According to Stoutridge Distillery and Winery co-owner Steve Osborn, almost everything you know about the spirit absinthe might be untrue.
Firstly, it has no psychoactive effects. Secondly, its complexity rivals that of natural wines.
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Since opening the Marlboro distillery in 2017, Osborn has consistently experimented and innovated with liqueurs and uncommon libations. For instance, the American Distilling Institute (ADI) awarded two Stoutridge absinthes silver medals in 2021. Trial and error fueled his journey to craft a true Hudson Valley absinthe.
Above all, a fascination with traditional European techniques (and a refined palate) sparked curiosity for the Stoutridge team.
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“My wife and I, we’re the owners and the people that built [Stoutridge]. When we built this back in 2004, our dream was to start a winery making natural wines,” Osborn explains. Their mantra was “completely untouched,” with a focus on no pumps and no filters. The problem with making wine this way is it takes much longer to make. Plus, the wines are not shippable without special considerations that are typically in place in wine distribution.”
The Osborns followed their vision for the winery. They found evidence of vineyards onsite as early as the 1700s, and sought to restore the property’s former life. In order to start making natural wines, they had to plan a backup. Way before they produced award-winning rye whiskeys and gins, they had the idea to found Stoutridge as a winery and a distillery.
From the start, they knew that vintners can make brandy from wine. Then, if the market for all-natural, small-batch, aged vinos proved unreceptive, they would still have a revenue stream. Plus, it’s quite easy to make vodka from brandy. Then, once a distiller has vodka, he or she can add botanicals to make gins, liqueurs, and other spirits.
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When the duo officially opened the distillery (and launched their spirits line) in 2017, it was a very different distillery than they had planned. The Osborns didn’t need it to save the winery. Their interests and passions guide production.
“We wanted to do in distilling the sort of thing that [we do with] wine…the unusual thing, the unexpected thing, the hard-to-explain thing. My wife and I are both scientists, [so] we’re in it for the ideas,” Osborn says.
For generations, Europeans used absinthe and similar spirits as food or medicine. They were something more than flavor for flavor’s sake.
“Those European drinks, that may be hundreds of years old, have a depth of ideas that we don’t have here in the states because they’re things that were invented really in a different commercial reality, shall we say,” Osborn explains.
During the mid-1800s in Paris, there was a concerted effort to turn food into art. The city experienced enough wealth and prosperity to elevate food above mere sustenance. This period of hope and peace grew into La Belle Époque, an era in France during which the arts flourished.
It was during that time that the French liqueur-makers that were now two or three generations deep started reaching for greater heights.
As the novelty of new flavor combinations wore off, chefs and beverage-makers journeyed outside the city center. They traversed the country, eventually expanding into a small valley in Northern Switzerland. These early distillers discovered an intoxicating spirit made from fennel and wormwood. So, they took it back to Paris on their mission to create art.
Of course, wormwood and fennel have histories in tonics, tinctures, and herbal medicines dating back to the Egypt and Southeast Asia.
“I had been learning more about Ayurvedic herbs. Now you’re talking about 2500 BC where the medical school and Alexander under the Ptolemies…they were doing this with fennel 3,000 years ago in India. Wormwood was growing on the side of the road in Nepal…transmitted through trade from Egypt through the Horn of Africa across to India,” Osborn says.
So, the herbs of the Romans were the same herbs of the Egyptians and the Ayurvedic in India. Above all, absinthe began as a rural food. It was simply a combination of herbs with delightful flavors. Then, it evolved into beautiful art.
And, it really caught on in Europe. At the height of Belle Epoque, absinthe bars overtook wine bars. Consequently, vintners and wine bar owners worked tirelessly to smear absinthe. Thus, the misinformation that wormwood features psychologically active characteristics spread. Finally, in the early 1900s, European lawmakers outlawed absinthe on the hallucinogenic grounds.
“Fennel and wormwood both have a long history of calming your stomach. So now that brings a whole new light on this idea of what absinthe is. It’s a combination of herbs dissolved in alcohol to extract the active ingredient that gives that calming effect,” Osborn explains.
He continues, “In the mid-1700s, they were still harkening back to tinctures. They began distilling alcohol enough to where it wouldn’t hurt you. The effective agents in botanicals are very alcohol soluble, and they’re not as soluble in water. So that’s sort of an explanation of why this thing even existed at all in late-1800s Switzerland is basically, they were progressing to making their own medicines.”
When making absinthe, the presence of herbs and botanicals causes a high amount of oils. Oils are what are alcohol soluble. Further, absinthe has a high proof. The early pioneers of absinthe discovered if they want to water it down (making it more of a food than a medicine), that it turns cloudy. As you add water, little droplets of oil come out because it’s no longer soluble in a high water content.
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Famously, absinthe turns cloudy in a colorful way. As Osborn explains, this is for the same reason that an oil slick will give you colors on top of water. Oil refracts light into the prism, creating a rainbow effect. This, of course, feeds into the myth of the “green fairy” associated with absinthe.
