Distillation

~ The Absinthe Encyclopedia - CHAPTER III ~

This chapter gives an account of the making of absinthe, based on actual distillations at the historic Emile Pernot distillery in Pontarlier. We follow the entire process – from the cultivation and harvesting of young wormwood plants, to the painstaking selection and preparation of the dried herbs, the maceration of the herbal mixture in alcohol, followed by distillation and rectification using the distillery’s historic Egrot alambics – unchanged since the absinthe era – and finally the all important chlorophyllic colouring process that gives absinthe its mysterious and romantic green hue.

Cultivation of Wormwood and Other herbs

Cultivation of Wormwood and Other herbs

While green anise is grown largely in Spain and in the south of France, and Florence fennel comes from Italy, the other 4 major herbs in a typical Pontarlier absinthe blend are all grown in the region: grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica, aka Roman wormwood), melissa (aka lemon balm), and hyssop. Grand wormwood (also, rather confusingly, known as Common wormwood) is the distinctive ingredient that gives absinthe its unique character and can be found growing wild on roadsides in the Doubs region and in the foothills of the surrounding mountains. With the recent renaissance and re-legalisation of absinthe, and increased local demand from the Pontarlier-based François Guy and Emile Pernot distilleries, it’s once again being planted on a commercial scale, and several new fields are now coming into production. Alongside these, smaller commercial plantings the three herbs typically used in the colouring step – petite absinthe,...

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Selection and Preparation

Selection and Preparation

No aspect of absinthe manufacture is more important than meticulous selection of the finest possible herbs, as these photographs from the herb-room of the Pernot distillery show. The importance of selection: Illustrated below – 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 an herb used in the colouring step. Green anise is the major component (by weight) in most absinthe recipes. Below left – Spanish anise of reasonable quality. Right – Good quality Spanish anise. Stripping the Wormwood Other Herbs Melissa or Lemon Balm – An extreme example of the importance of herbal selection...

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Maceration and Distillation

Maceration and Distillation

The original old Egrot alambics at the historic Emile Pernot distillery in Pontarlier are in all respects identical to those used in the absinthe era. The larger alambic has a capacity of 900l, the smaller one holds 200 litres. Both are jacketed with wood, and topped by a traditionally shaped chapiteau, which leads via copper pipe up to a rectifying ball above the condenser. The rectifying balls return some of the heavier vapours to the pot, while the balance condenses in the cooling coils submerged in water in the grey coloured tank below, before being collected in the horizontally mounted cylindrical distillate tanks at the bottom. It’s possible to conduct two distillations simultaneously with this apparatus. Macerating the Herbs A quantity of base spirit is added to the alambic pot, diluted with water to about 85%. The mixed crushed herbs are stirred in, and left to macerate overnight in...

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Colouration

Colouration

Absinthe scented-spirit is colourless. To colour it, a mixture of petite wormwood and hyssop is macerated; a colourator, a special apparatus heated by steam or hot water circulation, is useful for this purpose; the process takes 12 hours. The absinthe is put into barrels for aging and then reduced to desired proof before delivering for consumption. High quality absinthes are always distilled rather than produced from herbal essences, and have a deliciously complex herbal and floral character, with an underlying bitterness caused by the wormwood. The classic green absinthe verte is produced by a three-step process: first maceration of the herbal mixture in a base alcohol, then distillation of the resultant liquid and finally chlorophyllic coloration by gentle heating of a further herbal infusion. Each herb adds its own subtle character to the blend – grand wormwood has both woody and bitter notes; petite wormwood is aromatic but less...

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Distillation Guides

Distillation Guides

Numerous guides to distillation techniques were published in France during the 19th century. The most scholarly and scientifically orientated were those by P. Duplais and J. Fritsch, whilst others, like J. de Brevans and A. Bedel aimed at the more popular market. New Treatise On The Fabrication Of Liquors With The Latest Procedures By J. Fritsch Editorial secretary of the Journal La Distillerie Francaise Laureate Of The Societe D’encouragement Paris G. Masson, editor Library Of The Academy Of Medicine 120 Boulevard Saint-Germain, across from the school of medicine 1891 Absinthe Preliminary Observations: To make the alcoholic beverage known as absinthe, there exists a legion of recipes that quite naturally vary in quality in proportion to the price of the product. It follows that absinthe producers modify their recipes to suit the tastes of the consumers in the regions in which they operate. The plants that form the basis of...

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