A well-respected industry figure came into Manchester a few weeks back with her London-based Sip or Mix. Jenny Gardener set up her company back in June 2011 armed with experience from her past titles within Vanquish Wine, Green Island, Amathus and Oddbins as well as a passion for brands that are small batched, hand crafted, authentic and artisanal. With this, she has acquired a versatile range that includes a gin, rum, liqueurs and her main category of absinthe. My main reason for wanting to pop along to The Liquorists HQ at #22Redbank was to not only meet Jenny for the first time, but to also see her guest for the session, Ted Breaux.
Mr Breaux is a professional scientist who has dedicated almost two decades of research toward resolving the mysteries and myths associated with absinthe. Searching around the world for obscure, overlooked, and forgotten information regarding absinthe has given Ted the passion to not only create his own absinthe company named Jade Liqueurs, but to also contribute towards the awareness in both his home country of America (he effectively lifted the ban on Absinthe) and around the world, that absinthe is in fact not as bad as people use to make out. Fairly easy to say, yes, but as the tasting notes below will show you, the session looked at absinthe and the reasons why Ted Breaux is dedicating his time towards it. So it’s only fair to take a look –
Ted gave a great insight into how he came about his passion, as well as what most consumers and indeed bartenders see absinthe to be.
His passion is and has always been focused primarily on the science of absinthe. Beginning in a research laboratory back in 1993, a colleague made a casual comment about absinthe that triggered questions that could not be answered. Looking within The Merck Index (a chemistry reference), it states that drinking absinthe causes tremors, convulsions, and death. With this, Ted started researching and studying the mysteries of absinthe but struggled to acquire the liquid that supposedly caused these side effects. Ted decided to recreate the spirit itself back in 1994, but truly understood once he obtained his first two bottles of vintage absinthe in 1996-1997.
But how did absinthe get to become such a rarity to re-produce?
The first clear evidence of absinthe in the modern sense of a distilled spirit containing green anise and fennel dates to the 18th century. According to popular legend, absinthe began as an all-purpose patent remedy created by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland, around 1792 (the exact date varies by account). Ordinaire’s recipe was passed on to the Henriod sisters of Couvet, who sold absinthe as a medicinal elixir. By other accounts, the Henriod sisters may have been making the elixir before Ordinaire’s arrival. In either case, a certain Major Dubied acquired the formula from the sisters and in 1797, and with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, opened the first absinthe distillery, Dubied Père et Fils, in Couvet. In 1805, they built a second distillery in Pontarlier, France, under the new company name Maison Pernod Fils. Pernod Fils remained one of the most popular brands of absinthe up until the drink was banned in France in 1914.
Absinthe’s popularity grew steadily through the 1840’s, when absinthe was given to French troops as a malaria preventive. When the troops returned home, they brought their taste for absinthe home with them. The custom of drinking absinthe gradually became so popular in bars, bistros, cafés, and cabarets that, by the 1860’s, the hour of 5 p.m. was called l’heure verte (‘the green hour’). Absinthe was favoured by all social classes, from the wealthy to poor and ordinary working-class people. By the 1880’s, mass production had caused the price of absinthe to drop sharply. By 1910, the French were drinking 36 million litres of absinthe per year, as compared to their annual consumption of almost 5 billion litres of wine.
Absinthe was exported widely from its native France and Switzerland, and attained some degree of popularity in other countries, including Spain, Great Britain, USA, and the Czech Republic. Absinthe was never banned in Spain or Portugal, and its production and consumption have never ceased. It gained a temporary spike in popularity there during the early 20th century, corresponding with the French influenced Art Nouveau and Modernism aesthetic movements.
New Orleans (Ted’s home town) has a profound cultural association with absinthe, and is credited as the birthplace of the Sazerac, perhaps the earliest absinthe cocktail. The Old Absinthe House bar, located on Bourbon Street, serves as a prominent historical landmark. Originally named The Absinthe Room, it was opened in 1874 by a Catalan bartender named Cayetano Ferrer. The building was frequented by many famous people, including Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Franklin Roosevelt, Aleister Crowley and Frank Sinatra.
Spurred by the temperance movement and the winemakers’ associations, absinthe was publicly associated with violent crimes and social disorder.
Edgar Degas’ 1876 painting L’Absinthe, which can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay, epitomized the popular view of absinthe addicts as sodden and benumbed.
The Lanfray murders would prove to be the tipping point in the hotly debated topic, and a subsequent petition to ban absinthe in Switzerland collected more than 82,000 signatures. A referendum was subsequently held on banning the drink on 5 July 1908. After it was approved by voters, the prohibition of absinthe was then written into the Swiss constitution.
In 1906, both Belgium and Brazil banned the sale and distribution of absinthe with The Netherlands banning it in 1909, the United States in 1912, and France in 1914.
The prohibition of absinthe in France would eventually lead to the popularity of pastis, and to a lesser extent, ouzo, and other anise-flavoured spirits that do not contain wormwood. Following the conclusion of the First World War, production of the Pernod Fils brand was resumed at the Banus distillery in Catalonia, Spain (where absinthe was still legal), but gradually declining sales saw the cease of production in the 1960’s. Many countries never banned absinthe, notably Britain, where it had never been as popular as in continental Europe.
