Absinthe, part 1: Alive, well, and legal in Maine, a visit to Tree Spirits Distillery

Written by Michael Oudyn

While vacationing this summer in Maine I came across an add in the local paper. Just up the road in Oakland someone was making

The "decadent muse" is back.

The “decadent muse” is back.

absinthe, “the decadent goddess.” Yes, “the green fairy,” the drink of choice of Parisian fin-de-siècle bohemia was back, alive and kicking, and once again legal. The notorious “muse extraordinaire” could be got at Tree Spirit Winery and Distillery. So off we went to check it out.  The place which housed the tasting room and the distillery was very small, not much bigger than a garage. We sniffed the herbs used in absinthe which it turns out don’t smell like much of anything until soaked in alcohol.

Tree Spirit's traditional absinthe maker

Tree Spirit’s traditional absinthe maker

We admired the traditional absinthe maker. We tasted the green fairy with the traditional four parts water, which reduces the alcohol level to 16%, and some sugar, which cuts the bitterness of the wormwood. Well I really liked the stuff, and the whole mystique.  Then we were treated to a fine, informative  tour of the place with the owner, Bruce Olson, who gave us a  little of the history of absinthe, a bit of his own personal story, and a peek into the workings of America’s alcohol and tobacco bureaucracy.   Here are some excerpts from that interview.

Herbs used in making absinthe

Herbs used in making absinthe

“So, what got you interested in absinthe, of all things?”

“It’s funny. In college I did a paper on absinthe in a freshman composition class. We were reading some novel about London in the late 19th century…I’d never even heard about it before and never really thought about it again. Until a couple of years ago. I was looking around for something new to make here.”

“What’s your production of absinthe?”

“Per year? We don’t know. We haven’t got through a whole year yet. It will be somewhere around 50 cases… It took us over a year to get federal approval for (our absinthe). We had a lot of hoops to jump through. Liquor and spirits are a lot more difficult than wine, and absinthe, because of its reputation, has a whole other set of restrictions on it…They have to test it for Thujone, the component that’s hallucinogenic and comes out of wormwood. To be sold in the

Owner Bruce Olson in his distillery

Owner Bruce Olson in his distillery

United States any absinthe has to be considered ‘Thujone free,’ less than ten parts per million. It’s all sort of legend…The fact that it’s 130 proof is probably more hallucinogenic than a tiny bit of Thujone… In any case, the first sample we submitted, flunked.  Too much thujone…We had to reformulate it and we got that batch approved. …Then the label has to be approved. It can’t promote the idea, that it’s hallucinogenic or psychotropic, again because of the mystique around absinthe. But if you look at some of the labels you’ve got Van Gogh with only one ear…”

“And how about your label, the green fairy?”

“I don’t know where that comes from. Absinthe has always been referred to as “the green fairy”…I’m not sure if the absinthe itself was referred to as the green fairy, or when you add water, it turns green. And not all absinthe is green…traditional Swiss absinthe is actually clear. We make a traditional green absinthe.”

“And this is pretty much the way it was made way back when?”

“Yeah, this is an old recipe. We use apple brandy, but originally it was made with grape brandy, cognac. Then it was a drink for the higher classes because cognac was expensive. Then what happened is they started making it with cheaper spirits and the price came way down and it became a drink for the masses.   I believe now most of the French absinths are made from beet sugar.”

“We start out making apple wine. The next step is making apple brandy from the apple wine. Then we take this very high-proof spirit, and we soak the first set of herbs in it overnight. These are the primary herbs for absinthe: anis, fennel, and wormwood,  “the holy trinity.”  Then we re-distill it and infuse it with another set of herbs, the coloring component: for us it’s petite wormwood,  hyssop, and lemon balm. It’s like making gin, some people just use juniper berries, some people have a list of herbs this long.We want to make everything from local stuff. We use apples, because that’s what’s around here…We have been buying (our wormwood) from an organic herb farm in Oregon. We are hoping by next year to have a local supplier of organic wormwood.”

“You sell all of it here (at the tasting room)?”

“I’d rather sell most of it here, but we have very little control… The way it works in Maine is we distribute our own wine but we can’t distribute the spirits…and the price on spirits is all fixed (by the state).

For a taste of absinthe-inspired paintings, literature, and lore read Absinth part 2.

 

Tree Spirits, Winery and Distillery, Oakland, Maine


 

 

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2 Responses to “Absinthe, part 1: Alive, well, and legal in Maine, a visit to Tree Spirits Distillery”

  1. Krista Says:

    How interesting! I know there is a producer in Canada who makes absinthe and I believe they faced the same hurdles. I enjoyed learning a bit more about the history and process.

    • michael oudyn Says:

      Yes, I’ve heard about some of the alcohol laws in Canada. They seem just as crazy, maybe even crazier, than ours!

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