The Fine Spirits Corner

Barcelona

by: Peter Verte

Spanish! we speak Spanish here! the woman, older, very regal, like royalty, lightly pounded her hands down on the counter in frustration. i knew i was off to the wrong start, the way i’ve come to know. i made an apologetic gesture, my arms wide and supplicant, like christ on the cross.

spirits corner? cristina? this woman, obviously untouched by the silliness that is the world of the web, could not have been cristina. i was about to loose my composure, and seeing this, my wife jumped in with some explanatory french as to why we were there and madame responded back in same, perfectly, much more fluent than i. Yes, this is Spirits Corner, but my daughter is not here, please, she will be back in the morning, i will call her and you can meet with her.

She made a phone call, her husband arrived with a smile when informed of our visit and we were to meet with cristina and her brother after 10 am the next day...Madame uh, i better say, senora, explained that this is their original shop, ‘la cava de los faros’… it had been passed down in the family, the family lafuente, which means ‘fountain’, and the ‘faros’ were the four children, the ‘light’ of the fountain…

senora lafuente
the family lafuente...

i was so happy she spoke french, because it was obvious she was a proud woman and my spanish was more than lacking…we promised to be back the next morning…

The following day we entered the square at 10:15, and noticed a young man opening the shop, lifting the gate…realizing we were still early, we took our time finding a parking place, and strolled back, admiring the art nouveau architecture the city is famous for …

?buonas diaz, senora lafuente, como esta usted?

I struggled out my mentally pre-rehearsed line (as best as i could with my mid-west american-bred mouth which refuses to embrace latin accents without a fight) as we walked in the door…i don’t think she heard me (which really disappointing), but seemed very happy to see us, and immediately was on the phone to announce our arrival…

She asked the young man working there to lead us to the office, the physical address of ‘the fine spirits corner’, since the package store is separate from it…if anyone (take myself, two years ago) comes to barcelona and asks ‘where is spirits corner?’ thinking that is the name of the shop, you will not find it…the address on their web-site: plaza universidad, no° 5, is the physical address for ‘la cava de los faros’, but a little logic will tell you this must be the same place: it is located on corner(good start) in the odd-shaped plaza, and the gold-framed case windows of the little shop are crammed full of bottles…we followed the young man for about a block and a half, turned a corner and were pointed to a modern ground floor business shop entrance…federico, a good looking, modernly professional type, opened the door for us…we were ushered to the back meeting room and cristina soon joined us…

there was a stack of shelves, 5-high with bottles, mostly absinthe; i recognised many brands they sell and some oddities that i had not seen, along with several bottles of olive oil…i told federico that i had wanted to put a face on spirits corner, especially cristina, who had corresponded with so many people on the net (including myself.) i also needed information to pass to benoît noël, to include in his soon to be english-translated book, ‘ un myth toujours vert, l’absinthe’ that we were in the process of updating…

Federico started by explaining that they had created their web-site in 1997, and wanted it to have an international name, ‘the fine spirits corner’ something easily remembered…'la cava de los faros' is well known in barcelona for having the widest selection of spirits, and i am sure his family has a most comprehensive knowledge on the subject… wine, of course, is in the blood of most europeans and most all the shops that i have visited in europe carry only limited selections of other spirits in comparison to ‘la cava de los faros’…though federico still sells more wine, his family has definitely made a mark when it comes to spirits; the choice and depth is immense, in all ranges…

When the web-site ‘the fine spirits corner’ introduced absinthe in 1999, they had only one brand: lasala… it rests as the first absinthe i ever tasted, on my first visit to barcelona, and certainly didn’t scare me off from trying others…i really think it is a classic ‘absenta’ in the modern spanish style(fennel/citrus predominate), i have found several other absentas to have a similar style and taste…although i would not choose it above others i have now come to know, i still drink it and enjoy it for what it is…federico remarked that he also felt it is a much better product than it’s on-line reputation…by that time, mari mayans was already being shipped into england, both by the web-site for the distillery in ibiza and their UK importer…but, as he told me(and most of us have come to learn and agree), it is not really absinthe, as it is not supposed to contain any, and could be legally sold in the USA, if it weren’t for its name…absente, on the other hand, is absinthe by legal definition (which surprised me), and federico pulled down two bottles, the first time i had seen both the EU and american version side by side… though not great, more pastis-like, and containing added sugar, the european version is absinthe, although the american product has no absinthe in it (they use mugwart-artemisia vulgaris also used in versinthe’s american release, as it is apparently quite similar to wormwood, but without the essential oil)…

