Many of you probably have a rough idea of how absinthe is made, but I thought it would be a great idea to explain each step – from cultivating the plants to the final product – in detail.
1 – Plant Culivation
Wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium) is a herbal plant that gives absinthe its distinct taste and unique character. It can be found growing wild on arid ground, rocky slopes, and at the edge of footpaths and fields, and on commercial plantations. Especially through the renaissance and re-legalisation of absinthe, and increased local demand from the Pontarlier-based Francois Guy and Emile Pernot distilleries, it’s once again being planted on a commercial scale not only in France, but wherever absinthe is made nowadays. Alongside these, smaller commercial plantings the three herbs typically used in the colouring step -petite absinthe, melissa and hyssop – have also begun. Grand wormwood from the Pontarlier region in France is especially popular, because the altitude and the environmental surroundings of the Jura mountains favour its cultivation.
A year-old wormwood field in the village of La Rivière Drugeon, about half an hour’s drive from Pontarlier. It’s believed that this particular field was devoted to absinthe cultivation in the pre-ban era as well – it’s immediately adjacent to a disused railway track, which, a century ago, run directly to a siding at the Pernod Fils factory.
The beautiful and delicate petite wormwood plant, smaller in every respect than its more famous cousin, and harder to grow, as the plant is less vigorous. Much less bitter than grand absinthe, it’s used primarily in the colouring step.
Fennel is another plant that carries medical virtues. Rich in phytoestrogens, it is often used as a medical treatment for stomach issues. It is largely cultivated in the south of France, Saxony, Galicia, and Russia, as well as in India.
Anise is another distinct ingredient responsible for the impressive taste of absinthe. Those plants grow best in light, fertile, well drained soil. The seeds should be planted as soon as the ground warms up in spring. Because the plants have a taproot, they do not transplant well after being established, so they should be started either in their final location or transplanted while the seedlings are still small. Anise contains anethole, an oil that dissolves in water and is therefore responsible for the wonderful louche effect when diluting absinthe with water. Anise is easy to cultivate and not significantly influenced by weather or other environmental conditions – this is why a lot of anise is imported from other European countries instead of cultivating it at the place of distillation.
Some absinthes are made with star anise, a spice with similar flavour attributes to anise. Some absinthe recipes contain both green and star anise, and gives a distinct taste. Star anise can taste quite harsh if a lot is added to absinthe.
An absinthe that is strong on anise for example is Absinthe Francois Guy.
Melissa, hyssop and other essential plants
Other herbal plants that contribute to the characteristic taste of absinthe are melissa and hyssop. Melissa is a herb native to Europe and Asia, and grow pretty fast given ideal conditions. Melissa enjoys a lot of sunlight on slightly moist soil. Commonly known as lemonbalm, this herb is a very interesting flavouring agent. An absinthe with notes of melissa is for example the Absinthe Libertine 68 Amer.
Hyssop is often used as a medicinal plant, due to its properties as an antiseptic. It is used to cure coughs and acts as an expectorant and therefore very helpful to heal minor diseases. This herb grows best in sunny and warm areas and can survive even on less livable grounds. A lovely absinthe with notes of hyssop is Absinthe Jade PF 1901.
Hyssop – as the plants mature they produce small blue flowers – a sign the stalks are ready for harvesting.
2 – Herb selection and preparation
Herb selection is a critical part of the absinthe-making process. Consecutive batches from the same supplier may vary widely in quality, so everything has to be carefully checked before use. The dried herbs need to be weighted according to each individual absinthe recipe and checked whether they meet the distillers’ quality standards.
Herbs on a scale.
The dried wormwood stalks need to be carefully stripped before use – very tedious and dusty work.
After the wormwood stalks were stripped, the bucket holds about 5kg. The stripped stalks are discarded.
Below you can see Fennel in both its whole and powdered form:
The importance of selection: At left, Artemisia Pontica of superb quality. At right, a much less impressive batch of the same herb. Artemisia Pontica, also known as Petite Absinthe, is sometimes included in the macerate, but is primarily a herb used in the coloring step.
Some of the herbs – especially anise and fennel – are ideally ground to powder before use (although this can cause problems later, as they’re prone to clog the distilling apparatus). For small quantities – sufficient perhaps for a 100 litre distillation run – a food processor may be pressed into service.
3 – Maceration and Distillation
Maceration starts with the herbs themselves. Each dried herb has to be carefully weighed following the individual recipe. Small quantities of herbs are weighed on a precision scales using a bowl, whereas big quantities – such as green anise, wormwood and fennel – are weighed with a professional electronic scale. Once all the herbs are ready, alcohol and water are added in a still. The herbs are then added and mixed with the diluted alcohol and heated up, then kept in the still overnight. This way the herbs mix with the alcohol and develop the typical absinthe aromas.
In the morning additional water (together with any tails or phlegms from previous distillations) is added, before the distillation run commences.
Herbs are added to the alambic
The macerate is heated up again and again, over several hours – temperature and duration are essential for this step: Too much heat will burn the herbs, and too little won’t make absinthe. Depending on the model and size of the alambic, it can take two to three hours to heat the alambic to the required temperature.
The alambics at the Guy distillery in Pontarlier
The distillation process takes the whole day, during which the temperature within the alembic is very carefully supervised. If too cold, no absinthe will come out of the pipe. If too hot, the herbs are ‘burnt’ and not only is the absinthe ruined but there is a risk of destroying the lovely century-old alembic.
One another critical step during the distillation is the supervision of “heads” and “tails”. Heads are what come out of the alembic first and tails are what come out last, both are unwanted, only the clear and clean distillate is kept. Around 4 liters of heads are discarded and around 25-30 liters of tails are collected in a tank for future re-distillations. The very last tails are discarded.
A hydrometer measures alcohol, and helps supervising the whole distillation process. When it starts to fall down to 50°, this indicates that the tails are coming soon.
The precious distillate is collected in calibrated 2 or 5 litre jugs from the copper tanks below the condenser. The clear distillate is carefully monitored by sight, smell and taste, as the end-run or tails must be collected separately. Tails may at first be lightly colored, especially if pollen rich or finely powdered herbal material has been used, but will end up a milky white. Rich in anethole, they are added to future runs and re-distilled – nothing is ever wasted in a distillery, and every drop of alcohol has to be accounted for to the excise authorities.
For Blanche absinthes, the production ends here. Green absinthes get their color from the next and final step – the coloration.
4 – Coloration
The coloration process is critical not just to how the finished absinthe will look, but also to how it will taste. Herb quality is especially important here, as the best results can ony be obtained with perfect source material.
Coloration is accomplished by straight maceration. A percentage of the clear distillate – usually less than half – is poured back into the now clean alambic pot, and the coloring herbs – typically petite absinthe (artemisia pontica), hyssop and melissa – are added. They can be added loose, as shown here, or in a porous burlap sack (or “tea-bag”) which makes filtration afterwards easier. The alambic is then sealed, and heated until the surface of the chapiteau becomes too hot to comfortably touch – about 55 degrees Celsius. Then the mixture is allowed to cool, before being removed and filtered.
The traditional method of filtration shown here involves pouring the colored liquid into a conical copper vessel lined with a horsehair filter. The filtered liquid – which should now be bright and clean – is collected at the bottom.
The colored spirit is tested and evaluated, before being mixed back with the remaining clear spirit, to make the final product.
Right after the coloration process, the liquid develops a very bright green. The intense emerald-green color will fade slightly in the first few weeks of ageing.