Distiller’s Workbook exercise 6 of 15

This is the umpteenth draft of the sixth lesson in my Distiller’s Workbook. I started it as a book project with the idea of generating interest in distillation by showing a simplified form of it based on the re-distillation of tax paid commercial products.

Over time, the recipes have been elevated from merely low involvement cocktail-centric creations into being a workbook of exercises for new distillers to learn big concepts in distillation on small scale equipment with affordable batch sizes. Hopefully new distillers will be able to learn most all the what-if scenarios of operating a still so they can instead deepen their involvement with the sourcing & processing of raw materials, fermentation, and then the maturing of spirit.

A big focus of the workbook is to expose new distillers to the giant body of research concerning the subject via referencing it. I started by collecting every book on the distillation I could find and that still left a lot of questions. I eventually started collecting forgotten and seldom seen journal articles. These were newly digitized or trapped behind pay walls and I have read hundreds in the last few years. Most professional distillers do not even know this massive body of work exists so I hope to weave it into the content and introduce it to people.

Truly Stimulating Absinthe

This loose rendering of an Absinthe was inspired by the Basque country liqueur called Patxarian where a commercial bottling of anise aromatized spirit is infused with sloe berries, coffee beans, and vanilla, and then lightly sweetened. The deliciousness of Patxarian proves that anise and berry aromas are very complementary so in this Absinthe recipe the alcohol and aroma of a commercial anise aromatized spirit is boosted by that of a fruit eau-de-vie and some novel botanicals. The exercise is an exploration of the spatial perception of aroma as well as the categorization of aromas which will allow the finding of patterns and the expansion of creativity.

The recipe is unique for an Absinthe in that it does not feature wormwood (but it easily could if you have wormwood available). Research has shown that the volatile parts of wormwood (thujone most specifically) are not as stimulating as many people would like to believe and therefore wormwood may be less significant in defining Absinthe than some may think. An easier to find ingredient, of comparative (they feel as though they inhabit the same olfactory division) if not more interesting aroma, is yerba mate which is also famous for its stimulating powers. Yerba mate alone, which lurks in many kitchen pantries, makes a splendid replacement for wormwood-based traditional botanical blends.

Turkish & Greek Raki or Lebanese Araks come from cultures that take anise very seriously, making them very fitting for conversion to an Absinthe. The brandies that make up these anise spirits are also often constructed from grape varietals in the Muscat family which contribute distinct minerality (olfactory-umami) further adding to complexity. Some of these spirits have sugar added which is not a problem because re-distillation will separate the non-volatile sugar.

When picking a fruit eau-de-vie there are many options with each offering different tonality. The optimal choice is Prunelle Sauvage sloe berry eau-de-vie from the French producer Trimbach but sometimes it can be hard to find. If a sloe berry eau-de-vie is not available, a framboise or any of the various plum based brandies can be used with great results.

Just like yerba mate occupies the same aroma category as wormwood so too do the fruit eau-de-vies. A way to further divide the fruit eau-de-vies is to render them in an imaginary, color based, chromatic, spatial scale and arrange them to the left or the right of each other. Some fruits will feel relatively brighter or darker and this often converges with the fruit’s actual color, but your own recollections contribute subjectivity.

If two fruits on the spatial scale were blended together they may feel so close they create an inseparable overtone and this is a common creative linkage strategy to produce extraordinary tonal values. If the aromas are distant on the spatial scale, such as sloe berry and anise, they will produce what feels like an interval which can have a pleasurable, expansive sense of space. We often find ourselves describing flavor experiences with spatial terminology like depth when we encounter such creative linkage. Another famous anise aromatized spirit that may use fruit and anise creative linkage is Peychaud’s bitters.

Olfactory-bitter aromas can also be rendered in an imaginary chromatic scale. For example wormwood, yarrow, and yerba mate in this order are arranged from lightest to darkest. Other bitter aromas could no doubt be added and through various sensory explorations they could be properly fit into the scale as well.


750 ml anise aromatized spirit (optimally a Raki or Arak with a distinct grape base)

100 ml fruit eau-de-vie (optimally a Prunelle Sauvage)

4 g coriander seeds

25 g Yerba Mate

250 ml water

Mix and re-distill slowly on high reflux until the thermometer on the still reads 93.33°C. Going past 93.33°C may result in a cloudy, permanently louched distillate). The extra water is added to reduce the chances of solids scorching on the bottom of the boiler.

If the boiler is heated so much so as to create a rapid boil, loose Yerba Mate has a tendency to fly around the still and even puke into the column which is not desirable. To prevent puking, either place the Yerba Mate in a bag to contain it or turn down the burner to the minimum required to create a gentle boil.

Using your hydrometer re-cut the distillate to your desired proof (we recommend 120-135).

