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by Artemis

“Absinthe was an aromatic liquor, first commercialized by Henri Louis Pernod circa 1805, that was crafted from the alcoholic distillation of the herb Artemisia absinthium and other European culinary and medicinal herbs. It contained from 45 to 75 percent alcohol.” (T. A. Breaux, Absinthe Researcher and Chemist, 2000)

In the modern context, sadly enough, it seems to be anything with "absinthe"
printed on the label.

In France at the turn of the 20th Century, it was a different story.

Absinthe fell into three categories:

(1) ‘Swiss’ Absinthes

(2) Distilled Absinthes other than Swiss - these fell into the three sub-categories of ‘Ordinary’, ‘Semi-Fine’, and ‘Fine’.

(3) Assembled Absinthes made from essences - these were made by mixing essential oils and/or extracts with alcohol.

(1) ‘Swiss’ Absinthes (not necessarily made in Switzerland) were recognized as being the very finest. Making them required a special methodology that goes above and beyond what is done to make 2. When the method is followed correctly and without shortcuts, the difference is very obvious to the consumer. The scent, the texture, the mouth feel and the characteristics of the louche are incredibly enhanced.

(2) ‘Ordinary’ was made by collecting a small amount of high-proof distillate and cutting it with large amounts of alcohol and water. ‘Semi-fine’ was comprised of more distillate and was watered down less. ‘Fine’ was comprised of the highest amount of distillate and was the least watered down. This explains why ‘Ordinary’ absinthe normally contained around 45% alcohol, and ‘Fine’ absinthe around 65%.

(3) Involved no distillation at all. These products were the cheapest and the least highly regarded. The makers of (1) and (2) considered them trash, beneath contempt, and considered them responsible for the bad rap absinthe was getting.

Now, of today's commercial brands, which fall into Category 1?

NONE of which I'm aware. Not that I've tasted everything in the world, but if one of these existed, I would have heard about it from people who do try and taste everything AND who know the difference.

How many in Category 2?

From France there is Emile 68%, Sapin 68% & La Blanche 68% all by the Pernot Distillery, and Francois Guy 45% made by the grandson of Armand Guy. In Spain there is Segarra 45%, which is aged in old brandy barrels, and from Switzerland there is Kubler 45%, which is an attempt at making a commercial ‘La Bleue’. The alcohol levels speak for themselves if you consider the "Ordinary vs. Fine" discussion above.

As of the time of writing this in the Spring of 2003, ALL of the remaining commercial absinthes in the world, by process of elimination, fall into Category 3.Worthy of note is the fact that even with products made according to category (1) or (2) descriptions, there is no guarantee of anything with regard to product quality, palatability, character, etc., which are largely determined by the skill of the maker. However, the products that offer the best of these characteristics are always made according to the (1) or (2) descriptions.

Keep in mind that unlike in the highly unregulated 19th century, category (3) does not mean poison in the 21st century. In 19th Century France, the cheapest products were typically sold to consumers who could afford no better and possibly didn't know the difference. They were made almost exclusively around Paris, for the Parisian market. Many of them contained adulterants, ranging from compounds found naturally in low-grade alcohol, to dangerous dyes or metal salts used to turn the product green, or gums to make them louche. I'm pretty sure no category (3) absinthe of today stoops that low, possibly for no reason other than the laws don’t allow it. But neither is a single one of them worthy of the frequently outrageous prices they command, nor of allegiance by anyone who wants in absinthe, the sublime, almost magical aperitif that was the best absinthe in the glory days of absinthe.

My references for the historical information cited above are Marie-Claude Delahaye's Histoire de la Fee Verte and various period texts on absinthe manufacturing and marketing by Duplais, Bedel, Varenne, Roret, et. al.