It is always interesting and useful to get opinions and analysis from someone who is tied to the spirits industry by profession, with facts at hand, as we all have our own assumptions about these products, about what is or isn’t, absinthe…federico has tried to include since spirits corner’s creation, all spanish absinthes that are of at least decent quality or better and has recently had to stop adding certain products, since absentas and absinthes have recently multiplied like drunken rabbits, especially those made obviously just for the money

So what goes into a decent absinthe?

There are three methods for making absinthe (and this goes for many spirits): distillation, maceration and oil-mixing…first of all, and this was news to me, almost NO absinthes are created solely by maceration, filtration and bottling…why? because the process cannot be easily controlled in regards to stable chemical levels for a commercial product…so, one should use carefully the term ‘maceration’ when talking about commercial absinthe, because it is mostly likely not done at all… except as an extraction before distillation or in the creation of oils, which most liquor-manufacturers don’t do… maceration is mostly left to the misguided individual steeping plants in a bottle of alcohol, hoping to create absinthe, and usually ending up with a very bitter, possibly dangerous concoction…

So, what does almost every absinthe maker do? mixes oils…that’s it…it can be controlled and measured and the oils can be easily ordered from a laboratory or ‘essences’ from a liquor industry supplier such as gert strand…in fact, for absinthe, ‘distilleries’ can order oils in various strengths of thujone and then mix it to get the level you desire…

Oils with various strengths of thujone? how do you do that?

Federico pulled a dry sprig of flowered absinthe plant off of a shelf…

My lesson had begun…the top of the absinthe plant consists of three parts: the stem, the leaves and the flowers…the stem has the highest amount of thujone in it, the leaves less and the flowers even less…absinthe oil is typically made, not from a mixture of these plant parts, but separately, from each one, and the final oils will have different levels of thujone…these oils can then be mixed easily afterwards to get your EU or wherever required maximum legal limit, or jack up the thujone, as is done in eastern Europe (this would also give a possible explanation why poor-quality absinthes of the past would have been high in thujone: due to the manufacturer buying cheaper stems and leaves as opposed to the higher quality, more fragrant, and expensive, flowers and top leaves(or just cheap oils or macerations)… absinthe distilleries could and did create high quality products with low thujone, it just required high quality ingredients and production methods(distillation)-amazing!-this was probably something françois guy found out, after going through great pains to try to find out how to remove thujone, supposedly by laser, genetically modifying plants, or some other wacky process-just distill it like it is supposed to be! … unfortunately for the better distilleries of the past, it was too little, too late when they tried to defend themselves and many were too wrapped up in suing each other over brand-name usages to see the anti-alcohol leagues marching hand-in-hand with wine producers against them …

(see the very surprising article ‘myth, reality and absinthe’ by Ian Hutton, regarding thujone levels in vintage brands)

What about sugar in spanish absinthe? they all seem so sweet…

Actually, federico told me, many don’t use sugar at all…

Serpis, deva, mari mayans, were three he brought up…I told him I was sure segarra didn’t either( i had been personally assured by julian segarra that he used only green anis and grande absinthe)…

But it can’t be just green or star anis, can it?

No, not with all, in fact there is a third anis that is used…really?!

I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me as i now know there is at least one other variety of absinthe plant that is used in certain swiss ‘la bleues’ that does’t seem to be known in france...

The other anis is called ‘matalauva’…i asked cristina to write down the name as there was no way I could spell it…neither her nor her brother knew of an english translation for the name and she even tried to look it up in a spanish/english dictionary with no luck…

This is what gives many spanish absinthes the sweet taste, so sweet to be assumed it is added sugar…when trying afterward to research matalauva myself, i could not find an exact definition,(or even an english reference) but it seems to be often interchanged with green anis to the point of possibly being the same thing…it is also possible that since spanish green anis is considered the best, that ‘matalauva’ refers to the spanish variety…

So what about the spanish tradition of absinthe? and what happened?

