An alcoholic beverage, banned for many years.
This article originally appeared in the French journal La Nature. The English translation by the Bulletin of Pharmacy was published in its January 1895 issue (vol. 9 no 1, page 23)
Absinthe-Its History, Manufacture, and Manipulation
by A. H. Villon. Chemical Engineer.
History.-The first name given to this liqueur was Elixir of Absinthe. In those days the product was largely employed as a pharmaceutical preparation in gastric disturbance, in affections of the digestive tube, and in diseases of the bladder.
According to a work more than a century old, the invention of extract of absinthe is credited to a physician by the name of Ordinaire. A legend would have it that the product was discovered by the monks of Abbey Saint-Benoft (Montbenoit). It is quite possible that from the latter Dr. Ordinaire obtained the secret of preparing the liqueur, for when exiled from France for political reasons he established himself at Couvet, in Switzerland, practiced medicine and pharmacy, and could thus work with his elixir. He died leaving his secret to his domestic, who sold it to the daughters of Lieutenant Henriot. They in turn manufactured the extract of absinthe and created for it a demand which was considerable in view of the comparatively recent date of the discovery.
Shortly after, in 1805, Henri-Louis Pernod founded at Couvet a factory which produced daily sixteen liters of liqueur. Subsequently, as a result of the high duties imposed at the French frontier, he established at Pontarlier a second factory of like capacity. In 1855 the distillery at Pontarlier manufactured 450 liters per day; today the distillery is the property of a company, and its daily yield runs into the thousands of liters. Other distilleries of the same kind have been established in France, Switzerland, and Germany, and produce enormous quantities of this liqueur.
Composition.—The plants which form the base of absinthe are: the official wormwood, Roman wormwood, anise, and hyssop. Certain manufacturers, in order to characterize their brands, or to impart to their absinthe peculiar properties, add to the foregoing substances star anise, melissa, mint, iris, coriander, benzoin, angelica, etc.
With respect to the composition of absinthe, it is interesting to know that as a result of very close researches, made by Messrs. Cadèac and Albin Meunier, into its physiological action, the conclusion has been reached that the accidents known under the name of absinthism are not to be attributed to the essence of absinthe alone. It is the anise in particular which imparts to the liqueur most of its toxic properties. Cadéac and Meunier hold that to retard the growing prevalence of absinthism it is perhaps only necessary to modify the composition of the liqueur by slightly augmenting the proportion of useful ingredients and diminishing the quantity of anise, badian, and fennel.
The following are special formulas employed for the manufacture of absinthe:
This is obtained in the form of an infusion after twenty-four hours; is distilled, and colored with:
Add after manufacture:
Macerate twenty-four hours in 80° alcohol, distill, and color with:
After coloration add:
Manufacture.—The manufacture of absinthe comprises the following series of operations: First, maceration; second, distillation; third, coloration; fourth, bleaching or "opalescing;" fifth, clarification; sixth, ageing.
Maceration is the first operation. Herbs of superior quality should alone be employed. The absinthe of Pontarlier is the preferred brand. Only the leaves and the flowering tops are employed, inasmuch as they contain the finest aroma.
The quantities, weighed, are placed in the still with the determined quantity of 95-per-cent. alcohol reduced to 75 or 80 per cent. with water. A too concentrated alcohol would interfere with complete development of aroma, as a result of its energetic action on the plants. On the other hand, when too diluted its solvent power would not be sufficient, and the menstruum would not be charged with all the useful principles. Maceration lasts twenty-four hours; several manufacturers prolong it to thirty-six hours.
Distillation is next in order:
With alcoholic infusion of a strength of S0 per cent. this distillation proceeds in suitable stills heated by steam.
The lighter oils which flow at the beginning of the distillation are put aside. The product, rich in alcohol, is gathered until it indicates a strength of 60 per cent. The mass of the distilled product should show an alcoholic strength of 75 per cent.
The products obtained at the commencement and at the close of the distillation—that is, the light and heavy oils—are employed for the manufacture of ordinary absinthes.
The coloration is effected in the still. Here is placed the previously mentioned product of the first distillation, with the coloring materials, viz.: the Roman wormwood and hyssop. The substances are left in contact for twelve hours at a temperature of 50°C. The absinthe is allowed to cool, and its strength is reduced to 70 or 72 per cent. with water. The cheaper absinthes are colored simply with indigo blue, caramel, or saffron.
The “opalescing” (blanchiment) consists in admixing certain substances with absinthe for the purpose of producing “opalescence” when water is added. For this purpose the so-called white extract is employed in the proportion of 2 liters of extract to 1000 liters of liqueur. White extract is prepared by digesting a kilogramme of powdered guaiac resin in 20 liters of 90 percent. alcohol during fifteen days. An excess of this product must be avoided, otherwise an acrid taste is imparted. Certain manufacturers prefer to employ the essence of badian in the proportion of 500 grammes per 1000 liters. Others use powdered liquorice in the proportion of 250 grammes per 1000 liters of absinthe. The liquorice imparts brilliant and soft qualities to the liqueur.
