A green brew that clouds as cool water swirls through...a drink that has been said to rot the mind, be the cause of wife-killing, and birth small flying muses...the subject of innumerable French paintings...Absinthe is elusive, delicious, and time consuming, both in the time it takes to prepare and the time it invites to enjoy in its layers of complex herbal flavors.
This weekend, I had the opportunity to witness and partake in the distillation of absinthe with a neighbor who produces small quantities from her garden with the help of a beautiful portugese still.
It began with hyssop, lemon balm, and wormwood (above), the three predominant herbs in the concoction. The herbs had been macerating (below) for five weeks, stewing in an organic grape alcohol as the cooling fall weather descended.
After tasting a bit of the pre-stilled liquid, the herbs and liquid alike we stuffed into the basin of the copper still.
Fitted with a fanciful hat and attached to a coil of tubes twisted through tepid water, the still was set above a bright flame.
Star anise, coriander seed, and anise seed disappeared into the still, mingling with the wormwood, lemon balm, and hyssop as the flame rose around the edges of the swollen basin.
We watched as the first drops left the copper tube, slowly at first, then faster as they spilled into a clear jar with a steady rhythm.
Before long, several jars were filled with a pristine liquid that burned the nostrils at first scent, and then, with only a drop or two, swept through the mouth, spreading like a bitter green cloud, clinging to the back of the tongue and tingling the insides of our cheeks.
As the new absinthe trickled into the jar, we read about wormwood: how it soothes the nerves, stimulates digestion and appetite, and is said to aid with depression, arthritis, and restlessness. And then, we surveyed the second maceration from a previous batch.
After the absinthe is distilled, is it divided between different jars, each of which is individually infused with a different herb. Above was a small amount soaking in dried anise seed. Lemon verbena and rose geranium also made appearances, lending their floral, bitter flavors and vibrant green color to different stages of infusions, before the final blending.
We also tasted a finished batch from earlier in the summer. Clean and refreshing, with a green bitter quality that tastes almost medicinal, while still maintaining a deliciousness that can only come from something prepared with attention to layers of flavor and aroma and quality.
Cool from ice water, brightening, and uplifting, we drank without the oft-employed sugar cube dissolved through a slotted silver spoon. Instead, we delighted in the herbal bitters and toasted the green fairie.