The Trinity of absinthe plants gets the most air time among popular absinthe sites and books. Of course, there are many other plants used to make absinthe (historical and modern). Four plants in particular form a set nearly as ubiquitous as the OG Trinity, and they get a fraction of the attention they deserve.
This secondary group—lets call them the Lower Tetrad—is responsible for quite a lot of the texture and aroma that lingers as you drink your way toward the bottom of the absinthe glass. The plants in this quadrinity are Melissa (M. officinalis), Hyssop (H. officinalis), Pontica (A. pontica), and Coriander seed (C. sativum). Two of these plants are more commonly used in the coloration phase, but all of them are quite common in absinthe recipes in varying proportions.
Melissa is more commonly known as Lemon Balm, a member of the mint family with a very long history of homeopathic use. As you may guess, Lemon Balm has a very soft flavor of mint tea with lemon—not the sharp flavor of lemon zest but gentle. This lemony-freshness rises above the more dominant Wormwood flavor to offer a nice counterpoint in the profile.
Particularly keep an eye out for Melissa as you taste through the glass. As the palate gets fatigued and overworked by the spirit’s more aggressive components, Melissa’s gentle lemon manages to accumulate and linger very distinctly on the palate. The benefit of this persistence is that Melissa contributes most of its flavor when we need it most—and we’re happy for it.
Other than anethole, which comes from Green Anise (and Star Anise, but that’s a separate conversation), Hyssop is probably most responsible for the texture absinthe leaves on the palate. This is particularly the case in lighter bodied vertes and, especially, Swiss blanche absinthes, where it leaves the palate with a chalky dry cleanliness that is absolutely lovely. Hyssop also provides a slightly more tannic tea-like flavor with a vague tartness.
Along with Pontica, Hyssop is one of the plants more commonly used in the coloration phase of absinthe production. These plants are steeped in the freshly made absinthe and impart not only their color but also a fresh round of flavor compounds, sometimes resulting in exceptionally clear flavors for each coloring plant. This is because the heavier botanical compounds aren’t being removed from the spirit by distillation, making them available to provide new layers of flavor and complexity to the distilled spirit.
Pontica is particularly easy to spot in an absinthe. First, Pontica has a nice forest green color, and while color and clarity are hardly trustworthy indicators of ingredients, they can be a subtle arrow in the right direction. More than color, though, Pontica is identifiable by its flavor: light, ethereal notes of pine trees, rosemary stem, and cedar, and sometimes with a soft leafiness much finer and more savory than Grand Wormwood. Like every other plant in a recipe, Pontica can be dialed up and down but a Pontica-foward absinthe is usually a multi-dimensional, ethereal, warm find.
Some may consider Coriander to be of the more debatable plants in our “absinthe essentials” list, but it is undoubtedly a ubiquitous absinthe ingredient. Although the same plant, Coriander seed and Cilantro leaves are quite distinct from each other, flavor-wise. Coriander seed has a candied, softly sour, floral flavor, perhaps evocative of soap but not “soapy,” which is usually the accusation people hurl at Cilantro. This evocative, round floral tartness is an iconic part of absinthe’s classic profile and should not be undervalued.
As I said in the first part of this series, these notes best apply to traditionally made, Franco-Swiss absinthe styles, but these plants are often found in small American craft absinthes as well. The reason for this is clear: they offer crucial textures and aromas when playing with other botanicals, providing flavors that balance out other plants and unique textures on the palate. They are part of tried and true flavor combinations essential to this kind of botanical spirit—and they are just generally dope.