If upon cutting with distilled water the absinthe begins to louche, try putting the absinthe in a canning jar and heat in a hot water bath to re-dissolve what louched. If the louche returns re-distill and end the spirit run at an earlier point.

Absinthe & Water

2 oz. Absinthe

x oz. water (8 oz. on good days and 4 oz. on bad days)


Half Sinner, Half Saint

1.5 oz. sweet vermouth

1.5 oz. dry vermouth

.5 oz. Absinthe floated

expressed oil of lemon peel



1.5 oz. dry vermouth

1 oz. benedictine

.5 oz. Absinthe


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This post is old and an updated version is in my Distiller’s Workbook exercise on Absinthe.

Yesterday I whipped up some “absinthe“. I have never liked the stuff and always found it over hyped so I tried to produce something that would keep my interest. My main complaint about absinthe (besides the prices!) is that anise is such a cloying dominant flavor. To get around this in my parody I thought I’d add a comparative element to the naked anise and see if I could stretch it out on the tongue. A long time ago I used this concept with strawberries but lately I’ve been enamored with the basque country Patxarian sloe berry-anise combo. I don’t have a hedge of sloes so I added sloe gin to my spirits and then got impatient and also added framboise brandy because I wanted more comparative flavor and a way to bring the alcohol content up into true absinthe territory. I used the Turkish Raki to capture the anise botanicals because I got it for free and it was 90 proof so it seemed like a good idea.

The amount of wormwood in g/L was extrapolated from other people’s large batch recipes. Yarrow and yerba-mate seemed like a good idea for wormwood comparative flavors to contrast the fruit and anise. Yarrow brings a meadowy aroma while yerba mate is slightly more foresty. I noticed many people’s formulas had coriander which is really important to London dry gins so I thought it may be a nice extra contrasting element. I probably should have added more.

All of my liquids added up to one liter but I only pulled out 750ml because I wanted to preserve the same amount of anise that was in the Raki. The additional alcohols bring the proof up to slightly less than 120.

Something that I noticed which probably adds a great layer of artisanship that most people miss is that you have to distill at only a certain reflux rate to get all the alcohol you want but not disturb the anise-alcohol-water solution. I started distilling at a really high reflux rate and took all of the alcohol off very quickly but when my temperature went up and I was trying to hit my 750 ml end volume mostly by distilling water it started to louche and my absinthe yellowed slightly. Next time I should probably do some math, look at some charts and work at a less intense reflux rate to keep my high alcohol and clarity of distillate.

750 ml turkish raki
100 ml sloe gin
150 ml framboise brandy
15 g wormwood
5 g yerba mate
5 g yarrow
2 g coriander
distilled to 750ml (115 proof or so)

Absinthe is still boring but I liked this compared to Kubler. As subtle as they are, the fruit aromatics really make it.


So I finally tasted the St. George absinthe verte and was really impressed though I was surprised by its coloring and intensely distinct aromatics relative to Kubler. I only had a taste from a really nice bartender and was not lucky enough to see it louche or not but I was surprised by the chartreuse like nature of its color. And its level of anise seemed to be lower than Kubler. The nose was pungent like a monastic liqueur and reminded me of biting into fresh basil but with more anise. The herbs make it really penetrating and antiseptic feeling but in a different way than juniper. I think I could understand the appeal of cocktails like the sazerac better if knew they were made with an absinthe that had more contrast to the anise. I think I should explore more fruit and working in a secondary infusion to my recipe. If we are thinking antiseptic, hops anyone?

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An Extinct Style Of Drink?

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Due to circumstances in my life I have evolved into a vermouth drinker. Some how this stuff called vermouth went from totally being in vogue to being completely ignored and barely written about where nearly all real knowledge of it has been lost generations ago and the producers seem to be as quiet as moonshiners. No one is exactly interviewing vermouth producers for wine spectator which I’d pay to read. Luckily with all this decline of things the price, for the most part, has stayed down in two buck chuck territory as well. One reason I think all this persists in modern times anyhow, is because true connoisseurship and afficion is really challenging. Vermouth is sort of alienating because its flavors are so adult, and apparently for many people its alcohol levels are too low for most people (the lushes) to bother with which I think is really significant to its decline.

Cocktails also are a problem for vermouth. The worst vermouth cocktail ever created was the dry martini. I’m not talking about a 1/8 dry vermouth cocktail or a wave of the bottle. I’m speaking of dry vermouth and gin in any ratio with bitters or not. For some reason variations with little deviation had such a profound impact that so few people moved in other directions after its popularity began. Erosion of taste slowly stripped away all the wine and an impatient culture that needed their buzz from one glass took over.

