Maybe it’s a little bit decadent to be sipping absinthe in the afternoon, but absinthe has always had a bit of naughtiness to it, hasn’t it?
Besides, who needs Happy Hour when you can indulge in “La heure vert” — the Green Hour — especially if it’s in the Astoria Tasting Room of Pilot House Spirits?
Owners Larry Cary and his wife Christina started Pilot House (formerly North Coast Distilling) in 2013 as a sort of personal challenge that grew out of Larry’s hobby of dabbling with home distilling.
Now that it’s taken off — thanks to their sensationally crafted spirits — it’s a full-time endeavor for the couple (and even their pooches, the muses behind Christina’s Grumpy Dog Shrubs).
The Pilot House Distillery and Tasting room in the funky-cool historic town of Astoria, Oregon, was a favorite destination of mine even before I moved to southwest Washington last year. Where else can you can sip a flight of vodka at 4PM on a Thursday and feel like you’re serving the community?
A visit to Pilot House is about more than just stocking up your liquor cabinet with some of the finest hand-crafted gins, vodkas, whiskey and liqueurs, it’s about the spirit of the owners.
When Larry’s behind the counter, you get the full experience of his passion and knowledge. The minute you walk in, he’s already figured out what he’s going to serve you — perhaps Lemon-Ginger Vodka with a raspberry shrub, or Bar Pilot Gin with their handmade tonic.
Christina’s shrubs — handcrafted drinking vinegars — are the perfect pairing for the distillery’s offerings, and stand alone deliciously as a non-alcoholic refresher, poured over ice with a splash of soda (we are never without a bottle of strawberry-balsamic-peppercorn in our fridge).
One afternoon this summer, we were lucky to pay a visit as Larry was debuting Pilot House’s newest addition — their Columbia Absinthe Verte.
Absinthe — the “Green Fairy,” the “Emerald Muse” — remains cloaked in mystery and allure.
At the height of popularity in the pre-Prohibition days, absinthe fell victim to a perfect storm of circumstances — the temperance movement, bad P.R. from the collapsing French wine industry, and cheap imitations made with toxic alcohols that furthered the myth that absinthe’s main component — wormwood — was a poison that would drive you mad.
Absinthe started to make a comeback in 2007, when the law recognized that its levels of thujone — the chemical compound in wormwood — were not even close to being dangerous — or even psychedelic.
Still, absinthe retains its allure, thanks to its luminescent green color, distinctive flavor, and the rituals of the “absinthe drip.”
Larry tells me he got interested in creating his own absinthe because he enjoyed it in Sazeracs — a classic absinthe cocktail made with rye and bitters.
He started playing with different botanicals, and developed his “formula,” using an old-world, double-distilling method. A first batch is distilled with the classic flavoring “trinity” — fennel, anise and wormwood — which gives the spirit its distinctively herbaceous licorice flavor.
Then he distills a second batch, using the herbs lemon balm, hyssop and peppermint, which gives absinthe its luscious emerald coloring. The two batches are then blended together to create a spirit as unique as the distiller.
Besides a Sazerac, Larry tells me he most enjoys the traditional absinthe drip — “It’s refreshing, nice on your stomach,” he says.
You don’t need a fancy water fountain (but it’s sure pretty, isn’t it?) — but you do need an absinthe “spoon.”
Rest a cube of sugar over an ounce of absinthe, and slowly drip about 5 ounces of ice-cold filtered water over until the sugar dissolves. The absinthe will become an opalescent, milky green, and the drink will be the perfect after-dinner — or afternoon — refreshment.
Columbia Absinthe is also a perfect cocktail component. (The book, “Absinthe Cocktails,” a compendium of classic and new classic cocktails, also gives a great history of the spirit.)
One of Larry’s favorites drinks using absinthe is this combo with gin and orange liqueur. I’ve dubbed it the “Absinthe Afternoon,” because it really is a magical way to end your day.
Larry suggests Pilot House’s Painted Lady Gin for this one — “It’s more fun to work with,” he says. If you don’t have access to Painted Lady, use your favorite gin, preferably one with a lot of bright, interesting botanicals, as the absinthe will enhance their flavors.
I’ve also substituted Patron Citronge for the Grand Marnier Larry prefers, but you can choose the premium orange liqueur of your choice.
- 1/2 jigger Columbia Absinthe Verte
- 1/2 jigger Patron Citronge
- 1 jigger Pilot House Painted Lady Gin
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice, shake well until very cold, then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange wheel.
When you’re sampling spirits from a small distillery, you’re really finding out about the distiller’s “taste.”
I already know Larry’s got great taste, and the gold medal for Pilot House Spirits’ Columbia Absinthe at the 2015 Great American Spirits Festival shows that some expert imbibers agree.
Come and catch the “Spirits of the Coast” — stop at the Pilot House Astoria Tasting Room, or the new Seaside Tasting Room — and enjoy your own “heure vert.” Just be sure to call me first so I can meet you there.