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...


erik_flannestad said...

Very cool interview, Chris!

Just one sticklerey point.

If Mr. Schwartz wants to take credit for an Absinthe, Lemon, sugar, and soda fizz, he should know that a nearly identical drink called the, "Seapea Fizz" was created by Frank Meier some time around 1933. The drink was created for Cole Porter, thus the name (C.P., Seapea. Get it?).

An even more amusing point is that, while the Sea Fizz has now been adopted as a drink to make with Absinthe, it was originally created to showcase the newly available wormwood-free Pernod.

Chris "Rookie" Stanley said...

Thanks Erik!

Yeah - I was checking out some of the Fizz recipes on CocktailDB & noticed the Seapea, just on Friday actually. If I had to guess, particularly with the name of the Absinthe drink, Mr. Schwartz is nodding to the Seapea on this one...

Indeed, on the amusing note - I think I can quote Trader Vic here in saying "bartending is a bunch of hokum, switch out one ingredient here or there and presto - new drink!"

Cheers & Thanks for the details!

erik_flannestad said...

By the way, I really prefer the "sea fizz" with an egg white. Even yummier. said...