Sunday, April 12, 2009

Q&A: Obsello Absenta

Earlier this week I was fortunate to be able to ‘sit down’ for an interview via telephone with B. Alex, the distiller of Obsello, a delightful Spanish-style Absinthe verte (or Absenta). Mr. Alex took some time out of his busy day at the Esmeralda distillery (he was measuring Wormwood – an unenviable task to be sure - before taking the phone) to discuss twenty-hour workdays, artisanal distillation, ingredients & Absinthe…

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Q: How did you get involved with distillation and/or the spirits industry?
A: My family was involved for many years in the California winemaking industry, so I was exposed to alcohol and its production from an early age, without any of the negative stigmas often attributed to it. My interest in distillation came to a head around sixteen when, after a few AltaVista searches, I decided to try my hand at producing rum in my closet – I reasoned how hard could it be? Cane sugar and molasses from the supermarket, a packet of brewer’s yeast from the internet; in hindsight, not such a great plan…

Q: And Absinthe? How did you get involved with that spirit specifically?
A: My hobbyist level of interest was put on hold when I went off to college, but around age nineteen I had been doing a great deal of reading – lots of classical writing. The presence and influence of Absinthe in and on so many examples of art and literature provided a definite appeal to me at the time, so I continued to research it.

Eventually I was able to rather clandestinely order a bottle from the UK – a brand called Hill’s. It arrived and I set about trying some – did the whole drip preparation in my kitchen with a fork and everything – and it was just awful. Having some experience with wine, I reasoned there was just no way the French could have ever preferred something like this over say, a good Bordeaux – they’d have to be crazy! My knowledge of the distillation process had increased by then and I set about attempting to recreate a drinkable product – what I wanted Absinthe to be. A great deal of research, several hundred basic distillation attempts (with all manner of formulations) later and I had something like what I had been searching for…

Q: Why Spain, and thereby Spanish Absenta? Particularly the Catalan region where the Esmeralda distillery is located?
A: By this point I had gotten good reactions to the type of Absinthe I was making (sadly, still clandestinely) and was considering starting up a ‘mom & pop’ kind of business with my partner Joanne. We had considered several European locations, Tarragona was one choice, but we settled on the Pyrenees town of Lleida in Catalonia. We were very impressed by the ingredients here – particularly the quality of the local water and the high level of agriculture that takes place in the area. We had just gotten set up here when the US ban on Absinthe was lifted, so it was a something of a lucky, if crazy, time to be producing and exporting it.

Q: On that note, Obsello utilizes eight herbs in its production – are these sourced locally or from a variety of places? Do you find a difference in this choice of ingredients?
A: All of our ingredients are sourced from local (or regionally-nearby) sources – the only real exceptions are green Anise, which we get from Alicante; and Hyssop flowers, which comes from just across the border in southern France.

As for ingredients - absolutely. The climate and terrior of every region makes for huge differences in the end product - take Anise for example. The green Anise you get in the US, especially California, comes almost exclusively from Turkey and tends to be much less sweet. In Spain it comes from Alicante and has a much more intense, Clove-like sweetness. When we got out here [Spain] I tried out a batch of my original formula using ingredients we had picked up locally and it was terrible. It took almost seven months to rework the formula, but now we’re able to give Obsello a “just-in-the nick-of-time” approach – as they come in we can make Absinthe with entirely fresh ingredients, each expressing their own particular character.

Q: As I understand it, the neutral grape spirit you use as a base for Obsello comes from the Penedès region of Spain - an area that is very similar in climate and terroir to certain parts of the French Cognac region. Any relationship there?
A: It’s true – the Penedès region is pretty famous - the Spanish equivalent to Napa in California and is known for producing both Cava and a funky, near-Champagne style of sparkling wine made from Chardonnay grapes. The grape distillate we use as a base comes from a blend of three grapes - Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo; which are generally used in making Cava. Really, the whole area has a longstanding tradition of winemaking, but yes, the dry, thin style of white wine you tend to get from areas with that sort of climate is perfect for making a spirit like Absinthe or Cognac.

In almost all high-quality Absinthe, the base is from distillates of white wine - Chardonnay grapes are used alot in other brands. The main idea being that you don’t want a base with too much character or dominant flavors of its own – you get those from the herbs you’re macerating in the base.

