The Taste of Vintage Absinthe

The taste of vintage absinthe is varied – each marque had its own unique style, some rich and spicy, some lighter and more floral. Very few show any pronounced bitterness though, and almost all are subtle, complex, multi-dimensional and delicious. A tiny handful of modern absinthes approach this quality but none equal or surpass it.

Absinthe H. Bazinet Jeune, circa 1910

A circa 1910 Absinthe H. Bazinet, in very good condition, labelled for the US market. Founded in 1880, H.Bazinet were an important Pontarlier-based producer whose absinthe commanded a premium price in the 1900’s. Like other top-quality producers, they used an entirely natural chlorophyllic colouration process. This is the first intact bottle of this brand from the pre-ban era recorded so far.

Tasting notes: Clear and bright, with a few traces of sediment at the bottom of the bottle – a remnant of the chlorophyllic colouration. Undiluted, the absinthe has an attractive nose – the wine alcohol base is evident. The colour is light amber with green tinges at the edges. The louche is quite slow but very good. The aromas develop as water is added – both herbal and floral notes are evident. Absolutely delicious on the palate – smooth and honeyed with a mild butterscotch character. A hint of wormwood bitterness on the aftertaste, which is very long. A superb absinthe of great subtlety and complexity.

Below : An Absinthe Bazinet sample before and after the addition of water.

Absinthe Premier Fils, circa 1910

Premier Fils, based in Romans, was a high-end producer whose absinthe commanded a premium price, and was one of the relatively few absinthe distillers that used an entirely natural herbal colouration process, something they proudly advertised on their label.
Original bottles of Absinthe Premier Fils are far rarer than the equivalent from Pernod Fils and the absinthe itself is completely different – paler, with a wonderfully subtle olive green colour (still amazingly well preserved), with a warm perfumed quality and a hint of violets on the nose. The louche is beautiful, but softly translucent rather than milky in the manner of Pernod Fils. All in all, a quintessentially feminine absinthe.

Absinthe Berger, circa 1900

Berger, based in Couvet and Marseille was one of the largest and most popular producers. Their Swiss-style absinthe was enormously popular in the south of France, and was also exported all over the world, especially to South America, where they (rather than Pernod Fils) were the market leaders.

The contents are in excellent condition, and identical to samples I’ve tasted from another Absinthe Berger bottle. The colour is amber – no real trace of the original green remains. On the nose, anise and the classic Berger “baby-powder” aroma are present, while on the palate the absinthe is warm, rich and spicy. If Premier Fils was the light feminine brand, Berger is the heavy masculine marque. You could imagine smoking a cigar with a glass of this.

Absinthe Pernod S.A. Tarragona, circa 1935

A circa 1935 Absinthe Pernod S.A, from the Tarragona distillery, in very good condition. Pernod S.A. was the Spanish successor to Edouard Pernod, and these bottlings are far scarcer than the more commonly found Pernod Fils versions. Pernod S.A. ceased production in 1938, when it was absorbed into the larger Pernod group.

Tasting notes: Less amber than the Bazinet. Delicious typically Pernod-like nose, with an appealing floral quality. Thick and creamy louche. Anise fairly prominent in the Edouard Pernod style, with some badiane evident. Much more complex than 1960’s Pernod Fils Tarragona.

Extrait d’Absinthe E.Albadó, Habana. Circa 1930

Pre-Castro Cuba had a considerable history of absinthe production – Hemingway drank it there, and used to stock up on his frequent marlin-fishing trips to the island. This bottle, produced by the Aldabó Distillery (also known as a rum and curaçao producer) appears to be a good quality, naturally coloured absinthe, and probably dates from the mid 1930’s. It’s in overall excellent condition.
This is most likely the exact product that gave rise to the famous 1931 Hemingway quote:
“Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife underhand into the piano.”

Tasting notes: Nothing like the anise-rich Spanish style one might expect. Undiluted, the absinthe has a creamy, honeyed nose, and an unusually yellowish colour (less golden than it appears in the photographs). When iced water is added, the absinthe louches only faintly and a distinct wormwood aroma develops. On the palate there is a rum-like quality (undoubtedly the base alcohol for this was made from sugar cane) and an powerful, bitter wormwood aftertaste, which lingers in the mouth. It’s possible wormwood was used both in the macerate, and in the colouring step.

Pre-ban Absinthe Pernod Fils

This cache originates from the cellar of the last surviving descendant of a once substantial liquor distributor, who operated in the Doubs region from 1890 to around 1950. It consists of privately bottled Absinthe Pernod Fils, originating from glass demi-johns removed from the Pernod Fils distillery one week before the prohibition of absinthe came into effect in August 1914.

The present owner, now elderly, inherited the bottles from his father. The contents of these demi-johns (probably around 20-30 litres each) were then bottled (with professional equipment – the corks and wax seals are of the same quality as a commercial bottling) for the private consumption of the family. There were reportedly originally around 300 bottles, and they were drunk up to the beginning of the Second World War, after which the remaining intact bottles – 76 in all – were left untouched and forgotten until the present day.

The bottles are all unlabelled. Most are bottled in a distinctive swollen-necked bottle originally made for St Raphael Quinquina, but a few are in a more standard unbranded Bordeaux-shape bottle. The bottles are typical of blown-in-the-mould glass of the 1910-1915 era, and were presumably what was to hand at the time the absinthe was privately bottled. There is no difference in the contents between the two bottle types, and both have the same corks, and the same red wax seals, which like the bottles themselves, date from around 1915. They were undoubtedly all bottled at exactly the same time.

Tasting notes: A random selection of bottles of both shapes were opened for testing. Evaluation was done both by the author, and, independently, by another expert. The alcohol content, as measured by hydrometer, varies between 65% and 66% (probably due to variations in bottle-to-bottle ageing). The absinthe is extraordinarily fine, and very well preserved – a clear light amber, with almost no sediment (a very typical Pernod Fils characteristic, due to the extensive racking undergone by all their absinthe prior to release). The absinthe has both floral and spicy notes, and has a rich, full mouth feel. Allowing for the inevitable small differences between different bottles of century old spirits, the absinthe is in general entirely characteristic of well preserved Pernod Fils of the pre-ban era.

Below are pictures of samples from two different bottles in the cache, before and after the addition of water. As one would expect there is some variation between different bottles in the cache – some are slightly browner, others are slightly greener. The overall colour range and louche are both typical of pre -ban Pernod Fils.

Probably the clearest and most detailed of all photographs showing the absinthe ritual. Circa 1910.
Note the beautiful half-empty bottle of Absinthe Pernod Fils, the two bistrot glasses with their porcelain saucers, the traditional bistrot sugar cube holder, the unusual absinthe spoon on the right hand glass, and the very generous sugar portions – two large cubes on the right, three on the left. Also interesting is the elegant and relaxed grip on the carafe of the man in the centre – clearly an experienced absintheur – with his friend at the left holding up his hand to indicate when enough water had been added. All three men are smoking. Absinthe is not incidental to this photo, it seems specifically to have been composed to show the preparation ritual.