Absinthe is one totally green drink: The liquor’s color, its potent anise herbal flavor, and Grinch-face response from those who do not like it. Yet absinthe is a perfectly civilized way to celebrate the holidays. It’s been 21 years since the Prohibition era ban against absinthe was lifted in the U.S. when the so-called hallucinogenic impact of thujone, an organic compound found in its parent herb, Artemisia absinthium, aka wormwood, was debunked. Absente Absinthe Refined, the first product that appeared on American shelves in 1999, is produced in Provence where artist Van Gogh, absinthe’s most famous fan, lived and drank absinthe. In 19th century Paris, five o’clock p.m. was called “the green hour” after the popularity of absinthe drinks.I had sampled the spirit in traditional ways in France, sipping after it was poured through a sugar cube perched on an absinthe spoon. Given that the spirits’ high alcohol content can rise to 74 percent ABV and my intense dislike of anise and related black licorice, I swore never to sip it again.
Green and Red Make Spirits Bright
Feeling like a Grinch after our governor’s December orders to stay at home, I decided to give the spirit a chance to become even “Grinchier.” Yet on a recent gray afternoon, I plunged into ‘the green hour” with a taste of Hemingway’s favorite “Death in the Afternoon” cocktail, a simple 4 to 1 blend of Champagne to absinthe. Lo and behold, this absinthe, at 55 ABV, was more generous and less anise-heavy and alcoholic as others.The clincher to my change of Grinch-face was sipping an Uncle Caesar cocktail: Two ounces of Absente Absinthe Refined, one ounce of Chambord liqueur and two ounces of cranberry juice. This full-bodied drink was not overwhelmingly anise scented or flavored. I sensed more of an herbal profile tempered by the sweeter Chambord. Another plus? The cocktail is a festive mix of red in color and green for an herbal note.
Established in 1892 the brand Chambord of black raspberry liqueur has added red spirit to drinks for years. Why drink it now? Chambord is a glorious red color and sips well as seen the Uncle Caesar with absinthe. The gold band circling the round Chambord bottle spells festive times. This year holiday celebrants may toast zoom gatherings with drinks like the red Champagne Royale—sparkling wine with a topper of one-quarter ounce Champagne. I find Chambord’s black raspberry (blackberry and raspberry) base lighter with fresher taste than the blackcurrant cassis liqueur in a Kir Royale. Chambord is also a fine drinker neat or with ice on its own or as a dessert substitute. But what caught my eye was the Chambord Manhattan. The famous bourbon and sweet vermouth cocktail is rarely a top choice at my bar. But I made one with one-half ounce of Chambord and 1.5 ounces of Woodford Reserve with a few dashes of cocoa bitters, my favorite Angostura option. The fruit notes of Chambord balanced the deep bourbon complexity of the Manhattan. A fresh raspberry was a welcome garnish compared to the traditional maraschino cherry.
Two Spiribam Rums from the Caribbean
Martinique is a small, French Caribbean island between Saint Lucia and Dominica the size of Los Angeles with many microclimates suitable for growing sugar cane. What makes Martinique special is the production of Rhum Agricole—rum made from sugar cane juice rather than molasses. This spirit comes in many versions with the French quality designation of AOC from blanc (white style) to select barrel, VOP, X.O. ad 15 year aged. The AOC designation refers to quality control over harvesting, processing, aging with no additives for color, flavor or aroma. The top of the line is Cuvée Homère, named for founder Homère Clément. Cléments’s great nephew, Ben Jones, is now Marketing Director of Spiribam, the marketing company for Martinique’s Rhum Clément and Rhum J.M, St. Lucia’s Chairman’s Reserve Rum, Bounty Rum, Admiral Rodney Rum, and the importer of Guadeloupe’s Rhum Damoiseau. As Jones explained, Rhum Agricole was originally what the farmers drank. Today’s aged Rhum Agricole compares to liqueurs such as Cointreau. Clément Creole Shrubb is another Spiribam product. This orange liqueur is made from bitter orange peels, orange pulp macerated with Clément Creole spiced Rhum Agricole. I sipped a Clément Spritz with Champagne or sparkling wine at 4 to 1 ratio with Creole Spiced Rhum Agricole. As a firm proponent of refreshing spritz drinks that are wonderful accompaniments to appetizers, I immediately liked the refreshing quality of the Clément Spritz. The cocktail was not too sweet and not neon-colored like other aperitif spritz drinks. But beware. Unlike spritz cocktails with, say Aperol at 11 percent ABV, Clément Creole Shrubb carries 40 percent ABV.