“It’s a service idea, right? If you can add water to this absinthe, and it turns this opalescent cloudiness, well, then you’re talking something that’s reminiscent of the finest of fabrics. And, so, that’s where this idea of the green fairy comes up,” Osborn continues. “What would a fairy wear? The best cloth around. It’s a beautiful thing, and we’re visual creatures, right?”
To create this effect, it’s common to use ice-cold water. Oil is least soluble in low-temperature water, and tiny droplets emerge from the solution in a prismatic effect. In addition, water lowers the alcohol content down to a drinkable level.
Osborn outlines the easiest—and most traditional—way to do this.
First, source a little disc of ceramic. It has to be slightly wider than the rim of a drinking glass. In addition, it needs to have a small hole at the center. Put the disc above a glass filled with absinthe. Then, put an ice cube on top of the ceramic disk. As it melts, ice-cold water drips into the absinthe. Of course, there are also elaborate fountains with spigots that achieve the same effect.
If you’re seeking a little sweetness, put a sugar cube in between the water spout and the absinthe. Often, bartenders and absinthe aficionados will use a little spoon riddled with tiny holes.
Osborn mentions that in Croatia, mixologists will often set these drinks on fire. Absinthe experts tend to frown upon this practice, as burning off the alcohol changes the nature of the drink. In addition, Ernest Hemingway popularized the Death in the Afternoon cocktail. Supposedly, he contributed this drink to a 1935 cocktail recipe book featuring other celebrity authors. Death in the Afternoon features absinthe and iced Champagne.
On the other hand, sazeracs are popular in New Orleans. Cognac or rye whiskey, absinthe, and bitters round out this drink. In fact, after Stoutridge’s Absinthe Advaita won best spirit at the Hudson Valley Wine & Spirits Competition, the judges celebrated with sazeracs. These iterations featured Stoutridge’s Empire Rye Whiskey, which scored gold.
Certainly, Osborn didn’t land on the award-winning recipe overnight. It took a lot of trail and error, and tons of research.
At first, he thought fennel would pose issues. After tasting super high-quality fennel for the first time, he knew the caliber of ingredients would show through in the final product. Similar to his and his wife’s philosophy of winemaking, this was an excellent test of naturalism.
“Absinthe has maybe a dozen herbs that are typically used. So, I was fiddling around with all those other herbs, and having great success with them. I couldn’t find good wormwood, and it seemed like a dead end,” Osborn recalls.
Thus, Stoutridge’s absinthe liqueur was born. Typically, absinthe makers do not add sugar to the spirit until serving. By labeling Nocturne absinthe liqueur, aficionados could not take offense to the lack of wormwood and presence of sugar.
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“I want to show people these flavors I discovered because even without the wormwood, it was quite an amazing flavor array.”
Certainly, Nocturne is a great introduction for first-timers. Osborn named Stoutridge’s first three iterations of absinthe after types of compositions by Chopin: Nocturne, Prelude, and Scherzo.
Eventually, his liqueur did attract the attention of an expert. Peter Ahlf of Mt. Defiance Cidery and Distillery in Virginia came to the Marlboro tasting room. He could tell right away that Stoutridge was missing a key ingredient for traditional absinthe just by tasting it. So, he started supplying Osborn with wormwood he grew in his own garden.
Finally, Osborn had wormwood worthy of pairing with the other perfected flavors. This became Scherzo, a green “verte” style.
Coloring is the final step in making absinthe. This process involved uses particular ingredients to balance out the flavor. Of course, someone who has made natural wines for 40 years has a rather sensitive palate.
“It seemed to me that the stuff was just a little too what we call spiky. I have 12 herbs in there, and there were flavor spikes,” Osborn says. Traditional coloring materials combat this. For instance, Melissa, or lemon balm, is commonly featured. “I thought, wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to fill the gaps with this sort of extracurricular activity at the end? If we could just figure out how to how to not have the gaps in the beginning….I started to suspect that that perhaps it was the distillation method.”
So, he went back to basics. Absinthe makers in Belle Epoque all tinned the inside of their copper stills. Putting a layer of tin on the copper serves as a protectant. Osborn uses the analogy of a really good chef. If one asks which pan to use for a delicate sauce, the chef will pick a copper pan that’s been tinned.
“Tin is a less reactive surface than copper; that’s the secret to this thing. With the copper still you can get flavor degradation, so the tiny little subtle flavors can get catalyzed and taken away,” Osborn explains.
The tin sticks to the copper and transmits heat, preventing flavor loss. Unfortunately, after testing batches of absinthe made with tinned stills, Osborn didn’t notice much of a difference. He had to go back even further.
A long time ago, beverage makers used wooden stills. Because they’re not made of metal, you can’t heat wooden stills from the outside. To use them, one needs to use steam to heat the liquid inside. However, most distillers would avoid wooden stills because of poor steam quality.
