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.

Distillation practical treatise

A Practical Treatise on the Raw Materials and the Distillation and Rectification of Alcohol and the Preparation of Alcoholic Liquors, Liqueurs, Cordials and Bitters. By William T. Brannt Philadelphia 1885. Drawing heavily on Duplais, this is one of the few contemporary English language treatises dealing with the distillation of absinthe.

Livre Fabrication liqueurs

La Fabrication des Liqueurs. J. de Brevans 3rd Edition, Paris 1908. J. Moréal de Brevans was the principal chemist of the Municipal Laboratory in Paris.

Manuel distillateur liquoriste

Nouveau Manuel Complet du Distillateur Liquoriste by Lebeaud, de Fontenelle & Malepeyre. Manuels-Roret, Paris 1888. A widely used popular manual – this copy is annotated by M. Vichet, and was found on the premises of the old Vichet absinthe distillery.

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 the drink are:
– Grand wormwood
– Petite wormwood
– Anise
– Fennel
– Hyssop

We say “basis”, because many manufacturers are not content with those five plants, and include in their distillations several other products, such as: star anise, melissa, mint, nettle, coriander, iris, solution of benzoin, etc. The best absinthes are, in our opinion, those of the simplest composition. Before broaching the subject of distillation itself, it will not be fruitless to a say a word about the choice of herbs. As everyone knows, there are two kinds of wormwood: the wormwood known as Pontarlier and the wormwood known as Paris. The first is harvested around Pontarlier, in Switzerland, etc, and the second around Paris, Orly, etc. It is important for the manufacturer to buy only herbs that are well dried, not mildewed, and not deteriorated. For absinthes of higher quality, it is preferable to use only Pontarlier wormwood. It should however be recognized that Paris wormwood is today the object of a booming trade, thanks to the intelligent care that the farmers of the capital area have applied to the culture of the plant, which has improved it considerably. What we just said about choosing plants applies equally to fennel; the intelligent manufacturer will buy only seeds with body, that is to say, full seeds, well preserved; he will not allow himself to be tempted by the low price of the scrawny fennels of doubtful scent, as we have had occasion to see frequently on the market.

J. Fritsch Nouveau Traité de la Fabrication des Liqueurs d’Après les Procédés les Plus Récents Paris, 1891. Fritsch was the editorial secretary of the influential journal La Distillerie Français. Together with Duplais’s similarly titled work, this 550 page volume is one of the most important guides to 19th century French distilling techniques. The 17 pages devoted specifically to absinthe are particularly comprehensive.

Anise plays a major part in absinthe, it must thus be the object of serious attention on the part of the distiller. We have in France top quality varieties of anise, such as anise from Tours and from Albi; but, precisely because of their quality, these two varieties are so expensive that they cannot be economically used to make common absinthe . They are replaced with anise from Alicante or Russia. The latter generally contains many impurities, such as dirt, pebbles, etc. for which it is important to account in purchasing; it is disencumbered by washing with water before use.

With regard to wormwood and hyssop, it is above all the leaves and flowering tops which contain the finest aroma; such that, to produce an absinthe of superior quality, there is an advantage in stripping the plants so as to exclude all the stems and use nothing but the leaves. This is perhaps the key to the smoothness of certain brands and their success with the public.

Generally, the different plants are mixed and distilled together, but some manufacturers separately distill wormwood, anise and fennel before mixing the products of the three distillations.

Once the bill of ingredients is prepared, one puts it into the still, charged with the necessary quantity of alcohol and half the quantity of water needed for distillation; the maceration will be better as a result, because if all the water was added at once, the alcohol would be diluted too much, its solvent capacity would be notably decreased, and it would capture only part of the useful materials extractable from the plants. It is likewise if the maceration is done with pure alcohol: plants suddenly immersed in high proof alcohol seem to undergo a kind of hardening which, up to a certain point, stalls the development of their aroma. Before distilling, one allows a maceration of from 12 to 24 hours, and longer if the workload permits; the product will only be better and the perfume more concentrated as a result.