Strong absinthe clarifies spontaneously when permitted to remain for a longer or shorter period in vats. The weaker absinthes require clarification with Spanish earth in the proportion of I kilogramme per 1000 liters. Liquorice powder also effects clarification.
The ageing is a question of first importance, as it communicates to this liqueur peculiarly valuable properties. The simplest process consists in storing the absinthe for two, three, four, and often five years. To avoid the loss of interest on the enormous capital thus invested, methods have been sought for the rapid and artificial ageing of absinthe. Various means have been tried: heat, electricity, slow oxidation, exposure to light, oxidation by ozone, by compressed oxygen, etc.
Heat does not give the desired results; the absinthe acquires an acrid taste.
The electric current, whether continuous or alternating, is of no efficacy.
Slow oxidation with light appears to have yielded the most encouraging results, according to M. Bailly, who patented this process in March, 1891. In this connection we recall the fact that in 1853 M. Pernod colored his absinthe in the distillery of Pontarlier by exposing it to daylight in glass jars.
It is sufficient to expose the liquid to the action of solar or electric light, either in the open air, or in closed vessels, or under a glass cover. If the action of light is to be efficacious, it is indispensable that the layer of absinthe exposed to the light should be sufficiently thin to permit the luminous rays to penetrate the mass without losing their intensity through refraction. It is therefore best to place the liquid in flat containers presenting a great expanse of surface. With a pump and a system of siphons, an intermittent circulation of the liquid through the containers is effected. When it becomes necessary to use artificial light, electric light for example, it is produced in the midst of the liquid by means of submerged incandescent lamps.
Prompted by the experiments of M. Bailly, we undertook a series of investigations with the ageing of absinthe by light. Our experiments have shown that solar light is much more effective than electric light, and that the arc light is much more so than the incandescent light. We have furthermore observed that the violet rays of the spectrum act better than the others. This fact is not surprising when we remember that it is the ultra-violet rays of the spectrum which possess the greatest chemical activity. Pursuing this line of investigation further we have found that absinthe saturated with oxygen under a pressure of one to two kilogrammes aged much more rapidly, inasmuch as the oxidation was far more active. To us this is a point of greatest importance. We constructed a metallic chest, the interior of which was lined with glass, and the top covered with a thick and transparent glass. With the aid of a tube, oxygen is introduced under a pressure of 1½ atmospheres; for this purpose a regulator is adapted to the generator. An electric arc with reflector distributes its intense rays through the depth of the liquid. After one day of this treatment the absinthe is aged and much improved.
And yet the employment of electric light is sufficiently onerous. It is far preferable to use the solar light. Unfortunately the latter is not always to be had, and cannot be employed in continued and regular manufacture. The general process of ageing alcohol and liquors is employed, viz., treatment of the pure absinthe with oxygen, pure or modified, under pressure, with the aid of heat. Twenty-four hours are required for the process, the apparatus being charged in the morning and the pressure being maintained until the following morning. Commercial oxygen, furnished in steel tubes under a pressure of 120 atmospheres, is used. Absinthe absorbs, according to its quality and the degree of ageing desired, between 25 and 75 liters of oxygen per 100 liters of absinthe.
Absinthe Manufactured from Essences.—A great deal of absinthe is manufactured these days by the simple process of dissolving the essences in alcohol. No great amount of apparatus is thus required, but the resulting products do not possess the fine flavor of those obtained by infusion. The following presents the recipes used for compounding the divers absinthes:
|Official wormwood||30 Gm.||25 Gm.||25 Gm.||20 Gm.|
|Alcohol, 90°||51 liters||58 liters||70 liters||50 liters|
|Water||49 liters||35 liters||25 liters||50 liters|
|Strength of absinthe||46°||53°||65°||45°|
To obtain good results, the mixture shouid be exposed to the temperature of 50° for five or six hours, being then left in vats for fifteen days or aged artificially.
Counterfeits.—Absinthe is one of those liqueurs which are most frequently falsified. The public is familiar with certain brands whose reputation is a guarantee of quality. There are manufacturers of whose product 10,000 liters is supposed to be sold daily through the agency of the Paris cafes; in reality, however, they do not sell more than one-eighth of this quantity; 85 per cent. comprises spurious brands. The same is true of other liqueurs, such as Chartreuse. Prosecution of the counterfeiters is very difficult, since in most instances chemical analysis fails to yield certain evidence of the fraud, and the testimony of the palate is not positive. Through the efforts of Mr. E. Broehon, a sufficiently precise and reliable process has been devised for discovering counterfeits, employing spectral analysis and photography. [This process is described at some length in La Nature, but owing, to its strictly technical character it is not reproduced here. Should our readers desire the entire description, we shall be glad to translate and publish it in a future BULLETIN.]
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Last revised: 3 September 2011.