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Large commercial steam boilers require non-corrosion agents to last, but these chemicals can seep into food and drink. And, distilleries require boilers in the range anywhere from half a million to two million BTU. When these appliances can cost six figures, corrosion would be catastrophic.
“Back in 2006, I thought, ‘Let’s take a look. Are there still home steam boilers made?'” Osborn remembers. He found a few producers with small steam boilers, never more than a third of a million BTU. “I had this big energy idea: If you use multiple boilers, then you can array them in a way that you’re only operating the number of boilers necessary to achieve what you’re trying to do in the distillery. In turn, that saves dramatically on fuel.”
Further, these small steam boilers are cheap enough that Osborn can forgo non-corrosion agents and “sacrifice” one every so often. Stoutridge uses a network of them to create extremely clean, pure steam.
And, Osborn knew John Cox at Quercus Cooperage makes incredible barrels. So, after telling Cox about his theories about absinthe, the two planned a device. Cox built the wooden pot still, and Osborn put the copper pieces on top for a direct steam injection.
“Suffice it to say, when you make absinthe in a wooden still, it completely transforms. It came out totally smooth. It didn’t need any coloring or balming. And, the flavor spikes were gone.” This Stoutridge absinthe, called Prelude, looks decidedly clear without the coloring agents. It is considered a blanche, the other main style of absinthe.
According to Osborn, verte styles often have over-emphasized flavors due to the coloring process. But, with the wood pot-distilled blanche, drinkers will find lower flavor intensity and more complexity.
Blanche was the preferred style in Switzerland before the Parisians discovered absinthe. In addition to wood being much cheaper than copper, perhaps the superior smoothness and subtlety of flavor in the blanche earned its popularity. The Prelude label has a wooden pot with daisies pictured on it, referencing this unique distillation method (and the inclusion of chamomile in the spice mix).
“It was only about a year ago that I made that. But I really feel like Stoutridge distillery realized that idea that we can do things like natural wines in this wood pot still.”
Osborn reached the apex of this idea when he launched Stoutridge’s chakra-inspired line of absinthe.
First, he started with the Blanche Prelude. According to Osborn, alcohol is to flavor the way light is to a painting. You need tons of light to see all of the details, textures, colors, etc. in a work of art. With the 120-proof Prelude, he finally had a spirit worthy of all that light. For this new line of absinthe, he colored with very particular herbs to represent the various chakras. By coloring, he “gives intention” to the blanche.
As he learned about herbs, he studied different energy centers. He found that the idea of seven or 10 chakras was more of a Europeanized idea.
“if you go back a couple 1000 years, you’ll find that there’s really four,” Osborn says. “There’s an earth chakra that’s below your heart, there’s a spiritual chakra that’s above your heart, there is a balance between spiritual and the earth chakra which is your heart, then there’s the chakra that’s everything outside of you (a non-dualism chakra).”
So, if chakra study enhances yoga and other areas of life, why not use it to inform flavor?
To clarify, these botanicals are not providing a balming effect or filling the gaps. Prelude is perfectly balanced on its own. They simply provide an Ayurvedic direction for the absinthe.
First, there’s Manipura. This Stoutridge absinthe represents the Earth Chakra, located in the stomach (solar plexus). In turn, earth symbolizes digestion. Of course, fennel and wormwood have thousands of years of history as medicine. In addition, Osborn included lemon balm.
Next, there’s Vishudda. Osborn finds a deep connection between the location and idea of this chakra. Vishudda is found in the throat, and signifies a spiritual connection. Through Stoutridge absinthe, Osborne sends you the spirit of his ideas via the throat. Chamomile and mint are among the many herbs and botanicals featured.
Absinthe purists will love the Anihata. Melissa is the star herb, making the blanche appear very similar to the verte.
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Finally, there’s Advaita, tackling the idea of a non-dualism or “crown” chakra.
“The Crown Chakra name is like God, and I don’t want to make absinthe God. There’s an old Hindi term Advaita which means non-dualism,” Osborn says. The crown chakra is called Sahasrara in many traditions, and it carries the weight of divinity with it. When searching for the right additions to this Stoutridge absinthe, he turned to a Nepalese summer intern.
“She was saying that in Nepal, the big spice for crown chakra is a spice that’s called Gotu Kola. They have these little ceramic pots [in which] they grow the herbs and then put them underneath the Buddha in their houses. It’s sacred,” he details.
Coloring an abinthe with Gotu Kola is incredibly unique, and Stoutridge might be the only producer in the world to do so. Gotu Kola is ethereal. It has a very delicate, almost undetectable flavor profile. According to Osborn, it’s not minty, savory, or fruity, and also all three at once. The elusive characteristics of Gotu Kola matches the Crown Chakra and its idea of the brain’s relationship to the spiritual.
Ultimately, Advaita has thus far reached greater heights than all other Stoutridge absinthes. It took home the title “Best Spirit” in 2021 at the Hudson Valley Wine and Spirit Competition. Curious about how it tastes? Head to the Marlboro distilling destination for guided tastings, demonstrations, and more.