Uncommon spirit is awarded top honours at the 2019 Canadian Artisan Spirit Competition last month

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 ice water to cut the bitterness of wormwood. The 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 spirit below.

“The ice water from a special fountain. The special tools. The special glasses. All of them are part of the experience,” Mike Beamish, founder of PEI’s Deep Roots Distillery explained. “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, said 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 herbs add florals and spices.

The judges also liked Deep Roots’ colour—absinthe can be clear, but it’s known as ‘the green fairy’—and that it developed a subtle hazing known as ‘louche’ 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 added: “One of them got ‘lemongrass 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 explained. “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 Gogh. But others argued that wormwood contained a dangerously addictive hallucinogen called thujone. Many countries bowed to pressure and banned absinthe through most of the 20th century.

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 added that it’s grown popular enough to warrant its 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 explained. “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 in Warren Grove, planted 200 apple trees in 1990 and first opened a u-pick.

Mike Beamish, owner of Deep Roots Distillery Photo credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

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

They were 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,” Beamish said. “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 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 their 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.”

Photo credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

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 bottles of absinthe per batch.

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

About Michael Strickland

Michael Strickland is a strategic storyteller and story coach from somewhere far away. He spends the bulk of his time helping individuals and organizations share their stories with their strategic publics. He’s also a lifestyle writer and certified beer expert who dreams of spending serious time at the family cottage, exploring the various sights, sounds and, most especially, the tastes of Prince Edward Island.

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