwood.

 

The wormwood also presents itself in the nose as a floral scent and on the palate as a somewhat camphorous, minty flavour. Fennel in absinthe tastes similar to anise but drier and more earthy and sometimes fruity. Coriander is spicy. Hyssop is also somewhat anisy but medicinal and many think that it lends a baby powder scent to absinthe. Melissa is related to mint and smells lemony. Pontica is grassy.

 

I'm sure everyone else has more to add on individual herb tastes. You can paint a mental picture of their overall flavours if you consider multiple descriptions at once.

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If you didn't taste it in the VdF, just smack your tongue against the roof of your mouth when you take a sip. It's there.
Very true. The wormwood will jump out at you when doing this. Another way to describe this action is try to say "plop" several times while holding the swig of absinthe.

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For instance, tasting the Un Emile and then the VdF, the UE had a bitter woodiness at the back of the aftertaste that I didn't find in the VdF. (And that I didn't especially like, either.) What was that?

That was the wormwood. Some absinthes have good wormwood, some have crappy wormwood, but all have it. If you didn't taste it in the VdF, just smack your tongue against the roof of your mouth when you take a sip. It's there. (snip)

 

This worries me. Does the fact that I didn't like the Un Emile very much mean I don't like wormwood? Or is it just "bad" (or -insert other adjective here-?) wormwood? Or does the VdF do a better (or just different) job of balancing (or hiding?) the wormwood with the other flavors?

 

In general, is the VdF considered to be a "better" (loaded term, I understand) absinthe than the UE? Or vice versa?

 

The worst wormwood I ever tasted was in the Partisane. Before I knew what wormwood tasted like I didn't even taste it and loved that absinthe. But after I discovered how it tasted that absinthe suddenly tasted like almost nothing but really rank wormwood.

 

The wormwood also presents itself in the nose as a floral scent and on the palette as a somewhat camphorous, minty flavour. Fennel in absinthe tastes similar to anise but drier and more earthy and sometimes fruity. Coriander is spicy. Hyssop is also somewhat anisy but medicinal and many think that it lends a baby powder scent to absinthe. Melissa is related to mint and smells lemony. Pontica is grassy.

 

I'm sure everyone else has more to add on individual herb tastes. You can paint a mental picture of their overall flavours if you consider multiple descriptions at once.

 

Okay, my head just exploded (and not in a good way). But thanks for trying to explain this. Seriously, your info does help, much more than when I read in a review some statement like "I think they may have gone overboard on the hyssop." (not from an actual review.) I mean, to me, that's meaningless.

 

I will keep your descriptions in mind when we're tasting in a couple of weeks. Thanks for taking the time to help a newbie!

 

Salût!

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Something tells me that is how Absomphe gets all those stains on his shirts but I'll try it anyway.

 

No worries, Shai.

 

Those stains came strictly from excessive Absomphesizing.

 

My shirts are far less green these days.

 

Except for the green ones.

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This worries me. Does the fact that I didn't like the Un Emile very much mean I don't like wormwood? Or is it just "bad" (or -insert other adjective here-?) wormwood? Or does the VdF do a better (or just different) job of balancing (or hiding?) the wormwood with the other flavors?

Salût!

First, relax and have a glass of absinthe.

 

Think about the bitter hoppiness of beer. Some of it is sharp, some smooth, etc, etc...ad nauseum. People have preferences over their hops so why not their Wormwood? My preferences change from day-to-day depending on my mood and what I'm having for dinner. That's one reason I like so many different absinthes.

 

:cheers:

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Damn, T, you got to the Charlie Papazian reference before I did. But you forgot to say "don't worry." :)

 

Mayzandas, honestly, when I first started to really taste the wormwood I found it off-putting. But it really grew on me, very quickly, and now it's my favourite aspect of almost any (good) absinthe. Different absinthes have different wormwood and you'll find some more palatable and some less so. It's not meant to be hidden; a well balanced absinthe will have a very detectable wormwood profile. If it's hidden it's out of balance. And if it's too strong it's out of balance (I like that kind of out of balance!) Just stick with it and develop your tastes. Vigilance!

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Wormwood varies (as well as how it's been used).

Adding more water seems to bring out the wormwood and other hidden flavors. With the high ABV of the 'dFs you might consider giving those a bit more water in at least one glass to more easily find the wormwood.

 

For a hit of good wormwood without anything else clouding it the Blanchette might be a good future order.

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Might add, the Blanchette is pretty darn tasty, too.

 

Damn, T, you got to the Charlie Papazian reference before I did. But you forgot to say "don't worry." :)

 

Good call, Peridot. I must confess, I knew the quote wasn't mine but it's Friday and my brain isn't functioning well. Give credit where credit is due. :cheers:

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For a hit of good wormwood without anything else clouding it the Blanchette might be a good future order.

 

Ah - that's just the sort of advice I'm looking for. Thanks!

