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Making Absinthe (my own experience)

-- By  Mark in  So.Calif. USA on Fri, 3 Sep 2010 at 03:40.

MAKING ABSINTHE (my experience)
Being a person with an entrepeneur spirit, I thought I could document my experience in a short book or pamphlet form to sell and make a small profit...after viewing what is out there on the net, I decided to just offer what I've learned for free. Before going too far into it, let me say you have to have a supply of fresh wormwood (Artemesia Absinthium)...either from a relatively close (geographically) grower, or grown by yourself. I live in So.Calif. (near Pasadena); my grower is in Sonoma County (north of San Francisco). I would have my wormwood shipped '2nd Day' with UPS. It always arrived fresh, even in the middle of summer; even if I arrived home from work and the parcel had been sitting on my porch since morning.
I purchased a 32L still on the internet (I believe its common name is a 'pot still'). I purchased a commercial grade hotplate. Several 5 gallon empty buckets from Home Depot. I located a book from England (reprinted from the early 1900's) which contained several recipies for Absinthe. Most were for producing 100L, so I just reduced the quantities needed down to produce 10L or 20L. In time I came up with a formula which I stuck with. I initially made my own 'nuetral spirit'...then found it was a LOT easier to just use Everclear, even though it might have been a little more spendy (but considering the energy used to power the hotplate & the cost of the yeast and sugar to produce a nuetral spirit...not that spendy).
Ingredients needed to produce 6 to 7 liters of very high grade Absinthe: One case 1L bottles of Everclear (approx. $230 - ask around @ the larger liquor stores for case discounts). Two lbs. fresh wormwood (source to be determined by you). One lb. dried Star Anise (avaialble from Herbal websites on the net). One lb. fresh fennel leaf (the source who supplies the wormwood would most likely have this herb as well)...if not, an Herbal website should have dried fennel seed...this is just as good. Hyssop (fresh/dried) is optional...will be mentioned later.
FYI -Throughout this piece I mention an end production of 6/7L...this is after the elixir is diluted down to a drinkable level...the actual volume created after doing a 'batch' is around 4 liters...but with the addition of water as a means of dilution, the end result is 6/7L.
When the wormwood would arrive, I (ASAP) would cut it up into smaller pieces utilizing a paper cutter (guillotine type). If using fresh fennel leaf, I would do the same to that as well. (This initial process makes it easier to clean your still when the process is completed). With each herb I would then pound small clumps on a cutting board with a meat tenderizer (pointy side of tenderizer). My thinking was that this would 'open up' the cells of the plant matter and help in releasing the plants essence. The crunched up wormwood and fennel go into a 5 gallon H.Depot bucket already containing 6L of Everclear. Then you take the dried Star Anise, empty the bag into an old pillowcase and pound the heck out of it, also on the cutting board. (By now the smells and aromas of what you are doing are there...wherever you are doing this; kitchen, garage, etc. - pungent, but not disagreeable). The crunched up Star Anise goes into the bucket. If you are using dried fennel seed (instead of the fresh fennel leaf), just pour the contents of the one lb. bag directly into the bucket (no pounding necessary). Pour in the other 6L of Everclear. Mix up everything real good. Cover with lid (tightly).
Now the next part is up to your discretion. The soaking/waiting phase. The recipies call for soaking a minimum of at least two days. My minimum was a week. The longest I did was 48 days. My average soak time was 3 to 4 weeks. I'm of the belief that the longer time it is soaked...the better the end product. If you do soak for a couple of weeks...every few days remove the lid and stir the whole concoction. The wormwood seems to settle to the bottom, so try to 'bring it up to the top' while stirring. Make sure the lid is replaced tightly.
After soaking, get a large funnel and slowly pour the solution into your still. Towards the end of pouring, you are going to end up with a lot of wet plant/seed matter which ALSO needs to go into the still. I would lean the bucket over on its side, close to the edge of the funnel and use a small garden cultivator to 'drag' small clumps of the matter into the funnel. I then used a wood dowel (smaller in diameter than the small end of the funnel)...and slowly pushed the clumps down the funnel into the still.
