Success with Absinthe at National Awards

There’s a bit of ritual involved in properly enjoying absinthe.

The distilled spirit – often mistaken for a liqueur, despite being up to 75 percent alcohol – is served with three parts water, to cut the bitterness of wormwood. The ice water should pour from an absinthe fountain, onto a cube or two of sugar, perched on a flat slotted spoon that spans the rim of a clear glass, before dripping sweetly into the green liquid below.

“The ice water from a special fountain. The special tools. The special glasses. All of them are part of the experience,” explains Mike Beamish, founder of PEI’s Deep Roots Distillery. “The whole package is part of the ritual.”

Beamish clearly knows something about absinthe. Deep Roots recently won a gold medal for the beverage at the 2019 Canadian Artisan Spirit Competition (CASC). The judges also recognized it as Best In Class.

Alex Hamer, founder of the CASC, says the judges looked for a good balance between absinthe’s key ingredients. Wormwood contributes bitterness, anise and fennel provide a licorice-like sweetness, while culinary or medicinal herbes add florals and spices. The judges also liked Deep Roots’ colour – absinthe can be clear, but it’s known as ‘the green fairy’ – and a subtle hazing from the ice water.

“The judges felt it had a very complex nose with good herbal, floral and anise notes.” Flipping through his own notes, Hamer adds: “One of them got ‘lemon grass and licorice’, with ‘a nice long finish’. One of them says ‘nice anise on the nose’ and called it ‘a wonderfully scented spirit’.”

Despite that scent, absinthe began as a medicine. The French served a daily ration as a malaria preventative to soldiers fighting in South Africa in the early 1800s. “While there, getting a glass everyday, they developed a taste for it,” Beamish explains. “So when they came back to France, they enjoyed it as a beverage, not just a medicine. That’s when the industry started to grow.”

It grew popular in bohemian Europe, inspiring writers like Hemingway and Proust, artists like Picasso and van Gough. But others argued that wormwood contained a dangerously addictive hallucinogen called thujone. Many countries bowed to pressure and banned absinthe through most of the 20thcentury.

Beamish is quick to burst the psychedelic bubble. Absinthe is back, across Canada and around the world, because wormwood’s thujone levels are too low to have any effect. Hamer adds that it’s grown popular enough to warrant it’s own category in the spirit awards.

“It’s a small category, but there are a lot of absinthes across the country and I want to grow it,” he explains. “It’s a little bit of a niche product, but I think it’s worth doing.”

That niche aspect also appeals to Beamish, who started Deep Roots as a fun retirement project. He and wife Carol purchased 10 acres, planted 200 apple trees in 1990 and first opened a u-pick. 

“A lot of people don’t know this, but apples at the turn of the 19thcentury were one of the major export crops of PEI,” says Beamish. “When we were first looking for a crop to plant, we did some research and found they grow well here.”

They certified fully organic in 2005. The idea of opening a small-batch craft distillery came in 2012 and Deep Roots released its first spirit, a cane-sugar moonshine named Island Tide, in July 2014.

“I didn’t go into this to compete with the big brands,” explains Beamish. “I got into distilling to make some unique products. Everybody’s trying to set themselves apart. We’re all in a similar business, trying to set ourselves apart. And this is how we do it.”

Deep Roots next launched a maple liqueur, blending Island Tide with maple syrup collected from their son Greg’s small-batch syrup operation, as well as from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. There’s an Iced Apple and Apple Brandy, while Carol’s homemade pies inspired the Spiced Apple liqueur. Camerise is a haskap liqueur and the BlueBerry liqueur delivers as promised.

“Because these are unique products, you’re not going to find them down the street or over the bridge. This is something different. That’s what I’m looking for.”

“Plus, we make products we happen to like ourselves.”

While Absinthe won CASC gold and Best In Show, Island Tide won silver in the white spirits category. Island Tide and Absinthe are available at the Charlottetown Farmers Market or the distillery in Warren Grove. Deep Roots currently distills 350 375ml bottles of absinthe per batch.

Deep Roots also sells the absinthe tools and will attend events to serve in the traditional way. “It was often drank in a social setting, over dinner,” says Beamish. “That, too, was a part of the experience.”

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