Federico finds this subject quite interesting, for obvious reasons…

Spain really doesn’t have a big history of drinking absinthe, he explained…

He pointed out the old mediterranean trade link between alicante, spain, and algeria ( where, during the 1840’s war, french soldiers first got the taste for absinthe) which would account for some shared tastes and product distribution… barcelona, of course, had its share, due to the artistic, bohemian nature of the city and its cultural ties with paris during the belle époque. for the most part, only northern spain saw any real consumption, and mostly near the french border…(pamplona, where hemingway supposedly drank absinthe before running with the bulls, is actually closer to france than barcelona, and you’d think there would be absinthe around today because of the run, making a good goring or stomping all that much more tolerable, but i didn’t see any.) it is almost completely unknown in the south.

Finally, maybe due to other, more effective products, the last fashionable absinthe days of spain died with the 1960’s…but there’s more to that story…

It seems, back in the early 1970’s, pernod and domecq spirits sent in french and british upper-level managers to over-see their holdings of liquor production and distribution in spain…one day, a frenchman is looking over the products and sees ‘absenta’ and exclaims: ‘sacré bleu! absinthe has been banned since the war of ‘14! what are you doing? it makes people crazy! stop making absinthe!’ and their spanish holdings did…and, like dominoes, so stopped every other distiller in spain…because pernod said it was not supposed to be made…gone…like it never happened…and god knows many of us have tried to find some traces of it…like looking for the ‘missing link’…and it wasn’t that long ago…( absinthe production made by pernod in tarragona, south of barcelona, quit in the 60’s, it’s history equally blurry and almost impossible to research )

In indignant defiance of the powers that assumed to be, the ‘destilerias montana’ reacted: ‘show us the spanish law that says absinthe is illegal!’ which, as it might be, no one could, so they kept going…and julian segarra continued also… his total production is small and absenta being at the bottom of his drinks list (considering he makes one of the best commercial absinthes available), a ‘farmer drink’ that was taken at the end of a hot day in the fields to quench the thirst… i know understand his attitude when i tried to get into a discussion about thujone with him at the distillery…he didn’t measure it, too many things involved to make a good product to go through the pain of stopping distillation, measuring, re-starting, stopping, measuring again… measuring and maintaining the exact degree of alcohol, yes, because that is the law in spain, but not thujone…why?

Because there is no and never has been a law in spain about absinthe…none, never…not on the books…doesn’t exist…

Federico likes to say: ‘the only thing prohibited in the prohibition of absinthe in spain is the prohibition.’ illegality was just assumed by some frenchman at pernod and everybody followed the leader…most people in spain who even know anything about absinthe still think it is illegal…

Absenta montana holds a special place for federico, mostly because they had the balls to say put up or shut up…now that i know this story, i could guess that maybe montana is the brand that the bar ‘marsella’ in barcelona is using for its mystery-custom-house brand, always served from pre-dosed glasses lined up behind the bar (which were poured from a pitcher, and not directly from a bottle, when i was there)…’their’ distillery is in barcelona (as is montana), and it is 55°, the same ‘maximum strength possible’ as is claimed for the marsella bar absenta. upon re-tasting at home, i noticed it is quite similar…it could be claimed as being the same as original absenta (though i was told it was exactly the same as vintage absinthe, which it is definitely not) since montana never stopped its production …a mystery, though i still think they use lasala)…anyway, when i asked federico about this supposed custom absinthe, i was told that no distillery would make something custom for a bar and not put it in labelled bottles (which is what i was told at the bar)…in spain, its not legal for tax purposes (and that’s much more serious than for lesser reasons, such as, well, health) …

So, what are other personal favorites? serpis is one…it is the largest selling absinthe in germany, which certainly accounts for the copy-cat german ‘tabu red’, the czech ‘red’ absinth and, i’m sure, more to come…federico explained that the germans like it because the red color makes amusing drinks…this seems to reflect the true nature of the popularity of absinth(e) in germany, that absinthe actually being green or clear like the originals is not of the greatest importance (though red does play an important part in the history of one french absinthe maker, who used to make red dye for, among other things, uniform britches for the french army, before turning to absinthe distillation)…the german market is loaded with dozens of brands of absinthe, mostly of mediocre quality aimed at the nightclub scene, or for resellers more interested in maximum profit, which makes introducing true, quality products in their wake that much more difficult, as assumptions are made about absinthe being only a novelty drink…i was told recently by a french government official that he did not believe absinthe will ever have a ‘fine spirit’ status, and remain a trend-only product…

