Fancy a swig of absinthe from the oldest manufacturer of spirits in Europe? Then it’s time to meet the venue that holds that title: Green Tree Distillery.
France’s love affair with la fee verte – or the ‘green lady’ – is one of the primary reasons as to why absinthe grew to such notoriety during the late 19th century, and in fact, is still regarded as the stuff of legends. Favoured by the likes of Oscar Wilde, Vincent Van Gogh and Ernest Hemmingway, the streets of Paris came alive every evening once their elixir of choice began to flow freely. However, while we all regard the ‘City Of Light’ to be the epicentre of absinthe consumption, then and now, Prague is arguably the runner up of holding such a title.
Prague is famous for well-preserved castles, Baroque and Gothic cathedrals, medieval squares, dreamy bridges, nightlife spots, and a lively arts scene. It’s known for its centuries of history and cultural heritage, where the medieval heart of Europe can be felt in its cobblestone streets. As such, the bohemian city had no shortage of famous inhabitants throughout history, including visitors from all corners of the art world, who in turn helped to spread the absinthe phenomenon throughout the continent. While Czech produced absinthe often get a bad wrap when compared to its French and Swiss peers, what’s the difference – and where do you find the good stuff?
MEET EUROPE’S OLDEST DISTILLERY
Some – but not all – absinthe in Prague is the bohemian style variety, which is when the liquor is distilled without the extensive combinations of herbs that absinthe is traditionally known for. Although they do contain the infamous wormwood extract, they have long been regarded as less pleasant to drink, rendering the addition of sugar, a necessary evil.
However, some distilleries have actively sought to improve the reputation of Czech absinthes, producing them traditionally with attention to ingredients, flavour, and the beverage’s ‘louche’, which is the way the drink clouds when water is added to dilute its strength. Located just one hour north of Prague lies Green Tree Distillery, or more commonly known locally as Palírna U Zeleného Stromu.
Make no mistake, this venue isn’t your average brewer. The establishment of the Green Tree Distillery dates all the way back to 4th July 1518, when Vilém of Pernštejn granted the brewing rights to thirty-one building owners in Prostějov. Among those selected was also the owner of the building At Green Tree, gamekeeper Jež from Seloutky. In the early days, it was mainly beer that was brewed, but Jež’s successor, Jan Chytrovský, invested heavily in upgrading the malt house and the brewery room. In 1591, Jan was joined by a businessman and a baker known as Pavel Zoubek. Under Zoubek’s watchful eye, Green Tree Distillery quickly went on to distil what was regarded as the very best spirits in the entire northern region.
After many years of fires, supply chain issues and even somehow making it through several conflicts and pillages unscathed, Green Tree Distillery flourished once more under the ownership of Mr Storch from Markvartice. Originally a pharmacist, Mr Storch began to experiment with herbs and spices such as fennel, anise, mint and others, adding them to the yeast, producing brand new liquors – one of which formed the foundations of what we now know to be bohemian style absinthe. His original concoctions are still in production at Green Tree Distillery even today and are nowadays regarded as ‘traditional’ recipes, and arguably formed the backbone of absinthe production in the establishment.
Today, absinthe produced by Green Tree Distillery is sold as Green Fairy Absinth, and is regarded as the godfather of all bohemian style absinthe liquors. While the Czechs notably dropped the ‘e’ many moons ago, they also lack the herb anise, which is traditionally used in other brews of the green elixir. Anise acts as a sweetener to counteract the wormwood component, which seconds only to rue, is said to be the most bitter herb on the planet. As a result, this form of absinthe is generally consumed by soaking a sugar cube in the absinth, setting it alight, then dropping it into the drink. The drink itself – now on fire – is in turn quenched with water.
Since the ban on thujone, the active ingredient in wormwood was lifted in Australia, Green Fairy Absinth was the very first to be legally sold on our shelves here in the Land Down Under. More often than not, consumers tend to underestimate the alcohol content of absinthe such as that produced by Green Tree Distillery. With an alcohol content of 60%, ease into it with mixers to ensure the liquor is to your taste. Like all alcohol, large amounts of absinthe can be physically quite dangerous. Binge drinking absinthe is ill advised, and can lead to alcohol poisoning.
While nobody can say whether you’ll witness Kylie Minogue appear as the green fairy after a few glasses a la Moulin Rouge! – there’s no denying that the controversy and mystique are all a part of absinthe’s appeal, and the global curiosity doesn’t look to be diminishing anytime soon.