Colouration

~ The last part of the distillation process ~

Colouration processAbsinthe 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 bitter (and also useful for coloration); green anise gives a characteristic scent and rich smooth mouth-feel (which fennel also enhances); dried hyssop flowers contribute to the classic absinthe feuille morte (dead leaf) colour.

Colouration process 2The colouration 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 only be obtained with perfect source material.

Colouration 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 colouring 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.

Well made absinthes are generally pale green, but louche, or turn milky, when water is added. This is caused by the essential oils precipitating out of the solution, as the alcohol is diluted. Absinthes with a high percentage of star anise (or badiane as it is known in France), such as those made in Spain, tend to have a very dramatic and opaque louche, while the louche in more traditionally made absinthes develops slowly, and is more subtly translucent. Traditionally made absinthes are never a bright emerald green – those that are, have artificial colouring added.

Clear absinthes – often called La Bleue or La Blanche, and historically popular in Switzerland – are made without the final colouring step, and may also differ slightly in herbal composition (sometimes for instance containing génépi, which is not otherwise usually found in absinthe). A red absinthe (originally probably coloured with paprika) has been made under the name Serpis for several decades in Spain, but this is an isolated oddity. The traditional strength of tradional absinthe is 55% – 72% alcohol, or 110º – 144º proof. Historically the best absinthes, including those from Pernod Fils, were made from a base of grape alcohol, although cheaper grain or beet alcohols were also widely used.

Traditional colouring Method

The traditional method of filtration shown here involves pouring the coloured 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.

Emerald-green colour

The intense emerald-green colour will fade slightly in the first few weeks of ageing. The coloured spirit is tested and evaluated, before being mixed back with the remaining clear spirit, to make the final product.

The final tests: water is added to evaluate the quality of the louche and the colour of the diluted drink…and the distillery master gives it his seal of approval. The absinthe will now be aged for (at least) several months (which also allows any remaining sediment to settle), before being bottled and released.