Absinthe, now local!

Absinthe. The name itself conjures up images of poets and artists, lounging around a Parisian speakeasy, chasing – and perhaps succumbing – to “the green fairy.” And there is the ritual surrounding this potent anise-flavored spirit; the louche, or slotted spoon, upon which the sugar cube sits, the slow-drip absinthe fountain, perhaps the introduction of fire to the mix…

For almost a century, absinthe was banned not only in the United States, but almost worldwide, a victim of a bizarre confluence of forces. In recent years, this emerald-green spirit has made a comeback, and for the first time since the 1910s, American spirit connoisseurs can taste this intoxicating liquid.

Recent entries into the absinthe market have been syrupy, sickly concoctions that bordered on the undrinkable, more of a novelty, almost a dare, rather than what it should be, a bold but not overpowering spirit, primarily anise-flavored, but also with hints of the other myriad botanicals that compose this unique blend.

Why, you may ask, was absinthe banned? Why do so many of them taste like cough syrup? That, it turns out, is an interesting story, and there are few spirits that have such a truly, shall we say, “colorful” history as absinthe.

Absinthe’s story in the modern world begins with the French army. Overseas, French soldiers were frequently prescribed this wormwood-infused spirit as an anti-malarial and anti-parasitic agent. Much as British soldiers would bring the gin and tonic back from India, the French brought their taste for absinthe back to France, where cheap knockoffs rapidly became popular among the lower classes.

Absinthe might have remained an afterthought in wine-loving France, but in the 1890s, a bacterium brought from the New World decimated the French wineries. With wine supplies at an unheard of low, absinthe filled the void. Soon, absinthe makers were creating truly quality spirits, which caught the fancy of the artisans and French upper class, so much so that when the wineries came back, the market did not, so great was the French’s new love for absinthe.

To recapture their lost market share, French winemakers partnered with an unusual ally, the growing worldwide temperance movement. Soon, the public was bombarded with messages of how this wormwood-infused spirit was responsible for all manner of public ills, and left unchecked, would doubtless lead to the fall of the civilized world. Over the next fifteen years, almost every country in the world would end up banning the production of absinthe, and save for a few small European countries, the secrets of its manufacture would vanish.

Was the temperance movement correct? After all, wormwood, one of the primary ingredients of absinthe, contains the chemical thujone, a cannabinoid related to the same ingredients that gives marijuana its kick.

The short answer is no. There is no proof that you can get any kind of chemical high from thujone, and even if you could, the amount of absinthe you would have to consume would kill you long before the thujone kicked in.

Of course, the temperance movement would end up taking down the French wine industry as well. When that movement ran its course, the wines came back, but not absinthe…until recently.

As the craft distilling began gaining a foothold worldwide, and discerning tipplers were looking for the next new thing, countries where absinthe had never been banned, notably England and the Czech Republic, began to crank out early absinthes that, charitably, could be called awful. Trying to play to absinthe’s dark history, these spirits were very heavy, far too heavy, on the forbidden wormwood. But while wormwood is a traditional component of absinthe, it is a supporting player, not the lead. As a result, these early absinthes might attract an interested first try…but not a second.

Also, absinthe is not something that can be consumed straight. An average absinthe is 90 proof – far too “hot” to be drunk unless diluted first, hence, the traditional absinthe fountain. Consumed straight, absinthe will burn your taste buds clean off. Cold water should be slowly dripped into a flute or glass containing absinthe until oil-based compounds come out of suspension, producing the milky cloud that the likes of Oscar Wilde or Honore de Balzac would lose themselves in for hours.

Sometimes, to add a touch of sweetness to absinthe, a slotted spoon, or louche, would be placed over the top of the glass with a sugar cube, to slowly be dissolved as the water dripped into the glass. Sometimes, the cube is lit aflame, which adds a touch of caramelization to the concoction.