The recipie then calls for adding half of the amount of what's now in the still (in this case 12L Everclear) of water...so I would add 6L to 8L water. I would use a longer/larger dowel as a mixing device (about 4-5 feet in length; as longs as it protruds out of the still a couple feet so you can get a grip on it). Mix it up for a minute. Place the still on the hotplate. Add the 'tower' to the top of the still. Insert the large rubber stopper on top of the tower. Insert the thermometer into the stopper. Turn on the hotplate to 'high'. Make sure the rubber condensation/exit tube is inserted into a four gallon receiving container. (The large glass wine jugs work ok). After about 2 1/2 to 3 hours the thermometer should reach 78 degree C (Centigrade)...this is when you'll start to see the distillate drip into the receiving container. How long does it take to complete? About 8 to 12 hours......really. So allow a whole day to do this. Also, have an extra 4 gallon (or equivalent) bottle handy in case the first one should fill entirely.
If, during a 'batch', you should have to leave the premises...unplug the still, remove the rubber stopper on top of the tower (along w/thermometer). There is a condition called 'implosion' where, if the apparatus has a chance to start cooling and no 'venting' is provided...a vacuum can be created and may wreck your still.
On some occasions, if I felt there was still some 'essence' left in the still...I would wait for the next day, add a few more liters of water, then do the same thing again. Sometimes it would yield more 'blanc' Absinthe...but other times only an opaque liquid would emerge...this was the sign that it's done. Another clue is the fact that the thermometer would rise above 78C. You never really want to let it go above 80C. When you're sure everything is done and cooled off, disconnect the tower, take the still to your toilet and throw the leftover stuff down the loo. I sometimes just dig a hole in the yard...dump there and cover with dirt.
If your still was a 'kit'; including thermometer, tubing, alcoholmeter, tall chemistry beaker, etc. ...take the beaker and fill (a few inches from the top) with what you've just made. Place the Alcoholmeter inside the beaker. The reading can vary from 65% up to 75%. Now is time to dilute.
A lot of commercial Absinthes are around 68% to 70% (you double that number to get the 'proof'). I noticed with my Absinthe, the thujone level was so high, I usually diluted mine down to 48% to 50%. I enjoyed the effects of the thujone more than the actual alcohol (which, I've noticed, is common with most people).
Colouring the Absinthe. In my experience, when the elixir emerges from the still, it is a light green/gold in colour. This is where the hyssop comes in. If you want it a few shades darker green...carefully pour about 1/2 cup of the elixir into a saucepan...add maybe the same amount of hyssop (1/3 to 1/2 cup)...place on stovetop burner...set heat to low. Don't walk away or get sidetracked...stay there. Sooner than you think you'll see small bubbles rising (it's already starting to boil; remember, alcohol boils at a lower temperature that water). Let this 'light' boiling continue for 15 seconds while stirring...remove from heat. Let cool. Strain this mixture through a filter (coffee filter/paper towel) held in place by another (smaller) funnel. Place the funnel over a container to catch the liquid. The colour of this should be a darker green than the 'blanc' you've produced. Add this (all, or to the degree you'd like the colour to be) to the 6/7L you've made. Any colour left over? Any questions what to do with it?
When all was said and done and diluted/coloured...I would usually end up with 6 to 7L of very high quality Absinthe. If you ever sampled 'King of Spirits Gold'...what you're able to produce is 5 to 10 times stronger (in my opinion). Not counting the initial set up costs (still, etc.), the cost I would incur to make one batch was close to $300. $300 divided by 6L...comes to $50L. 'King of Spirits Gold' ranges anywhere from $180 to $250 a bottle (750ml I believe). If what you're making is 5 to 10 times stronger...what price could you wager per liter of what you've made? (Of course, this is a hypothetical...because selling it is REALLY against the law...making it for personal use is also against the law [unless you have a permit]......so be careful!
But what you've made comes closer to anything out there...closer to what Van Gogh drank a hundred years ago...I've heard it said that Hemmingway could be seen sometimes at outside cafe's in Paris, dipping his finger into his Absinthe and then rubbing his gums.......... :-)

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