Q: Speaking of herbs, Obsello has a definite herbal-citrus flavor in the profile and a less-dominant Anise flavor than most Absinthe. It’s also a good bit sweeter than other varieties I’ve tried. Is this a characteristic of the Absenta style, or a more personal formulation?
A: There are a number of factors there. First, my recipe for Obsello is very personal – it’s the type of Absinthe I wanted to make. A key characteristic of say, most French Absinthe is the emphasis on Anise - and though it is present in Obsello I did not want it to be overly dominant. With Obsello, in the Spanish style, we use Melissa [Lemon Balm] and Coriander to achieve the citrus element that you’re tasting. I wanted a product that had personality, with plenty of secondary flavors rather than an “Anise-bomb”, so many aspects of this style - and my interpretation on it - is ideal for me.

As for the sweetness, that’s mostly the green Anise we use – again, from Alicante. It is much sweeter, with a less heavy “black licorice” flavor than the varieties you’ll find coming from elsewhere – so this is definitely a characteristic of the Spanish style. However, there are numerous plant sugars present in our botanicals and the process of distillation breaks down many of them into the final product. To give you some idea, in a roughly four foot-high alembic still, we’ve got almost three and-a-half feet filled up with Wormwood, roots, herbs and flowers, so some of the sweetness also derives from the latter three.

Finally, almost any good Absinthe should have some amount of sweetness, or at least an absence of extreme bitterness. Even though Wormwood contains Absenthium – one of the most bitter substances known to man - in a carefully-controlled distillation, that compound should be left behind in the still. I think that excessive bitterness in Absinthe is not a desirable quality and shows signs of mistakes being made in the distillation of the product, but on the same turn, deliberate sweeteners should never be added to an Absinthe, so it all comes down to a carefully-controlled process.

Q: I’ve worked with Lemon Balm a bit in tinctures and bitters before and now that you mention it, am wondering – is this where the paler, almost yellow, color of Obsello comes from?
A: Exactly; much of the coloration there derives from the chlorophyll in Melissa, as opposed to that in Pontica [Petite Absinthe or Roman Wormwood] used to color proper French Absinthe, or worse, the artificial colorants used in inferior styles or brands.

Q: Without delving too deeply into the specifics or recipe, what ingredients or steps in producing Obsello make it so different? For instance, I’ve found that at a certain point in the taste-profile a curious Vanilla character emerges (and is faintly-present in the aroma of the spirit). What can you tell me about that?
A: Well, first, Grand Wormwood naturally contains trace amounts of Vanillin. Having said that, it bears mentioning that nearly everyone producing Absinthe these days uses a 19th century distillation reference –
The Manufacture & Distillation Alcoholic Liquors by P. Duplais – which contains a large number of very good recipes for Absinthe. However, there is an error that arises when following this guide – it doesn’t always take into account certain delicate variables in the overall process.

Now, this resource hasn’t always been widely-available, but largely due to all the trial and error work I had done in the past (before I had come into contact with the work myself), I started to observe how small changes to a variety of factors can greatly affect the end result. Again, it all comes down to a very careful process, maintaining control is the biggest factor in determining the end product – especially one as sensitive as an herbal spirit like Absinthe.

Q: It seems that Obsello is bottled at a fairly low proof as compared to other Absinthes I’ve seen or tried – why is this?
A: It has a lot to do with international beverage and duty-free (on our warehouse) laws – we export Obsello all over so this proof keeps us good everywhere. Also, different people enjoy Absinthe in many different ways – some of them like it straight or even in shots. I don’t really agree with the latter method but if that’s how they want it... A higher-proof Absinthe can be difficult to enjoy in this way, that is, without the addition of water, so we try to produce a product everyone can enjoy.

Q: On this note, I see that you recommend Obsello in a drip at a 3:1 Water:Absinthe ratio, but in my own tastings have found a 2:1 ratio much more enjoyable. I’ve also tried it with varying amounts of sugar – everything from none to about 1½ teaspoons (which was too much). How do you take your Absinthe?
A: This is very much up to the individual and what kinds of drinks they tend to like. I like Obsello at a 2:1 ratio and have found that about ¾ of a teaspoon of sugar is a good quantity for a drip preparation.

Q: Much as I enjoy Absinthe in a drip or frappe preparation, I like cocktails. Some of my colleagues have found it good for certain drinks, like Hemmingway’s
Death in the Afternoon. I liked it alot in a Corpse Reviver #2 myself. Are there any particular libations which you’ve found Obsello works particularly well in – especially those which might highlight its’ herbal-citrus component?
A: We’re currently putting together a book of recipes from quality mixologists and bartenders. Here are a few of the drinks we’ll be including:

Night Porter
By: Jeff Hollinger @ Absinthe Brasserie, SF
1 oz. Bianco Vermouth (Dolin Blanc)
¾ oz. Obsello Absenta
¾ oz. Ruby Port
½ oz. Mescal (a light style)
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with ice & stir. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass & garnish with a twist of fresh Lemon.

