In a small town in Sweden, something special is going on. Using wild-foraged and home-grown herbs, made on an absolutely tiny scale, two new absinthes are being distilled: Grön Opal, and Vit Opal are these absinthes.
Today we take a first look at these brand new artisan spirits, and speak to the two makers about how they ended up setting out on the grand adventure of starting up a distillery, and some of the hurdles they faced along the way.
The history and development of the distillery
Back in 2009, two friends, Mikael Norell and Tomas Runnquist, decided to set up a distillery.
After overcoming many administrative barriers, they ran series of test distillations. In May 2014, the results of their hard work was ready: the recipe for Absinthe Grön Opal and the Absinthe Vit Opal was finalised. In 2015, Absinthes.com made these two absinthes available to people the world over.
Both absinthes are the result an incredible amount of manual labour and are produced by only using quality ingredients, carefully selected.
Most plants used come from the distillery’s own garden, and are harvested by hand. The wormwood used by Mikael and Tomas is something rare and special: It comes from wild lands in Sweden and is foraged at the peak moment for capturing the aroma of the plants, at the very beginning of August.
The amount that can be found strongly influences the amount of absinthe that can be produced during the following year.
After harvesting, the absinthe is dried for 1 year in a shed using natural ventilation, just how it was done a century ago.
The unique aroma of wild wormwood can be clearly appreciated in these two absinthes.
Since every distillation run yields around 25-30 liters of good product, and at least six distillations are needed to fill a whole barrel before ageing, there is room for adjustment between the runs – one can always compensate for the flavour strength if it was too much or too little in the first runs.
The tricky part is that the flavours don’t reveal themselves at once. Most often you cannot tell if the amount of wormwood was enough (or too much) until it has aged for at least, minimum, one month…
It changes over time as it matures.
Maturation is of course closely monitored by the distillers.
One of the biggest challenges for any distillery is to ensure consistency between batches.
Svensk Absint pay particular attention to this, and have developed techniques to limit dramatic changes in flavour. Because they work with herbs from their own garden, they are able to monitor the aromatic qualities of each plant and calculated the peak harvest time.
Then, if there are small differences in the odor, the recipe can be adjusted, allowing them to ensure an uniform absinthe taste every year.
This close attention to detail also means that it’s only possible to produce few small batches each year, which are bottled and labelled by hand.
The Svensk Absint Absinthes
Absinthe Grön Opal
The Asinthe Grön Opal is based on a French recipe from the 19th century that has been perfected over several years.
The result is very refreshing and satisfying to the palate.
The wormwood, which is harvested on locations where the ground is almost solid limestone rock, has a fragrance that is very cool, green, minty and deep.
An excellent Verte from Sweden!
Absinthe Vit Opal
The Absinthe Vit Opal (White Opal) is the first Blanche absinthe ever produced in Sweden by Svensk Absint.
While undoubtedly having the recognisable characteristics of a classic, sophisticated Blanche, at the same time it also reveals many other layers. There are playful tones of several herbs native to Scandinavia, such as the Nordic angelica and chamomile.
This absinthe has a creamy and well-balanced taste, with a hint of camomile and a slight touch of lemon grass.
Interview with Mikael Norell
Absinthes.com: When and how did you first discover the aperitif “absinthe”?
Mikael: In 2003, a friend invited me to an “Evening in the sign of bitterness”, where Czech “absinth” was being served (paired with 90 % cacao chocolate and other bitter bites). I drank it politely, but found it absolutely horrid. Nonetheless, my curiosity was piqued; how on earth could this vile, acrid drink have been as popular as it supposedly was in the 19th century? There was something wrong with that picture… After doing some research, I bought my first bottle of real absinthe (Un Emile). Shortly after that, a Jade Nouvelle-Orléans, which totally blew me away.
Absinthes.com: What led you to the decision to produce absinthe?
Mikael: Being a chemist, and having made my own wines and liqueurs from local fruit and berries since teenage years, it followed naturally that I had to give it a shot once I had come across the well-known recipes from Duplais et al. Lots and lots of experiments were conducted, and in 2009 I felt assertive enough to start a serious business. I teamed up with my good friend Tomas, and after a great deal of administrative efforts we could finally open the distillery.
