Mata Hari Absinthe

Darcy O'Neil :: October 26, 2008 12:09 AM

With the walls of protectionism beaten down, the worlds largest consumer is once again allowed to clink glasses with the Green Fairy. As most people know, absinthe was banned in the United States for almost a century. The recent efforts of a small group of dedicated people, including Ted Breaux and Gwydion Stone, have knocked the walls down. But, with the long time absence, and the inherent curiosity factor of the population, a rush of new products have hit the market, identifying themselves as absinthe. Mata Hari Absinthe has peeked a few eyebrows, partially because it lacks the French-Swiss pedigree. What's the deal?

Absinthe is a revival spirit, basically it was dead for decades and has now been resurrected. The Druid’s who preformed this mystical feat have been toiling away for many years. Ted Breaux’s, curiosity was sparked in New Orleans and it became a quest to taste something that had long been forgotten. I’m not sure of Gwydion’s start, but his passion for absinthe is substantial. Of the people I’ve met, these are the two that I recognize as being significantly influential in the absinthe world. There are others, but I’ve not yet met them.

So what does this have to do with Mata Hari? Well, Ted and Gwydion are firmly in the French-Swiss absinthe camp and Mata Hari (Austria) is more aligned with Bohemian absinth. Part of the problem, with Bohemian absinth, stems from countries like mine, Canada. Feel free to “Blame Canada” as usual. Since absinth(e) wasn’t banned here, there was still a small market for it. But, with most of Western Europe under a strict ban, there wasn’t any production of the French-Swiss absinthe. However, in some Eastern European countries it was still being produced, but in a different style.

The absinth produced in the eastern parts wasn’t the same as French-Swiss, which has a pronounced anise flavour. The Eastern stuff is more like a wormwood bitter. But, because there were places to sell it, that is what got stocked. Eventually nobody even remembered what French-Swiss absinthe tasted like, so any high proof, green liquid, would suffice. Obviously, quality was no longer a factor and that’s because the primary sales pitch was the “psychotropic” substance found in wormwood, called thujone.

It is a well known, and researched, fact that absinthe doesn’t have any psychoactive properties, at normal consumption levels. Sorry, those are the facts.

When the rebirth of absinthe began, the focus was on the banned products from western Europe, and quality reproduction was a driving factor. I assume the reason for quality was that historical documents show that this was an artisanal product that people consumed for enjoyment.

So that leaves us with a very strong dividing line; East vs West, Quality vs Marketing, Anise vs Anise-less.

These divisions are why certain products are highly regarded and others frowned upon. Now, there are a lot of absinthe like products out there, still using the thujone sales pitch and luring the ignorant into buying it. Unfortunately, Mata Hari, in some of their early press material, made the same claims about high thujone levels. This didn’t get them off to a good start with the core absinthe fans and a slice of the cocktail blogger community.

When I was at Tales of the Cocktail I had breakfast with Steve and Samantha, of BAT, who handle Mata Hari. They realized that the marketing angle probably wasn’t the best way to endear themselves to the grassroots promoters of absinthe. Especially since the doors were just opening. Remember, absinthe was banned because of the belief that thujone was evil. So, as the doors open, promoting absinthe for the same reasons it got banned is probably not a good idea. Politicians are twitchy, at the best of times, and it wouldn’t take much for them to reverse their decision. But, we all make mistakes and hopefully this was just an over-site. 

The current push in the absinthe world is obviously the French-Swiss variety. Some believe that it is the original absinthe created by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire in 1792. But, in reality, distilled wormwood spirits have been around for at least 150 years prior. The are many recipes available from the 1600’s which have similar composition to the 1792 recipe, but lack a few of the key ingredients, like anise, hyssop or melissa (lemonbalm) for “modern” absinthe. But, many of them have licorice root, mint and lemonbalm in them, plus wormwwod, of course.

For some people, the 1792 taste is the indicator of absinthe, however, for me it is any distilled spirit that contains wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Just because it has lower levels of anise, does not mean it is not an absinthe, at least in the historical sense. I suspect Dr. Ordinaire had a profitable product and decided to take ownership of “absinthe” to encourage sales of his product.

Now, obviously comparing Mata Hari to something like Jade PF1901 or Taboo is going to be like comparing the proverbial apples to oranges. So let’s not do it. I’m going to look at this from an inexperienced absinthe drinkers perspective.

The colour of Mata Hari is pale green. At full proof you get hints of anise and the wormwood aroma. Adding water causes it to louche, but not to the same extent as French-Swiss varieties I’ve tried. It still maintains a slightly ominous green glow. The water brings out a lot more aroma’s, as it should.

The flavours is fairly light, but you do get the subtle wormwood bitterness, more than any anise flavours. I would consider this absinthe light in the way of flavour. Now, that’s not a negative, since some people don’t like anise. But if you really like anise, you’ll find this light.

Now for mixability, I’ve had some luck with it in the Green Swizzle. I do find this absinthe more mixable, since anise isn’t so dominant. Plus, if you want licorice flavour in a cocktail, you can use pastis, sambuca, ouzo or arak at a fraction of the cost.

For me Mata Hari has more appeal as wormwood bitters. Making cocktails with Mata Hari does require some skill, and you’ll be more successful if you treat it like a bitter. Like any other product on the market, it is what you make of it. It also has decent price point, which is far better than some of the stuff coming out of France which seem to be on the gouging end of the scale.

We also must never forget that we may pretend to be connoisseurs, and take a snobbish approach to absinthe, but the driving force behind the sales are still those people who think absinthe has magical properties.

Check Mata Hari out for yourself and make your own decision.


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