Sea Fizz
By: Joseph Schwartz @ Little Branch, NYC
1½ oz. Obsello Absenta
¾ oz. fresh Lemon juice
1½-¾ oz. Simple syrup
1 Barspoon: superfine Sugar
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass & dry-shake (without ice) well. Add ice & shake, strain into a highball glass. Top with chilled Soda & garnish with a wedge of fresh Lemon.

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My sincerest thanks to B. Alex, Joanne & Olivia Loy for allowing me to speak with them (particularly at such length) about their Absinthe. Mr. Alex demonstrated a true passion for his craft & product throughout the conversation – from his insistence on getting every minute detail of production down, demand for quality ingredients, right down to his job – he works with every small-batch distillation himself rather than outsource the formula to another operation! The commitment to making a quality product really shows in the end result & all I can say is,


This article has been cross-posted at the Mixoloseum - those responsible for this have undoubtedly been sacked. For even more on Absinthe, check out fellow CSOWG member Paul Clarke's in-depth discussion with Gwydion Stone & Brian Robinson later this week...

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Over the Border to Find a Fix...

...and through a bramble patch along the way.

First off, no, not that kind of fix, but rather a curious classic libation closely intertwined with the venerable Sour family of drinks. Second, with regards to the border - ¿qué pasa con eso? Well, it's springtime folks, and this transitional season always brings me around to the various styles of Tequila at one point or another. As for the bramble patch...ráipido wey, and we'll get to that too.

The Fix
or "Fix-Up" (I'm really not doing anything for the name here, am I?) appeared first on a cocktail list for Mart Ackermann's Saloon in Toronto, Canada. According to Dave Wondrich in Imbibe!, this was in 1856 (you didn't really think my bar "library" included a cocktail list from then, did you?) and there were eight of them on the hand-dated document.

Certainly an old drink then and, according to sources I do possess, quite the enduring one, considering its' formula (or a derivative thereof) was considered vital knowledge well past the turn of the century. The reasoning for this is simple - a Fix, as prepared with a number of spirits, was nothing more than a Sour dressed-up fancy with "fruits in season" - Berries, Pineapple, Orange and Lemon are often recommended. It appears thusly in the 1862 edition of Jerry Thomas's How to Mix Drinks and is seen in service under the same formula in Leo Engel's American and Other Drinks as late as 1878. Yet, sometime around the early 1880's the recipes begin to change - first individually, then as a unified category.

The Gin Fix is the first of these - first getting a dose of Pineapple syrup added to it in Harry Johnson's 1882 Bartender's Manual, where it is the only one recorded. But come 1884 we observe O.H. Byron has instituted a more categorical change in the drink - utilizing Pineapple syrup for all five of the Fixes listed in his Modern Bartender's Guide. By the time we reach 1887, and with it Jerry Thomas' posthumously-edited edition, we find several variations - each dependant on the spirit used in the four given Fixes. One called for Raspberry syrup, two included a little Curaçao and the Whiskey variety remained untouched. These alterations look to have been cemented by the turn of the century - we still see them in 1895 & 1900 (as well as later on) in editions of George Kappeler's Modern American Drinks. But why the sudden additions, changes & revisions to the recipe? Do we detect a touch of the same crazy variance that dogged the (equally old) formula for Roman Punch?

Not quite, I think. As previously-mentioned, the Fix is just a Sour built on crushed ice with a suitably-fancy garnish; quite tasty, but a little plain - particularly when the standard Sour category was also available for order. But tweak the formula by adding a flavored syrup, particularly ones flavored with the very ingredients often used to garnish the beverage, and you have a delightful drink. That the popularization of such syrups (which solved the problems of obtaining fairly-exotic fruits like Pineapple rather-handily) coincidentally (or not) occured around the same time as the changes to the recipe began appearing is an equally-strong argument for the changes made to the old formula. With the history of the Fix (& its' derivatives) established, what's up with this border..? Well, I happen to feel that one of the esencial liquores para la primavera is a bit of...

in this case a Plata variety called Inocente. Produced on the other side of the much-mentioned border from a kiln-roasted aguamiel, or the fermentable juices from 100% Blue Agave. This ferment, or pulque, is distilled three times before being subjected to a wine-making method called micro-oxygenation, which is meant to soften the final products' character in a similar way to the chemical processes which take place during barrel-aging.