Absinthes.com: According to you, what is the right definition of a “good absinthe” and what are the 3 fundamental elements critical to producing a fine absinthe in a distillery like yours?
Mikael: A good absinthe, in my opinion, can be a delicious, rich and intellectually satisfying flavour experience that sets it apart from most other beverages. It must be traditionally distilled and made from only the finest ingredients available. No shortcuts. Anise and fennel shall create a balanced, velvety base on which to intertwine the floral notes of fruity wormwood.
Three fundamental, critical elements: 1) Harvesting only the best, most fresh parts of the plants (all our ingredients except the anise and the fennel are hand-picked by us, either wild-growing or cultivated in our own herb garden). 2) A meticulous monitoring of the distillation process. 3) Passion and carefulness in all steps.
Absinthes.com: Do you think the European market should be locked to naturally distilled absinthes only, or on the contrary, macerated and essences-based absinthes have also the right to exist and to be called “absinthe”?
Mikael: In my book, there is no such thing as a ”macerated absinthe”; maceration is just a part of the process before distillation commences. Traditional absinthe is a distilled product, and either you respect tradition or you don’t. As for the so-called ”low anise absinthes”, I think that’s just a sad attempt to market foul, low-quality products as something they are clearly not. Absinthe is an anise-based drink, period. If people don’t like anise, well, then absinthe probably isn’t for them.
Absinthes.com: How do you see the future and popularization of absinthe in Europe in the next years or decades?
Mikael: Well, absinthe today is still a niche market, not likely to ever enjoy the same, enormous popularity it once did. However, looking back just ten years or so there has been a remarkable progress of the absinthe market, so I definitely think it is safe to say that absinthe is here to stay. In Sweden today, we have seen a steadily growing number of consumers searching for higher quality and authenticity, and in the sector of small-scale artisanal food products (made by hand using traditional methods) absinthe fits in very well. There is still much need for education though, to rid some stubborn, lingering prejudice surrounding it.
Absinthes.com: Don’t you fear a new ban of absinthe if the European consumers, and especially the youngsters, get into the habit of drinking absinthe like vodka or whisky? The internet is full of videos showing young people drinking shots of absinthe or setting it on fire even though it’s 60-70% alcohol.
Mikael: I have no fear of a new ban. The over-consumption of alcohol is assuredly a major concern in some social circles, but the focus should rather be on the availability of cheap vodka and the like – products with a price tag much under that of real absinthe. Nevertheless, with a high-proof beverage like this, the importance of educating consumers can’t be emphasised enough. I have been very busy the last ten years giving absinthe tastings and talks about absinthe, educating people about what it is and what it is not, and how to drink it. When our absinthe Grön Opal was released, it set a new Swedish record with its 72 % ABV – it is the strongest alcoholic beverage ever produced in this country, a fact that local media chose to focus a lot on. For our part, we have never promoted it for its high alcohol content, since it is rather a ”technical” aspect behind it (which is certainly more interesting than the percentage per se).
Absinthes.com: Last question. Green Fairy: myth or reality? Have you ever noticed effects other than those from alcohol – secondary effects – after absinthe consumption? Some talk about an enhanced view, dreams, mental clarity, or even intellectual improvement which it could be imagined might have somewhat helped artists and writers from the 19th century.
Mikael: I can only speak for myself here, but I believe that most ”secondary effects” described by some are merely fumes of fancy, arising from the many delusive ideas and myths surrounding absinthe. I find absinthe effective as an appetizer, and, at best, there’s a possibility the mixture of essential oils from the herbs might serve as remedy for some GI tract issues. I never get hangovers from absinthe, though, but apart from that, I have never noticed any other effects. My love for absinthe has always been due to its seductive taste and its tantalizing history. (I would say the real danger with absinthe is that it tastes so enticingly good!)
The Green Fairy, on the other hand… now that is a totally different matter.