Jenny Gardener has brought over Ted’s brand to the UK as well as La Maison Fontaine and both were available to taste. So how do they fare? Well below, I give to you my tasting notes –
La Maison Fontaine Verte – 55%
Rich on the nose with a deep, slightly bitter aroma. More subtle on the palate with the bitter, but it does create a mouth-watering experience with longevity and freshness.
La Maison Fontaine – 56%
Rich floral notes with light herbal and citrus lingering a little on the nose. Rather sharp on the palate with the blend of herbs and lemon creating a warmth on the finish.
La Maison Fontaine Chocolat – 25%
A chocolate liqueur. Light chocolate on the nose with a heavy dose of aniseed. A bold chocolate flavour on the palate with a very sweet, long and slightly floral finish.
*NB I’ve been informed by Jennie Gardener that the Chocolat has no anise whatsoever, however we can only assume it’s due to the aftertaste of the previous two La Maison samples.
Jade Nouvelle-Orleans Verte – 68%
Light herbal notes on the nose that develop softly. A sharp beginning on the palate but the herbal flavours come through to create a long yet light finish.
Jade 1901 – 68%
Sharp on the nose with floral aromas and herb scents dominating. Again rather sharp on the palate with thick dose of wormwood creating a long, lingering crisp finish.
Jade VS 1898 = 65%
A slight sweetness on the nose and a bold hit of wormwood and fennel follows. Very sharp on the palate with a good hit of the floral flavours of anise and wormwood. Long finish.
Jade Espirit Edouard Verte – 72%
Very aromatic with hints of iodine mixing with fresh mint on the nose. A slight bitterness on the palate, but a potent blend of the wormwood and flavours of spicy aniseed create a long lingering finish.
Jade Perique Tobacco – 31%
A liqueur flavoured with Louisiana Perique tobacco – one of the rarest tobaccos in the world. Very dry on the nose with a soft scent of spice. A good kick of bitterness to begin on the palate with vegetal, raisin and sultanas present. Develops into red fruit flavours and finishes with a dry spice linger.
And how about the rest of the Sip or Mix portfolio?
Combier Elxir – 38%
A recreation of a long-since discontinued liqueur found in Combier’s 177 year old archives. The main ingredients are aloe, nutmeg, myrrh, cardamom, cinnamon and saffron combined to recreate this unique liqueur, with the herbs and spices sourced from France’s Loire Valley, Africa, India, and southeast Asia.
Light on the nose with aromas of saffron dominating with a slight sweetness. Rather herbal on the palate with a sweetness that develops with spice despite a punchy start. A short aromatic herbal finish.
Combier Kummel – 38%
Kummel takes its name from German and Dutch derivations for cumin and caraway seed, which, alongside fennel, are used to flavour.
Hot on the nose with spice and curry powder aromas coming through before a dry musty scent. A developing dry spice on the palate that is short with hints of sweetness.
Combier L’Original Triple Sec – 40%
In 1834 Jean-Baptiste Combier and his wife created what is thought to be the first liqueur of this style. The spirit today is still distilled using 100-year copper-pot stills and is made using sun-dried orange skins.
Very light on the nose with slight aromas of orange peel. A slight sweetness on the palate with a subtle kick of orange flavour at the beginning. A warming finish of orange zest and peels creating a lasting effect.
Royal Combier – 38%
A mix of Triple Sec and Elixir de Combier. A floral nose with a slight hint of orange coming through. Sweet yet soft on the palate with a short yet warm offering that has a slight bitter finish.
SW4 – 40%
A London Dry gin. Light with subtle aromas on the nose of lemon peel and cassia, moving to a soft and subtle lingering effect on the palate that creates a slight warmth.
St Nicholas Abbey 10yr – 40%
A rum created at the North of Barbados at St Nicholas Abbey, owned by Larry Warren. This is made by blending pot and column still rums which were acquired by Larry when he purchased the distillery in 2006.
Light on the nose with slight vanilla and oak aromas blending well. A slight kick on the palate to begin with, but lightens out to a lingering finish.
St Nicholas Abbey White – 40%
Deep, powerful notes of marzipan on the nose, with a vanilla and fruit spice flavour present on the palate that creates a lingering dry finish.
Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Bitters – 45%
Very bold and aromatic on the nose with berry and spice dominating. Becomes softer once on to the palate, with a subtle, lingering flavour of herbs.
Jenny has put together a great portfolio of spirits, and is lucky to have a gentleman like Ted Breaux working alongside her to develop the awareness of absinthe here in the UK. Personal highlights in the absinthe department would have to be La Maison Fontaine Verte and Jade 1901, with the SW4 gin worthy of a full review of its own soon, and the surprise that ST Nicholas Abbey white is one of the best white rums I’ve tried for a while.
One of the cocktails enjoyed during the session is a classic from Created in 1874 by Cayetano Ferrer at Aleix’s Coffee House (or Old Absinthe House), New Orleans, which consequently became known as The Absinthe Room.
35 ml Absinthe
12.5 ml Anisette liqueur
35 ml Chilled mineral water
Sugar to taste depending on sweetness of your chosen absinthe
Shake all ingredients with ice and fine strain into glass filled with crushed ice. Stir and serve.
All of the above are well worth a purchase for your drinks cabinet and to really understand absinthe and its versatility. It’s not as bad as it’s made out to be, honest. The SW4 goes fantastic either near or with tonic, and the St Nicholas Abbey rum is not only a great sipping rum, but one to enjoy whilst checking out the bottle it’s housed in. An eye-opener that stands out!
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