Around 18 months after Lucid entered the U.S. market--the first legally available absinthe in 95 years--more than a dozen additional brands have hit American liquor stores, with plenty on the way. This summer, the first so-called "Bohemian," or Czech-style absinthe entered the market: Absinthe Mata Hari, manufactured in Austria.
French-Swiss Vs. Czech-Bohemian Absinthes
The distinction between French-Swiss and Czech-Bohemian styles has been a contentious topic among absinthe manufacturers, marketers, and enthusiasts in recent years. The French-Swiss style is typically an anise-flavored spirit made with other ingredients that add herbal complexity and a light bitterness. This was what van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and other regular faces in absinthe advertising drank. It's also the kind used in 19th century cocktails like the Sazerac.
While Absinthe Mata Hari lists 1881 on its label, the Czech-Bohemian style didn't really enter the scene until the 1990s, with many brands boasting or implying psychotropic properties. This style became popular at European bar and typically involves elaborate rituals with flaming sugar cubes. The Czech-Bohemian style usually tastes more bitter, with little or no anise flavor.
Almost all absinthe currently available in the U.S. is made in the French-Swiss anise-forward tradition. But absinthe Mata Hari is an exception: a vivid emerald green in the glass, the spirit smells of menthol and cinnamon, with a vegetal base note. The flavor is where Mata Hari really separates from the pack: instead of the elaborate, herbaceous complexity of mint, fennel and anise found in the French-Swiss style absinthe, Mata Hari has primary notes of a medicinal mint and cinnamon mix, crossed with a sharp underlying bitterness that quickly fades.
The Better Absinthe?
I'm a big fan of the French-Swiss style and admit: I expected to dislike Absinthe Mata Hari. I didn't, but that shouldn't be taken as an endorsement. Putting the anise question aside for a moment, the spirit simply lacks complexity. It's not bad, but the flavor isn't engaging. Interesting and different, yes. But something I want in my mouth again? Not really. It's a high-proof spirit (60 percent ABV) with a ho-hum medicinal aroma and flavor.
The Anise Question
Absinthe Mata Hari is marketed as "a mixable absinthe," which brings us back to the anise question. In a well-made Sazerac with an absinthe rinse, the anise is a major component of the drink--an intense aromatic that rises in the glass, creating an inviting, toothsome drink.
Every classic absinthe-containing cocktail has this anise-forward flavor in mind. Certainly, you could mix a Sazerac with Absinthe Mata Hari or any other Czech-Bohemian style absinthe, but it won't taste like the intended drink should. Not necessarily bad, the drink will likely just taste boring.
Absinthe Mata Hari is employing one of the best thought-out marketing programs on the market. Unfortunately, the quality of the marketing is vastly superior to the product in the bottle.
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.