So why is all this history important? Oregon Spirit Distillers has jumped into the fray with their take on absinthe, one that is reminiscent of another time, with a pleasant taste that lies lightly upon the tongue and mixes well with other spirits. It should be hitting stores soon, and I strongly suggest you give it a try.

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If you are looking for a good bar trivia night…

Good Life Brewing has started having a trivia night on Sundays, 8:00 p.m.  I’ve been to my fair share of bar trivia nights in my days, and I have to say, they do a pretty good job.  If you like bar trivia, and like good beer, I strongly urge you to come on down and give this a try on Sunday nights.  You’ll have to go through me and my team of trivia juggernauts (or, just me), but, hey, the beer is pretty good and crowd is, shall we say, extremely non-douchey.  Trivia Dave gives it two thumbs up!

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Review: Oregon Spirit Distiller’s C.W. Irwin Premium bourbon

When it comes to bourbons and whiskeys, I freely admit, I haven’t been a fan in the past. When it comes to the harder spirits, my tastes tend toward vodka and gin. I’ve found bourbons and whiskeys to be, in general, too hot and a little too harsh for me.

That all changed with Oregon Spirit Distillers new C.W. Irwin Premium bourbon. Heavens, this stuff is tasty. Smooth, smoky, with a bit of sweetness that a sweet tooth like me found to be intoxicating. (In the interest of disclosure, I should also admit that Brad Irwin, founder and main distiller at OSD, is an old friend of mine).

After trying this new elixir, I did a little digging into the origins of bourbon. Turns out there was a bunch of stuff I didn’t know. Such as, bourbons and whiskeys are not interchangeable, but they are similar. The short answer is that all bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons. The longer answer is…longer.

A whiskey (or whisky, for our friends across the pond) is a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily, if not exclusively, from cereal grains. What the predominant grain used in the mash determines what kind of whiskey it is. If it is at least 51% rye, then it’s a rye whiskey. If it’s 51% or more barley, it’s a malt whiskey.

In order to be classified as a bourbon, the mash must be at least 51% corn. That’s the starting point for Oregon Spirit Distillers’ C.W. Irwin Premium. In order to earn the label of a “straight” bourbon, the spirit will need to be aged for a minimum of two years in a new American oak barrel and contain no artificial colorings or flavoring agents – which is no problem for Oregon Spirit, as everything that goes into their products is as natural as the Oregon sunshine.

Purchasing a straight bourbon assures that you are getting a spirit that has been properly aged. If it is not specified as “straight,” then there’s no guarantee as to how long its been aged. Technically, you could put the distillate in a barrel for a week and call it “aged,” but the end product would be nowhere near as refined and complex as a straight bourbon.

The aging process accomplishes several things. Primarily, it adds flavor. During the warm summer months, the bourbon seeps into the wood as it expands, in the winter, as the barrel contracts, it is squeezed out. From the oak, it picks up tannins and vanilla-like compounds that add flavor and the familiar caramel coloring. The aging process also helps to smoothen the final product into a velvety spirit.

Much like champagne or Stilton cheese, bourbon is recognized as a regional product, and in order to be called bourbon, it must be produced in the United States. Contrary to popular opinion, at no time was the manufacture of bourbon restricted to Bourbon County, Kentucky; that just happens to be where the bulk of it has traditionally been produced.

Oregon Spirit, curiously, uses a smaller 33-gallon barrel to age in, instead of the industry standard 55-gallon barrel. A smaller barrel, I’ve been told, offers greater surface area for the bourbon to be in contact with the oak, and therefore, more flavor.

Once the final spirit is drained from the barrels, they can’t be used for bourbon again, but can be used to age whiskeys – but that’s another story. The barrels can also be used to age other liquids, such as Tobasco. And, odds are, if you have one of those half-barrel planters sitting in your yard, it was probably a bourbon barrel as some point during its lifetime.

I’m not a bourbon connoisseur, so I honestly can’t tell you how this might compare to other top-shelf spirits. But I can tell you that I make sure that I always have a bottle of this stuff handy in my liquor cabinet.


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