Going over to the Dark Side: Derelict Airship's Absinthe

I'll admit it: although I've drunk it before, I've never really understood absinthe. Luckily, the Austin area has Derelict Airship, makers of Violet Crown Absinthe, to explain it to me and let me sample some of their version.

It doesn't take long for Matt and Jessica, two of the four owners of Derelict Airship, to launch into the history of absinthe, as we step into their sparse production facility. The type and style absinthe drunk today has its roots in France, where it was used for broadly medical and preventative purposes starting around the 1840s. Think of it as the Tylenol of the Nineteenth Century. Plus, it was very potent at proofs over 100. Some versions supposedly contained the psychotropic compound thujone, which would be extracted from the common ingredient wormwood.

For Matt and Jessica, the pursuit of absinthe is all about flavor. As they point out, there are plenty of other, though not necessarily legal, ways to get high.

Their absinthe is made from a neutral grain spirit run through a column still. During this distillation, the alcohol vapor is run through a basket containing botanicals: wormwood, anise, fennel, hyssop, melissa, and a few others. These herbs are then steeped in the distillate for up to a day. It's the chlorophyl from the plants that lends absinthe its green color.

The proof on Derelict Airship's absinthe is 140 proof. It is for this reason, and to better coax out the flavor, that water is often added. But I want to try this stuff unadulterated first.

I come to understand the medical use. My tongue feels like it has been shot up with Novocain. The taste left lingering is a spicy herbalness. And wow, when I breathe in through my mouth I get this frosty numbness. From what I can tell, there's a rough woodsy flavor, but that just might be my taste buds hallucinating. This is a drink that could definitely use some sugar. For now, I'll add water and see what happens.

The same thing happens to absinthe as other heavy anise spirits like ouzo or raki when you add water: it becomes a milky white. That's because the essential oil in anise is soluble in alcohol (hence clear) but not in water. Or maybe it means your trip is starting - wooooooooooo.

With water added, I can much better appreciate the complex flavors in the absinthe. I'm getting a hint of bitterness, but not completely unpleasant. Kind of like that first (and only?) bite into a whole lemon. It's definitely easier to drink and there's not as much of a burn. There lingers some notes of wood and herbs.

I don't know if it's the effects of this forbidden potion or Matt and Jessica are really good company, but I'm having a great time hanging out on the couch in the office with them. I learn more about Matt and Jessica's backgrounds, as their roles here begin to emerge. He is the chemistry master (Matt literally has an MA in Biochemistry) and gets excited discussing the molecular structure of oils. She is the personality and of far-reaching interests. I count ukulele player, sign-language interpreter and horticulturalist as some of Jessica's preoccupations - when she's not holding forth over a milky glass, of course.

I can't say I'm going to run out and buy a bottle. But I don't think I'll be able to look at a glass of anything green or white, or get oral surgery for that matter, without thinking fondly of my time spent with the folks of Derelict Airship.


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