Distillation

Distillation must be conducted slowly and with much care to avoid the sudden starts and the coup de feu which are very harmful to the quality of the product. Some distillers, once the distillation is underway, distill until the product marks zero on the alcohol meter and then rectify to end with a finished product of around 60% alcohol, and join the leftovers with the phlegms . Those are then rectified in turn and used to create absinthes ordinaire. This method is defective, for the very simple reason that by distilling to zero percent (alcohol), the absinthe will always have a pronounced flavour of phlegms in spite of rectification; it will thus cost more to make but come out worse. It is best is conduct the distillation with care and to stop as soon as the first spurt of product measures 60% (alcohol); one will thus avoid rectification while having a more correct and less expensive product. The heads and the tails, that is to say the wormwood phlegms, will be put aside, as we mentioned previously, for the manufacture of absinthes ordinaire. The white milky product which runs off at the end contains much essence, one pours it into a subsequent batch with the alcohol and the plants.

Colouration

Like all carefully distilled liquids, absinthe extract (the heart) is colourless and perfectly clear. To prepare it for use, it is necessary to colour while at the same time refining its scent. Colouration is done hot, by macerating a mixture of petite wormwood and hyssop in the liquid obtained by distillation. Of particular use is a special apparatus, known as a colourator, made of galvanized copper and heated by circulation of hot water or steam. One places into the colourator substances chosen according to the grade of absinthe one wants to obtain; these substances then lend to the alcoholic product their colouring principle as well as their scent. The greater the heat, the more the colour comes out yellow, and the more it tends to lend to the drink an unpleasant grassy taste; the greater the proportion of petite wormwood, the darker the colour comes out; the greater the proportion of hyssop, the more the colour approaches that of cognac or autumn leaves. After 12 hours of contact, the colour is acquired by the liquid; it is cooled and placed into barrels for aging. It is time which completes the quality. Colouring can also be done cold, but that takes several days and a greater quantity of plants, which increases the acridity of the absinthe. Certain distillers cut the absinthe before transferring it to the colourator, already furnished with the quantity of plants necessary for colouration, of which we will give the basis later. This practice can have a good result when one wants to give the absinthe an autumn leaf yellow colour rather than a beautiful olive green.

Apart from this consideration, it is preferable to put into the colourator absinthe at the same proof with which it left the still, that is to say, around 75-76%, and to cut it after it leaves the colourator and after cooling, on its way to the barrels. The reason is that high proof absinthe is better able to hold all the colourant the herbs can lend; if the colouration of the absinthe is too intense, it can always be decreased with an addition of uncoloured absinthe. The green part of the colour is very unstable, the excess colour precipitates quickly during aging, and after it rests for some time in the barrels the absinthe acquires a very pretty colour. The colourator having been emptied of an absinthe colouration as we have just described, the plants will not be completely exhausted and they can be recharged with absinthe of common quality which will serve to exhaust them. The colouring of these absinthes being weak, it can be completed by an addition of caramel and bluing solution.
The infused plants retain a certain amount of alcohol and essence; to recover it, absinthe phlegms destined for rectification are poured onto them. One can thus economically complete two operations at the same time: exhaustion of herbs and rectification of phlegms. The product of this rectification is used to prepare absinthes ordinaire. But for this operation, it is essential to fit a swan neck to the colourator, which is neither expensive nor difficult. The apparatus can successively be used as a mixer, colourator and still to distill phlegms, light alcohols, and residues from the manufacture of spirits and liquors, such as fining sediment, barrel dregs, filtration residues, etc.

Preparation And Use Of Guaiac Extract

Extract of guaiac, also called white extract in distiller’s parlance, is generally used in the amount of two litres per thousand to make absinthes ordinaire turn white. Here is how extract of guaiac is prepared: Crush the guaiac in a bronze mortar, then put it into a ceramic pot, pour in two litres of 95% alcohol, and let macerate for 15 days while stirring from time to time with a spatula to help completely dissolve the material. The resin dissolves correctly at 100 grams per litre of 95% alcohol. Extract of guaiac must be measured in carefully, because if on the one hand it has the advantage of making absinthe whiten at the time of consumption, it also has the disadvantage of giving it a characteristic acridity, causing dryness at the back of the throat which is easily recognized by absinthe drinkers. It is necessary to restrict its use to common absinthes of low proof which will not support a great quantity of essence.

Addition Of Essence Of Star Anise

Essence of star anise is correctly used at 500 grams per 1000 litres of absinthe, that is, 1/2 gram per litre. Essence of star anise is best dissolved at six grams of essence in one litre of 90% alcohol.