The producers may have a good idea there (at least for a spirit which is meant to be unaged, as opposed to a Reposado or Añejo), for while Inocente - like many Plata Tequilas, is a thin white spirit with some heat to it (meant more for mixing than drinking straight), the aggressive character of the distilled agave is subdued to a very pleasant spice & pepper flavor, with soft floral or vegetal notes lingering in the background.

Now, while the Fix-Up was typically compounded with any of the available spirits of the day, one would be hard-pressed to order one made with a little-known (at the time) spirit like Tequila. However, the combination of Pineapple and Tequila is an excellent one & was among the first of such flavor pairings to spring to mind when I first tasted Inocente. Reasoning that the peppery notes of the spirit would balance very nicely against the rich sweeteness of la piña, I gave it a try in conjunction with Gomme (or Gum) syrup, which added a very pleasant texture to the drink:

Tequila Fix
2 oz. Tequila (Inocente)
¾ oz. fresh Lime juice
½ oz. Pineapple Gomme syrup
1 Tsp. Raw sugar
½ oz. Seltzer
Combine Sugar & Seltzer in an Old-Fashioned glass and stir to dissolve. Fill the glass with crushed ice & build remaining ingredients. Stir gently to mix, top with a little more crushed ice & garnish with fresh fruit in-season (whole Berries & slices of Lime or Pineapple are muy deseable).

Pineapple Gomme syrup
1 Cup: white Sugar
½ Cup: Water
Gomme Solution
1 Cup: fresh Pineapple, cubed
Prepare the Gomme solution by dissolving 2 oz. Gum Arabic crystals in 2 oz. of boiling Water - be prepared to stir for a long while. In a small saucepan prepare Simple syrup by dissolving the Sugar in the Water over medium heat. Once the mixture reaches a gentle boil, add the viscous Gomme Solution, stirring well to incorporate it. Allow to boil for a few minutes, skimming off any foam or scum that rises to the surface & remove from heat. When cool, pour over Pineapple in an airtight container & allow to steep in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Strain by preferred method & bottle.

But what has become of the Fix in modern times? We still have the Sour of course (though that too has been subjected to all manner of undesirable change), so what of its' well-dressed cousin? The Fix, sadly, never really made it through the years leading up to Prohibition - it appears here and there, particularly in books printed overseas - but try ordering any of the varieties now. However, it would seem that the notion of a flavored Sour (i.e. what the Fix became) lives on in the form of:

The Bramble
is a more modern reworking of certain incarnations of the (long defunct) Gin Fix - the 1887+ ones what call for a touch of Raspberry syrup. It was adapted in the mid-1980's by UK barman Dick Bradsell, who, in such dimly-lit (for the cocktail) times undoubtedly had no easy access to a Raspberry syrup behind his bar. His solution? A float of Crème de Mûre (hence the "bramble" - a nickname for Rasp/Blackberry bushes) atop a lightly-sweetened Gin Sour. In the years following its' creation, in true Fix tradition, other bartenders swapped out the Gin and/or liqueur & substituted in all kinds of other spirits. While the Gin version is quite lovely, especially in the coming months, today we're on Tequila; so it's to the following drink that we call our attention:

Tequila Bramble
1½ oz. Tequila (Inocente)
¾ oz. fresh Lime juice
½ oz. Simple syrup
¾ oz. Crème de Cassis
Build the first three ingredients in an Old-Fashioned glass mostly-filled with crushed ice. Stir, top with fresh crushed ice & float the Crème de Cassis on the top. Garnish with a slice of Lime & several fresh Blackberries.

The combination of Cassis and Tequila is yet another strong (& historically-sound) pairing - the heavy, complex sweetness of the liqueur plays nicely in this instance against the thin, spicy heat of the Tequila and the Lime's bitter/sourness rounds the whole thing out. However, as with many other examples of Tequila, Inocente has a subtle floral or vegetal character, which in this instance the liqueur seems to drown out completely. To better highlight those notes while keeping the balance of the drink intact, I turned to another beverage that's common across the border (& in my refrigerator) - the aguas fresca called Jamaica (©):

Flowering Bramble
1½ oz. Tequila (Inocente)
¼ oz. fresh Lime juice
½ oz. Simple syrup
½ oz. Jamaica
¼ oz. Crème de Cassis
Build the first three ingredients in an Old-Fashioned glass mostly-filled with crushed ice and stir briefly. In a seperate measuring glass, combine the Jamaica & Crème de Cassis. Top the built drink with fresh crushed ice & float the Jamaica-Cassis mixture on top. Garnish with a slice of Lime & several fresh Blackberries.

Cheers & Enjoy!

*In the interest of full disclosure, samples of Inocente were generously provided for use. Great quantities of said sample have been consumed since...