 

Thanks to all who brought up the subject of hops. As a former homebrewer, that analogy makes a whole lot of sense. As I experimented with my different recipes, I became very familiar with different sorts of hops in different quantities. So I will try to apply that understanding to wormwoods, too.

 

Now if I could just figger out the fennel, hyssop, anise, melissa, mint, cardamom, coriander, cilantro, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme...

 

Hey, seriously - thanks, everyone for your patience and generosity!

 

Salût!

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I'd add CLB to the list. I'm a big fan.

Sugar rounds out the flavors and brings out the wormwood. (I'm going to get sent to the cane field again.)

I gargle absinthe to isolate the code. I just know that every time I gargle absinthe a green fairy dies *and* T73 reacts in horror. :devil:

 

I tried the Plop suggestion but it didn't seem to work as well as gargling. Perhaps it is the operator.

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If no one beats me to it, I'm going to put together a palate calibration kit for absinthe that will consist of solitary herbal extracts. A lot of these tastes need to be experienced individually to really "get" them.

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Obviously some are more talented with their tongue than others.

 

To make you even more crazy not only are anise and fennel rather hard to separate but a number of the good brands have a nice herbal blend and everything hits as complex flavors and not as separated notes.

For fun (or a waste of money) you might consider buying a cheap pastis to try after a few nights of absinthe tasting. It will really make you appreciate the flavors.

 

Instead of searching for each ingredient when doing a side by side tasting you might consider at first just writing down perceived flavors, whether you like that flavor and which absinthe contained it. Similar to wine tasting. I really doubt wines with a "gun powder nose" really contains gun powder but that's easier than trying to figure out exactly what in the grape or barrel caused the flavor.

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I could make a comment about certain other members here from that first statement of yours, but I just can't bring myself to type it.

 

Seriously though, I think that's great advice in general about the end result rather than the cause of the flavor.

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I have been trying to make the leap from the scent/odor of the raw herbs/spices to what I can detect in the various CO I have acquired. I am able to pick out the major players, but the others? Perhaps those with discerning palates might identify particular absinthes that have a more noticeable presence of the minor players? I realize the identity of specific ingredients is likely kept a trade secret, but surely some of the brands have tell-tale signs of one or more of these lesser gods.

 

Angelica root (and seed), calamus root, and elecampane root are especially intriguing to me, but sensing their contribution in the midst of robust anise and fennel is still a challenge, if I even have any brands that include these... ;) Plus, the smell of the root/seeds may point in a direction, but I have no way of knowing if the distillate hews closely to or is rendered "alien" by comparison.

 

I went back to my bottle of FG and, what can I say? After straying into the territory of CLB and ilk, Ike, Duplais Blanche, and the Jades, the FG seems particularly sweet (I use no sugar) and the presence of the star anise much more noticeable than I recall upon first taste.* Seems like the absinthe I've had with distinct star anise generally has a good mouth feel, but the slightly tongue-numbing character is much more obvious to me now. The bottom tier absinthe isn't being sampled much at my house much anymore.

 

The oddballs for me include the Montmarte and the Leone. They come across like hammers. Picking subtle flavors out of these is torturous or may simply prove I have a long way to go before I earn any tasting medals.

 

 

* I'm gonna feel really stupid if it turns out there is no star anise in the FG.

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Obviously some are more talented with their tongue than others.

 

To make you even more crazy not only are anise and fennel rather hard to separate but a number of the good brands have a nice herbal blend and everything hits as complex flavors and not as separated notes.

For fun (or a waste of money) you might consider buying a cheap pastis to try after a few nights of absinthe tasting. It will really make you appreciate the flavors.

 

Instead of searching for each ingredient when doing a side by side tasting you might consider at first just writing down perceived flavors, whether you like that flavor and which absinthe contained it. Similar to wine tasting. I really doubt wines with a "gun powder nose" really contains gun powder but that's easier than trying to figure out exactly what in the grape or barrel caused the flavor.

 

Thanks for the tip. I understand what you're talking about. (I always think of Alex, one of our wine tasting teachers, who had a favorite descriptor - "barnyardy.") OTOH, I'd like to know what it means when a reviewer says an absinthe has something like (I'm making this up) "strong notes of fennel with a hint of melissa in the aftertaste." With my uneducated palate, that's less meaningful to me than "gun powder" or "barnyardy."

 

When I say something like I didn't like the woody aftertaste of the UE and someone here says, that's the wormwood, and smacking your tongue will help you taste the wormwood in the VdF, or describes another ingredient as having a baby powdery scent, these sorts of things help a lot!

 

Thanks all - salût!

 

If no one beats me to it, I'm going to put together a palate calibration kit for absinthe that will consist of solitary herbal extracts. A lot of these tastes need to be experienced individually to really "get" them.

 

Put me down at the top of the waiting list!

Edited by Mayzandas

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There is no star anise in the FG.

 

Well, the shame is palpable. Every time I think I'm beginning to get a handle on absinthe flavors, I realize I haven't even left the starting blocks.

 

Oh, well. Not the first time I've stuck my foot in my mouth.