Alambic à vapeur système special Deroy

Use Of Pulverized Licorice

If it is necessary to limit the use of guaiac resin, the same can’t be said of pulverized licorice, which exerts upon absinthe the best of effects; it gives it brilliance and marrow, like a sort of aging, and at the same time it serves to fine it. As it is more soluble in water than in alcohol, it is mixed with 10 times its weight in water poured into the absinthe, agitated vigorously; then left in contact for 12 hours.
The quantity of powdered licorice to use is 25 grams per hectolitre of absinthe. As we have just seen, licorice powder can replace the fining of absinthe; but it is preferably used concurrently with antimony. To this end, care will be taken to pulverize it well, dissolve it in boiling water, agitate it well and let it rest. This first water has a particularly unpleasant flavour, it is thrown away, and the antimony is recharged with fresh water alcoholized at 10%, to ensure it keeps if it is not immediately used. Antimony is generally used in the amount of 100 grams per hectolitre, prepared as we have just indicated. The high proof absinthes are self-clarifying because of their alcoholic strength, it suffices for them to let them rest for a while.

Special Steam Still For Making Absinthe

Absinthe can be made in an ordinary still; but it requires several manipulations which can be eased considerably by the use of the appropriate special stills. The Ergot style still of red copper, equipped with all the improvements and which can be tilted, is heated with steam by means of a serpentine which, on request, can be replaced by a double bottom. It first distills the plants and the alcohol, the product of which, “absinthe blanche” is received in a copper distillation receiver set at the base of the cooler.

The phlegms, which run at the beginning and at the end of the operation, are collected separately in a special receiver placed behind the first, from which they are returned by compressed air to the still to be redistilled at the same time as the next charge of absinthe is in the colourator. Colouring, for a small operation, is done in the still between distillations. For a big operation a special colourator is used, as we mentioned above. After the still is recharged with the plants for colouration, a portion of the clear absinthe in the distillation receiver is sent to it by compressed air and the whole is allowed to macerate after the heat is set at the correct degree. The coloured absinthe is then drawn through a tap from the still, cooled and placed into barrels. The plants which remain in the still after colouring are discharged in turn only after, by distillation in the same still, all the alcohol they contain is extracted. The alcohol thus recovered is collected in the distillation receiver to be used in the following operation.

A steam still and twin colourator arrangement; this setup makes it possible to produce absinthe without interruption. It contains, independently of the still and the containers described above, a separate colourator, provided with its own cooler; built like that of the still, but smaller. The coloured absinthe, exiting the colourator, is collected in a special copper receiver, from which it can be dispatched, by means of compressed air and a piping system, to the storage barrels which can be far removed from the distillation floor.

This device, very complete, adopted in the biggest establishments, where it has been recently installed by the Egrot company, avoids any manual handling and considerably decreases runtime, while increasing the quality of the product and the speed of the operations. For installations without compressed air the transfer is done manually, by means of a pump fixed to the cooler support.

Below are the principal recipes used to make absinthe.

ABSINTHE ORDINAIRE (For 100 litres at 60%)

  • Grand wormwood dried and stripped 5 kilograms
  • Fennel 3 —
  • Angelica root 400 grams
  • Green anise 3 kilograms
  • Alcohol as required

Infuse the whole in the still for 24 hours, then add the water and proceed carefully with distillation.

Colouration:

  • Petite wormwood 600 grams
  • Hyssop 600 —
  • Melissa 800 —
  • Peppermint leaves 800 —
  • Powdered licorice 30 —

Chop the petite wormwood and the mint, powder the hyssop and melissa using a mortar and pestle, put the whole into the still with the scented spirit, seal carefully if necessary; and heat gently to 50-60º C, then kill the fire under the steam to prevent distillation. Cool, then pass the liquid through a hair sieve, and reduce to the desired proof with the necessary quantity of water. After manufacture add one centilitre of rectified essence of star anise.

ABSINTHE DEMI-FINE (For 100 litres)

  • Grand wormwood dried and stripped 3 kilograms
  • Petite wormwood 1 kilogram 500 Fennel 1 kilogram
  • Green anise 3 —
  • Star anise 1 kilogram 250
  • Dried hyssop flowers 500 grams
  • Dried lemon balm 500 —
  • Angelica root 400 —
  • Alcohol as required

Infuse for 24 hours, add water and distil.

