Quite a variety of plants can be used to flavor absinthe, though some are used far more often than others. The combination of plants, proportions, and base spirit make up the absinthe’s recipe, and the recipe in question changes based on the flavor and style of spirit the distiller has in mind. But one of the biggest question new absinthe drinkers have is something like, ‘what do these plants taste like anyway?’
Traditional absinthe recipes are famously characterized by “the Trinity” of absinthe herbs—sometimes called the “unholy trinity” by people who subscribe to that kind of branding. These are Grand Wormwood (A. absinthium), Florence Fennel (F. vulgare), and Green Anise (P. anisum). While there are many other plants commonly used in traditional absinthes, these three are most responsible for absinthe’s particular flavor. Traditionally, these plants are dried before being steeped in spirit to make a kind of tea, called the macerate, which is then distilled to make absinthe.
Although we think of Wormwood as the most famous of the Trinity plants, Fennel seed is usually included in the largest volume. Fennel and Anise together are responsible for the “licorice” aroma and flavor people often identify with absinthe (especially before it is diluted). I’ve found that absinthes that actually include licorice root in the recipe present as earthier and more gripping—surprising, given licorice root itself is also quite sweet.
Green Anise seed is a crucial ingredient not only for its flavor but for the texture and sweetness it brings to the spirit. This sweetness is implied—no sugar actually survives the distillation process—but varies a lot from recipe to recipe and can be an important quality in an absinthe. Green Anise also has a high level of anethole, the oily chemical responsible for the cloudy transformation of the absinthe ritual.
When found in proper amounts and when properly diluted, anethole provides the classic creamy texture so important in absinthe. This creaminess couches all the richer, often challenging (bitter) botanical flavors and is a quintessential part of properly made absinthe. In higher concentrations, anethole is also partly responsible for the soft tingling at the tip and edges of the tongue, and sometimes, in even higher concentrations, this can be partly numbing on the palate. In too weak concentrations, anethole’s absence may leave the absinthe feeling thin.
Wormwood, of course, is the most iconic of the Trinity plants. This bitter, leafy bush was famously vilified by Valentin Magnan and others, but it was an instantly recognizable flavor in the late-nineteenth and early-eighteenth centuries. Throughout the Belle Époque, Wormwood was central to drinking culture in the form of Wormwood bitters, absinthe cocktails, and regular absinthe service.
On its own, Wormwood can provide a wide spectrum of flavors. These change depending on where the Wormwood grows, when it is picked, how much is used in the recipe, and how the still is run throughout distillation. Each of these aspects provides a choice to be made by the distiller about what kind of absinthe they want to make.
After countless tastings, I’ve found that one of the few core tasting questions when approaching a new absinthe is, “What is the Wormwood doing?” Often you find the Wormwood providing a strong foundation throughout an absinthe’s profile, but the Wormwood may also dominate other flavors. In the case of the prized Swiss Wormwood, we find a charming, leafy, aromatic softness. In Pontarlier vertes, we find a grassy, quenching richness from the Wormwood. And in stronger instances we find much more robust, chewier flavors of tobacco, menthol, and stemmy bitterness. To go back to our earlier question, ask yourself what the Wormwood taste like and how well it is playing with the other elements in the recipe.
Admittedly, all of these notes mostly apply to traditional Franco-Swiss absinthes. These are absinthes made through the maceration method and often based on historical recipes or of an historically-minded profile. Many modern day distillers, particularly small American distillers, produce very interesting absinthes that use the traditional method but with a freer hand with the other botanicals. Often they look on the Trinity as a suggestion, more than compulsory flavors. Read more about some of those other botanicals here.