You don’t have a real vermouth drink until you mix up some flavor contrast. And most importantly, you cannot be afraid of having two or three if a buzz is your goal. A couple evenings ago I was looking for a drink for the Cocktail Chronicle’s MxMo event. In browsing the always inspirational cocktailDB, I came across Stephen’s cocktail. I was really impressed by this forgotten Stephen’s good taste. It totally read as my style.

1 oz. sherry (I interpreted this as dry sherry to get a good balance so I used La Cigarrera’s Manzanilla)
.75 oz. dry vermouth (European Noilly Prat)
.75 oz. Benedictine

The drink has a serious flavor to alcohol ratio and a really elegant acidity to sweetness ratio. I wish I could have a good bar experience somewhere drinking maybe five or six of these and pay beer prices because it has close to a craft beer cost basis. Another big problem for vermouth is the nature of our gouge restaurant economies. To sum it up quickly, distributors and marketers push super expensive products on the market leaving generations not even knowing that $12 liters of rye whiskey and rum are stunningly delicious, and to add insult to injury, restaurants in so many cities rather be half full all night long, gouging guests with super expensive drinks than actually work hard, understand spirits, and use products that don’t have pharmaceutical style promotional expenses.

Is there any room in the market for this class of fortified and aromatized wine drink? In matters of taste, sherry with its intense barrel treatment is like whiskey flavored wine (I group sherry drinks with vermouth drinks). I feel like people should be able to relate to it more than they think. Vermouth and sherry are also damn cheap relative to distilled spirits. Tapas places often sell small glasses of them for $5. Additionally, restaurants are trying to get people less drunk these days in the world of liability and conservatism and many people have to work increasing hours but still need time to unwind with some adult tasting stimulus. If in Milan, the vermouth drinkers happy hour is extended well into the evening by the perfect alcohol content and affordability of aromatized wine, couldn’t this new style of drink help revive many lagging urban bar cultures?

So now you’re curious and want to mix up some vermouth? The king of these drinks is the Half Sinner, Half Saint:

1.5 oz. sweet vermouth
1.5 oz. dry vermouth
.5 oz. absinthe (floated)
twist of something

I still have yet to find someone that doesn’t like this drink. the sweetness to dryness ratio is perfect. This drink also makes a dramatic mockery of absinthe. The cloying versus the relief. You can’t know pleasure until you know pain. I need to give No. 9 park credit for introducing it to me. Now one or two is a daily ritual. The two mentioned cocktails illustrate some of the really simple formats but just a few of the many players. When you know their simple properties like whats sweet and whats dry, things can easily be substituted to your wildest imagination.

The players:

Sherry: sweet or dry. Oxidized to elegance with flor yeast, in love with oak like whiskey flavored wine. Fresh styles like Manzanilla are very chamomily while 30 year old sweet sherries, as made by Matuselem, are like liquid bread pudding.

Vermouth: sweet, dry, or bianco. With so many different brands having styles that are hard to nail down, but with little exception all being good. some drys have more fruit than others. Some sweets are sweeter and some are more intense. Some biancos are more bitter than others.

Played out iconic: Brand names Lillet and Dubbonet are usually sweet, usually really orangey and more or less other stuff is more fun.

Forgotten savoy: The Savoy which covers parts of southern France and northern Italy in and around the Alps is aromatized wine country. There are so many forgotten specialties like Chamberyzette which is vermouth heavy handedly aromatized with Alpine strawberries. Chocolate’s best friend is the epic Barolo Chinato which is elegantly bitter aromatized Barolo wine. This region makes aromatized wines that would remind you of a more handsome Campari or a more complex Lillet. (great ones are made by Vergano)

Americano: More intensely bitter aromatized wines that kind of overlap with the Savoy specialities. Great producers are Vergano, Gancia, and I would say Vya of California. I’ve even made my own with good success.

Aromatized cheaters: Bitter and low alcohol but do not have a wine base (to my knowledge anyhow) Cynar, Campari, Aperol, Picon Bier.

Monastic contrast: Incredibly masterful aromatized high alcohol liqueurs. Masochistic flavor contrast, the Chartreuses which are an artistic synthesis of the flavor “rocket fuel” via booze and botanicals, and Benedictine which is liquid cigar concentrate.

The wines: Passito, Botrytised, Ice Wine. Sauternes, Port, :Madeira (cercial, bual, malmsey, rainwater!) Fresh or oxidized styles, honeyed, mysterious, and made under rare circumstances.

What can be surprising is how well certain brands perform in the randomness of it all. Cribari sweet vermouth anyone? Try it with some dry sherry like La Cigarrera Manzanilla and a finger of Saint James Royal Ambre rhum. There are a million ways to mix this style of drink and a million of them are already on the books. Check it out and see how much less whiskey you end up drinking.

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