ABSINTHE FINE (For 100 litres at 72%)

  • Grand wormwood dried and stripped 3 kilograms 500
  • Green anise 3 kilograms 500
  • Fennel 3 kilograms 500
  • Star anise 10 grams
  • Alcohol as required.

Infuse the plants for 24 hours in alcohol reduced to 80%, then distil in the manner already described.

Colouration:

  • Petite wormwood 550 grams
  • Hyssop 600 —
  • Melissa 800 —

Proceed in the same way as before, and add afterward:

  • Essence of star anise 50 grams
  • Solution of guaiac resin 30 —
  • Pulverized licorice 20 —

OTHER (For 100 litres at 72%)

  • Grand wormwood 3 kilograms 750
  • Green anise 3 kilograms 750
  • Fennel 3 kilograms 750
  • Star anise 500 grams
  • Mint (herb) 250 —
  • Caraway of Riga 125 —
  • Alcohol as required.
  • Proceed as before.
  • Colouration:
  • Melissa 700 grams
  • Hyssop 700 —
  • Petite wormwood 500 —
  • After colouration add 50 grams of essence of star anise in 95% alcohol.

ABSINTHE EXTRA-FINE (for 400 litres at 72%)

  • Grand wormwood 15 kilograms
  • Green anise 12 —
  • Fennel 12 —
  • Star anise 2 —
  • Caraway 500 grams
  • Angelica root 250 —
  • Alcohol as required

Macerate the plants for 24 hours in 80% alcohol, and distil in the manner previously described.

Colouration (for 400 litres):

  • Petite wormwood 3 kilograms 500
  • Hyssop 3 kilograms 500
  • Melissa 3 kilograms 500
  • Mint 400 grams

Add after colouration:

  • Essence of star anise 150 grams
  • Essence of green anise 150 grams

PONTARLIER SWISS ABSINTHE (for 100 litres)

  • Grand wormwood dried and stripped 2 kilograms 500
  • Green anise 5 —
  • 85% Alcohol 95 litres

Macerate in the still for 24 hours with the alcohol, add 45 litres of water at the time of distillation, proceed with the distillation and collect 95 litres of scented spirit. For the phlegms, proceed as we have already described.

Colouration:

  • Petite wormwood dried and stripped 1 kilogram
  • Hyssop (dried flower tops) 1 —
  • Melissa dried and stripped 500 grams

Proceed in the same way previously described.

MONTPELLIER SWISS ABSINTHE (for 100 litres)

  • Grand wormwood 2 kilograms 500
  • Green anise 5 —
  • Florence fennel 5 —
  • Coriander 500 grams
  • Angelica seeds 400 —
  • Alcohol at 85% 95 litres

Macerate and distil as before.

Colouration:

  • Petite wormwood 1 kilogram
  • Dried hyssop flowers 750 grams
  • Dried melissa 750 —

FOUGEROLLES SWISS ABSINTHE (For 100 litres)

  • Green anise 7 kilograms 500
  • Florence fennel 4 —
  • Stripped grand wormwood 2—750
  • Alcohol as required

Macerate and distil according to the method already given.

  • Colouration:
  • Dried lemon balm 750 grams
  • Hyssop 600 —
  • Petite wormwood 700 —
  • Peppermint 600 —

Proceed as before.

SWISS ABSINTHE BLANCHE

  • Stripped grand wormwood 2 kilograms 750
  • Petite wormwood 1–
  • Hyssop flowers 1—
  • Veronica 550 grams
  • Genepi 550 —
  • Roman Chamomile 225 —
  • Green anise 5 kilograms
  • Florence fennel 5 —
  • Angelica seeds 550 grams
  • Alcohol at 85% 95 litres
  • Proceed as for coloured absinthe, the rectify the product and reduce to 74%.

ABSINTHE FROM ESSENCES Absinthe can also be made from essences dissolved in alcohol; this manufacturing process, though less advisable than the method we have revealed, can nevertheless yield great results, especially in temperate countries which don’t always possess the necessary facilities for good fabrication by ordinary means; we will present some recipes which can still provide products of good quality with the condition however that the essences used are well rectified and stripped of heavy products with which they are mixed.

