When imagining a drink with an air of sophistication most people likely think of aged Scotch whisky, traditional French brandy, or fine rum from the West Indies. But there’s another drink – one with an unfairly sinister reputation, but an equally grand tradition – that belongs in this elite group: absinthe.
Aaron Johns and Jan Ott have set out to introduce connoisseurs and curious drinkers to the fascinating and flavorful world of high-quality absinthe with their tasting group Absinthe Prague.
“We’re trying to change minds on what absinthe is,” says Aaron an American in Prague who also runs the beer blog and tour Taste Local Beer. “We want to restore the image of absinthe to what it was before, a classy sipping drink with complex flavors and a really cool style.”
The two-hour tastings take place in the stylish cellar room at Groove Bar, where candles and soft music accentuate the mood. On the night of the tasting that I attended, a nervous energy could be felt among the group, no doubt attributed to the long-held misconceptions that absinthe causes insanity, visions of green fairies, and other psychotropic effects.
From medicinal tonic to artist’s muse
Aaron and Jan described the buzz as “Something between alcohol and marijuana” the latter of which is caused by the thujone found in wormwood, one of the key ingredients in absinthe. Each variation of absinthe we sampled contained between 55% and 75% alcohol, mercifully decanted into .1cl servings (less than half of a typical shot).
As Aaron served the shots, Jan shared the history of absinthe with us. Originally created as a medicinal drink in Switzerland, it became wildly popular throughout Europe and the US, and was eventually banned by French lawmakers attempting to revitalize the wine market following the great French wine blight of the mid-1800s. Famous imbibers of absinthe include Mark Twain, Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Edouard Manet, and of course Vincent Van Gogh, who may have cut off his ear while on an absinthe bender.
Six absinthes on offer
Absinthe Prgaue offers six variations of high-quality absinthe made from fine ingredients, none of them resembling the foul-tasting, flaming fluorescent green “absint” you are likely to encounter at Czech bars. (True absinthe has more of a light- brown-meets-turtle-green color referred to in the industry as “burnt leaf”. )
We first tasted a French absinthe called Roquette 1797 made from a recipe from the year 1797. The idea that one can enjoy a drink from a bygone era with a recipe that hasn’t changed in centuries is quite a thrill. In fact, the original recipe was so archaic that the instructions called for ingredients to be measured in “buckets” and “handfuls”, making it a bit of a challenge for modern distillers to replicate. But it’s now considered one of the better absinthes around, as evidenced by its 3,000 CZK retail price.
Jan asked us to savor the aroma of the absinthe. The sharp, nasal-clearing smell of anise seed was most apparent, giving it a scent of black licorice. In fact, each of the absinthes we sampled had what is referred to as the holy trinity of absinthe ingredients: wormwood, anise, and fennel seed. Strong, clean, distinct, herbal flavors.
During the tasting we were taught the ritual of the louche, where water is slowly dripped over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon that is held atop the glass of absinthe, watching as the absinthe changed colors from dark green to cloudy grey to create the perfect drink.
Learn about the louche
“The louche is what absinthe is all about,” says Aaron “It’s a classy process, you take your time and make your drink taste as sweet or as strong as you want. It’s complete freedom and a totally unique way to enjoy a drink.”
We also tried an additional French absinthe, Amer 72, heavy on anise seed and more enjoyable, and a Swiss absinthe, Kubler, with a unique clear color that Jan told us includes coriander, and even an Irish absinthe, Butterfly, with a unique backstory: The original recipe was produced by an Irish immigrant in Boston in the early 1900’s. It was widely distributed in the US and Europe until prohibition in 1920 and the subsequent ban on absinthe in America which lasted until 2007. This makes it the only American recipe to date that was made before and after prohibition. It is owned and produced by a Swiss company, which ensures that the unique taste still comes through.
Butterfly is Aaron’s absinthe of choice. “Like a great song, the more times you listen to it, the more you love it.” With a strong anise aroma and the bitterness of the wormwood coming through, it’s not a flavor that is easily forgotten.
Unique Czech absinthes included
Perhaps most interesting to a local audience are the Czech absinthes. Bairnsfather Bitter is a Czech-made variation from the company Sebor. This is a macerated absinthe, meaning that it is produced by dropping a bag of the ingredients into a vat of standard alcohol until the essence and flavor seeps out, similar to a tea bag being dropped into a cup of boiling water. The flavor of this absinthe was abrasive, bitter, and, frankly, too sharp.
Saint Antoine from the Žufánek distillery boasts an eye-opening 70% alcohol content but maintains a wonderful flavor that doesn’t lean too hard in the direction of being bitter or overly herbal. According to Jan, this neutrality makes it an excellent starter absinthe. It can also be found in many corner stores around Prague, unlike the others which can only be purchased on-line.
As we finished our final absinthe, I took stock of the people in the group. Everyone seemed clear headed and positive about the evening. No stumbling, no dancing on tables, no one rushing off to try to make an impressionist painting on the bathroom mirror. It was simply an evening of interesting historical tales, fine spirits, and two hosts that have a great passion for what they do. For those that are interested in finding and following their own green fairy, this is an experience that is definitely worth a taste.
Voršilská 6, 110 00, Praha 1
Tastings take place Mon-Wed 18:00-20:00, Thurs-Fri 17:00-19:00
Price: 1,000 CZK per person, which includes tasting of six absinthes and plenty of snacks.
Where do you chase the green fairy?