And what about serpis ‘dry’ made without anis, a flavor, interestingly enough, the germans are not terribly fond of (as high sales of practically anis-less ‘hills’ can attest)…federico responded that it was not, for the long run, a good move, taste-wise… i mentioned that i had very little experience with serpis, but it was, in fact, part of my first absinthe order ever, from cristina, 2 years ago, when i sent my brother in chicago a sampler of serpis, deva and mari mayans… i then tried to explain to federico and cristina what a cherry slurpee was and how the red seemed to go well with the ‘red’ taste in serpis…i don’t think they understood what the hell i was talking about (as few people do; this disturbing drink combination, serpis absinthe with cherry slurpee; christened ‘slurpis’ and created by the infamous and mysterious absintheur/web-philosopher ‘head prosthesis.’)

Federico told me the 65° was a better product and maybe i would like to try some? it was 11 a.m., and of course, as every good taster knows, the ‘buds are best in the morning, still fresh… so he poured me a small glass and i was surprised…classically spanish, with the fennel/lemon tone, but much better than i remember the 55° tasting, and no imaginary ‘red’ taste…could i have had a bad batch of cherry slurpee?

And what about ‘old way’? that mysterious, label-less absinthe which spirits corner once had offered in very limited quantities? ‘old way’ is a personal pet of federico… the sample that had been brought to me in paris was the best spanish absinthe i had ever tasted, and i told federico so, along with the fact i found it quite close in taste to a swiss ‘la bleue.’ i really liked it, but just a little put-off by its outrageous green color which couldn’t be natural… federico smiled; it is natural plant coloring, he revealed …amazing…he told me how it was done, but i promised not to divulge his secret…the production was a one-time run, i told him he did quite well, selling out quickly, considering no one knew what it was, or where it came from…

That was not the end of that product, i was assured, but it will take on a more formal, complete look in the future (a label would be a good start), and he will also be able to position it as something quite unique on the market…

I looked at his huge assortment of absinthes, some he sells, some are curiosities that he tried and rejected…i told him i had tasted at least 100 different absinthes, but never ‘hills.’ well, he exclaimed, as he grabbed a bottle, here’s your chance! i opened it and gave it a sniff…

No, thanks, i think i’ll hold out…

Federico didn’t seemed surprised… i was offered the opportunity to try other absinthes, but my wife was starting to think about the rest of our short visit in this great city in the midst of celebrating the ‘year of antoni guadi,’ no less (and the fact that i was already drinking absinthe, before lunch.) i could have continued our conversation for hours, but we had to finish…before we left the office, federico kindly offered me a bottle of serpis 65°, and his hospitality in the future…i thanked him for giving such a large and informative piece of his time that morning and invited him to paris for my chance to reciprocate…

Cristina lead us back to ‘la cava de los faros,’ to show us the famous vaulted cellar…the shop was built on a piece of historic barcelona, part of its foundation is the remnants of the ancient city walls…cristina explained, as we descended the old staircase into the “cava’, that the handsome stone arch on the far wall was part of the top of an ancient entrance…it dated back to the 13th century…there were many cases of wine and absinthe stored on the walls and floor, and in the center of the room, a classic old toledo (ohio, not spain) scale, looking to be more at home in a new england country store and not a wine cellar in barcelona…

Back up in the shop, senora lafuente pointed out, before i had a chance to ask, that the scale was a prized family piece, acquired from the 1870 universal exposition in barcelona…i found a fine spanish priorato with her recommendation, from their well-chosen selection of wines, just before we left…senora lafuente started to proudly boast of her grandchildren and tried to get cristina to pull out a picture, which was clearly a bit embarrassing for the mild-spoken cristina to do…

A proud and hospitable family…it shows in their dedication to their customers, amazingly so for the many they never meet in person, who order for home delivery from ‘spirits corner cristina’ on the web and never set foot in ‘la cava de los faros,’ or even barcelona… everyone who orders seems to be more than satisfied by their professional and attentive service…it was my pleasure to finally meet and put a face this service, on cristina and federico… it is something we who travel on the world-wide web so seldom get the chance to do…

By: Peter Verte

la Fée Verte - the Green Fairy