ABSINTHE ORDINAIRE

  • Wormwood essence (grand) 30 grams
  • — of star anise 50 —
  • —of anise 10 —
  • —of sweet fennel 10 —
  • Alcohol at 90% 51 litres
  • Plain water 49 —

Yield: 100 litres at 46%.

Dissolve the essences in the alcohol and mix it all well; add the prescribed amount of water and colour with vegetal green and caramel; allow to rest for a while before delivering for consumption.

ABSINTHE DEMI-FINE

  • Essence of grand wormwood 25 grams
  • — of petite wormwood 10 —
  • — of peppermint 5 —
  • — of hyssop 3 —
  • — of angelica 3 —
  • — of anise 50 —
  • — of star anise 40 —
  • — of sweet fennel 5 —
  • Alcohol at 90 degrees 58 litres 50
  • Ordinary water 34 — 50

Proceed as before. Yield: 100 litres at 53%.

ABSINTHE FINE

  • Essence of grand wormwood 25 grams
  • — of petite wormwood 10 —
  • — of hyssop 3 —
  • — of melissa 5 —
  • — of anise 75 —
  • — of star anise 75 —
  • — of sweet fennel 25 —
  • — of coriander 2 —

Proceed as before. Yield: 100 litres at 65%.

FABRICATION OF INSTANT SWISS ABSINTHE FROM ABSINTHE EXTRACT

The difficulties presented by the preservation of essences, especially in the hot countries, have inspired a chemist with the idea of manufacturing absinthe extract in a concentrated form. This extract, easy to preserve, can be shipped afar with little expense since only 200 grams are needed for one hectolitre of absinthe; all that’s required is to add the desired volume of alcohol and the vegetal colouring material to instantly yield an absinthe of good quality. This extract is prepared by the firm of G. Précheur, 13 Rue Quincampoix, Paris, advantageously known to distillers for the superior quality of its products for spirit merchants.

Here in a few words are the instructions for using this extract to make one hectolitre of absinthe:

Absinthe extract 200 grams Vegetal colour 250 —

Dissolve the 200 grams of extract in 80 litres of good tasting 90% alcohol; agitate the liquid to mix it well, then reduce the alcoholic strength by adding to the 80 litres thus scented, 20 litres of pure water, which will reduce the alcoholic strength to 72%.

Once this process is finished, colour the liquid mixture by pouring in the 250 grams of colouring; taking special care to agitate the colour well before pouring it into the scented liquid. Stir up the whole then, and absinthe of 72% is thus made.

Absinthe obtained by this process was analysed and found good by the Municipal Laboratory of Paris (May 16, 1889, nº 1825).

Observation: It is necessary to never colour the liquid until after the alcoholic reduction is finished.

Absinthe of lower proof, such as 65%, 60%, 55% as well as 45%, is obtained by following the same instructions.

VARIOUS AROMATIC SPIRITS

As before, take care to use the necessary proportion of 90% alcohol for dissolving the absinthe extract and the necessary quantity of water for reduction.

Thus, for 72% absinthe, it takes: 72×100/90 = 80 l. alcohol at 90% and 20 l. water for 60%—60×100/90 = 67 alcohol at 90% and 33l water. for 50%—50×100/90 = 56 alcohol at 90% and 44l water. This process has been adopted by several large traders of South America, who obtain good results from it.

We will not speak about the physiological effects of absinthe, which some consider to be a pernicious drink. The truth is that, by its nature, absinthe taken in moderation is less harmful than one is led to believe. What is bad is the abuse that can be made of it.

SWISS VULNERARY SPIRITS

Take 750 grams of dried leaves of each of the following plants: Wormwood, angelica, basil, calamint, fennel, hyssop, lavender, marjoram, melilot, melissa, mint, oregano, rosemary, rue, savory, sage, wild thyme, thyme.

Infuse the whole for 48 hours in 64 litres of alcohol at 85%, add 30 litres of water to distil; rectify then to collect 62 litres of scented spirit, to which a sufficient quantity of water is added to make 100 litres at 50%.

Maison Egrot Catalogue B 1899.

Alambics-Rectificateurs egrot system

E. Brehier Chaudiéres & Appareils en Cuivre ou en Fer Catalogue Paris 1881.