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Well, the shame is palpable. Every time I think I'm beginning to get a handle on absinthe flavors, I realize I haven't even left the starting blocks.

 

Don't feel bad - you're not the only one. I still have only the vaguest of ideas how to untangle the flavors in absinthe - and I've given thought to the approach mentioned by the OP, of getting some (fresh) herb samples together, just to better understand the single notes.

 

So I'm a cheerfully bourgeois absinthe drinker. I don't worry too much about what's what, just whether or not I like it. Further enlightmentment will, I hope, come in time.

 

:cheers:

 

- Johanna

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For me, getting to where I can recognize the various flavor components in absinthe has been helped by becoming familiar with dominant tastes in various "simple" absinthes.

 

Wormwood Blanche, as well as the Blanchette to a lesser degree, is so dominated by wormwood that drinking it side by side with a more neutral absinthe will help you to see what wormwood is about.

 

Duplais Balance is keyed so strongly off of its coriander flavor that drinking it side by side with a more neutral absinthe...etc.

 

François Guy and Arak will help to identify simple green anise, as it differs from star anise, since neither has star anise. Then drink some Pernod pastis after that to remind you what star anise is all about.

 

Arak is also helpful for identifying the contribution of a grape wine base, because the only other flavor in Arak is green anise.

 

When people mention "citrus" notes in their absinthe, especially on the attack, or first sensation from the first sip, they're usually picking up the melissa (or lemon balm) used in the coloring step, which is why you don't hear "citrusy" used very often in describing blanches.

 

I still can't isolate the flavor of fennel from the anise, and I've only just recently begun to be able to identify the pontica used in coloring, having recognized the commonality in several absinthes that are often reviewed as having strong notes of it, such as the Helfrich.

 

Donnie Darko's reviews on FV (Gatsby here) are usually very helpful. Sixela's, too...

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Wormwood Blanche, as well as the Blanchette to a lesser degree, is so dominated by wormwood that drinking it side by side with a more neutral absinthe will help you to see what wormwood is about.

Particularly one of the fruity cultivars. Wormwood can vary enormously between "juicy fruit", tarragon and more earthy flavours. I like fruity wormwood, but it can be quite predominant indeed.

Duplais Balance is keyed so strongly off of its coriander flavor that drinking it side by side with a more neutral absinthe...etc.

True, but I think it is well balanced in DB. A pronounced coriander share yields a "soapy" character (besides a citrus tone and some peppered spiciness).

François Guy and Arak will help to identify simple green anise, as it differs from star anise, since neither has star anise. Then drink some Pernod pastis after that to remind you what star anise is all about.

For the record, Pernod is not a pastis but an oil-mixed "anis". It contains quite some indistinct flavours. The star anise aroma is especially predominant in real pastis (star anise and licorice) and some absinthes, like the Lemerciers (lots of distilled star anise). It is somewhat "candylike" while green anise has a far more "herbal green" flavour. Hard to describe, but easy to recognize once you know it.

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For me, getting to where I can recognize the various flavor components in absinthe has been helped by becoming familiar with dominant tastes in various "simple" absinthes...

 

Wow - that was a wonderful post! Just the kind of information I was seeking when I posted the original question. Thank you very much, Wild Bill!

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(egh! newbie first post somehow quoted the wrong post therefore and edit: my intention was to remark on Hiram's "Kit"- its brilliant with wine- why not absinthe?)

 

This is exactly what I have wanted to do since I have been drinking absinthe! I am perfectly able to distinguish the subtleties in absinthes and wish to write reviews, but am ignorant with the descriptive language.

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Howdy, rickbob. :cheers: First, follow the link in my sig line over to the Intro forum and let us know a little about you.

 

About the tasting kit, it's still on my mind, but one of the limitations is the synergy between different herbs. For instance, if you ever tasted a distillate of wormwood only, you might not believe it was actually in the absinthe you're drinking. There's a very good reason those other botanicals are there!

 

As for the language, it's still evolving, since absinthe appreciation is still pretty new, but after you hang around a while, you'll pick it up.

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I still can't isolate the flavor of fennel from the anise, and I've only just recently begun to be able to identify the pontica used in coloring, having recognized the commonality in several absinthes that are often reviewed as having strong notes of it, such as the Helfrich.

Taste is complicated. It can't be completely reduced to sensory impressions, knowledge, preference, etc., but it depends to a certain extend on mere myth (more or less in a Barthesian sense as a cunning thief of truth and a bringer of fallacy).

 

Sorry to disappoint you, but the pontica in the 'Helfrich' is very modest. Somebody once described the first batch (by Rijneveen) as heavy on pontica and people keep recognizing strong notes of it ever since. Still, they're not there.

 

Yet the German reviewer (NoXter) did an excellent job in discerning most of the herbs used and did not notice any pontica at all. He was a lot closer to the truth (but also not entirely correct - in an unbiased sense).

 

Aside: pontica is more pronounced in recent batches (since May 2007), on account of the quality of the plants used.

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