In 2016 Spiribam added Saint Lucia Distillery to its portfolio with the Admiral Rodney, Rhum J.M and Chairman’s Reserve brands. After tasting through the portfolio, The Chairman’s Reserve Spiced emerged as an intriguing tipple. Spice drinks often grace holiday tables. I chose the spiced offering because usually the spices are too strong for my palate. I was intrigued to try it after talking with Jones about the rum’s ingredient mix. Jones mentioned they steep the rum base in richeria grandis to pump up its allure. This bark is known locally as “bois bandé” and famous as a Caribbean aphrodisiac. The other local ingredients are more standard: Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, vanilla, coconut, allspice, lemon and orange. The rum is then aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels. My overall impression of Chairman’s Reserve Spiced is of balance and complexity. The bitter orange and cinnamon did not overpower the other spices in the drink. The finish was warm with nutmeg and vanilla notes. I did not taste any unusual Caribbean barks and am unqualified to speak to the bois bandé element. To compensate for my inability to drive an hour to San Francisco to ride the cable car and view the holiday decorations, I crafted a Chairman’s Cable Car cocktail with two ounces of Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum. I added three-quarter of an ounce of Clément Creole Shrubb and one ounce fresh lemon juice to the cocktail shaker, shook it up, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Though Conniption Gin has been on the market since 2015, the beverage’s tag line now rings especially true: “Don’t be Afraid, Go Ahead, Have a Conniption.” The broad personal, economic, and psychological loses from Covid19, may have influenced many of us to have a conniption of some kind during the year. The spirits from Durham Distillery in Durham, North Carolina, may be a liquid panacea when enjoyed in moderation. The owners are more than qualified in the sciences to open a distillery with a novel, two-step gin production method. Lee Katrincic has a master’s degrees in chemistry and spent two decades in pharmaceutical research and development. With a degree in physics and experience as a digital marketing and operations executive, his wife Melissa Katrincic is now President/CEO of the company. Durham Distillery makes Conniption Gin in Navy Strength, American Dry and Barrel Aged styles. Other products include Cucumber Vodka, Damn Fine liqueurs and canned cocktails.
The duo custom-designed a German pot still for making the base gin with Indian coriander, angelica root, and cardamom with juniper from vapor infusion. With his background in pharmaceuticals, Lee was the first in the U.S. to adopt the rotary evaporator or rotavap, a piece of equipment used in the pharma industry, to distill individual botanicals such as cucumber, citrus, and honeysuckle flowers more delicately at room temperature. Lee then blends the botanical aromas into the gin base with a modern, clean and flavorful profile.
When I sampled the Conniption American Dry Gin, I discovered a balanced drink that is not over juniper-ed and not overly flowery or cucumber-ish. I chose to mix a I-95 cocktail because I grew up three miles off an exit of I-95 in Wilmington, Del. The I-95 is a cousin to French 75 which is Champagne, gin, simple syrup and lemon juice. The I-95 substitutes rosé wine for water in the simple syrup prep. The French 75 and I-95 are good indicators to identify how well the Conniption gin adds a satisfying, gentle kick to the sparkling wine. Moving from the sweetish to the savory, I also tried Conniption American Dry Gin in a Bloody Mary. Again, the gin notes were balanced in the spicy tomato-based cocktail.
After noting the Katrincics named their new Corpse Reviver Bay & Lounge on the ground floor of their distillery, I may try their signature cocktail, the Corpse Reviver #2. This sipper circles back the “green hour” because first, you rinse a chilled cocktail glass with absinthe. Then add one ounce of Conniption, Lillet Blanc, fresh lemon juice, orange liqueur such as the aforementioned Clément Creole Shrubb and garnish with an orange peel. Then we will be ready to face the new year with good spirits.