How to buy and drink good quality absinthe

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Brian Robinson, review editor for the online forum [section of] The Wormwood Society,offers some insights on buying and preparing absinthe in the traditional style. Robinson is one of the most prolific collectors and reviewers of absinthe in the United States, with a personal stock ofmore than 150 brands from around the world, including some of the very rare pre-ban vintage bottles

Robinson said price is only arough gauge of quality because some of the worst-tasting overseas brands charge premium prices using marketing gimmicks that suggest drinkers will get a drug-like experience. The half-dozen brands onsale in the United States run $50-$75 per bottle.

Find vintage

If money is no object, original vintage bottles, when available, run $2,000 to $7,000, or several hundred dollars for little sampler bottles. The top brands of the Belle Epoch like Pernod Fils, are considered the gold standard for absinthe at its very best. Robinson has about a dozen in his collection.

"They really are spectacular. Once you've had a vintage absinthe, you're ruined for anything else." He said.

The first thing to look for is a product which is distilled with real herbs, and not an "oil mix" made by dissolving flavor essences in high-proof alcohol. The method was used by some producers in the old days, but it's never produced a great absinthe, then or now. Buyers should especially avoid brands or do-it-yourself kits which simply steep wormwood leaves in the bottle, as they will result in a ferociously bitter and virtually undrinkable brew.

A good green

A traditional French-style verte or green absinthe should have a bright color, but natural, not the neon-green imparted by food dyes. The main flavor should have the licorice-like character of anise, but not in an overpowering way, and it should be layered and balanced by the bitterness of wormwood and other herbal flavors.

"The flavor should be clean and crisp. Reminiscent of a minty sort of refreshing alpine type of bitterness as opposed to acrid, biting bitterness," Robinson said.

Robinson said the "louche" or clouding effect from adding water should result in a drink that is opalescent -- a kind of soft glow from ambient light, and thick enough that you can't see through it, but not too heavy or milky.

Proper pouring

Absinthe can be used in many mixed drinks from contemporary and 19th century recipes, but traditionally, it was taken with water and a bit of sugar. The method involves pouring ice water, very slowly from a carafe or a fountain, over a slotted spoon and sugar cubes, into the waiting absinthe. Let the saturated cube fall apart, then continue pouring. A good pour rewards the drinker with a swirling louche, and the water releases the many flavors in the liquor as it warms to room temperature.

The mix is usually from 3:1 to 5:1, depending on the bottle proof of the absinthe and personal taste. Traditional absinthe glasses have a small bulb-like reservoir near the base to measure the liquor, but a large wine glass will work. Sugar cubes are a matter of taste. Despite its bitter overtones, most absinthes don't truly need sugar.

"If it's properly distilled and properly made, it's going to be more of a minty refreshing bitterness as opposed to that nasty want to scrape the back of your tongue kind of bitterness," Robinson said.

When storing absinthe, keep it out of sunlight and don't put the bottle in a freezer or otherwise leave it in the cold as the flavoring oils will solidify and cloud the bottle, and it may or may not return to its former self upon warming.

Forget fire

As a final tip, Robinson urges newcomers to avoid the ersatz tradition of setting absinthe on fire to melt the sugar cube before pouring water. The method is promoted as a "Bohemian" preparation by marketers of some European brands, but also gained a foothold from Hollywood, in particular "From Hell" in which Johnny Depp's Victorian London character torches his absinthe.

Experienced absintheurs see it as a cheesy and savage practice, and one that makes as much sense as microwaving caviar or stubbing out a cigar in a fine 18-year-old single malt scotch.

Another consideration is that burning glasses can shatter under heat, or get tipped over by drinking buddies, and the insurance adjusters visiting the charred skeleton of your house might not be amused to learn that you were playing with a Molotov cocktail in your living room while intoxicated.

"Friends don't let friends flame absinthe," Robinson said.

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