What is Absinthe?
In time for "National Absinthe Day" on March 5th...The term “absinthe” comes from Artemisia absinthium, the scientific name for its key ingredient, wormwood. Long before distillers discovered it, the herb was used for medicinal purposes.
Absinthe is an anise-flavored spirit that was originally 136 proof and made with grande wormwood. It is typically made by distilling neutral grain spirits with herbs, predominately anise, florence fennel and grande wormwood. Other herbs such as angelica root, coriander, dittany leaves, hyssop, juniper, nutmeg, melissa, star anise, sweet flag, and veronica are also used. Absinthe is commonly considered a liqueur, however, because it does not contain any sugar, it is actually a spirit/liquor.
The color of the distillate is clear and is often bottled this way or as a bright green. The coloring is added, either through the chlorophyll from steeping herbs like hyssop, melissa and petite wormwood in the liquor or adding artificial coloring. Other absinthes around the world are available in red or blue hues.
Absinthe has as many nicknames as it does legends. But the truth is that the high-proof spirit is an important and historic elixir. It is also known as absinth, ‘the green fairy”, and ‘the green goddess’. At a super-high proof with an intense herbal flavor, it’s no wonder why some people still think absinthe has hallucinogenic effects. (It only becomes hallucinogenic when drank in high quantities.)
The history of absinthe is a cocktail of myth and controversy. A turn-of-the-twentieth-century favorite of artists and writers, the spirit was banned in the United States in 1912 because it was believed to be hallucinogenic. Just a few years ago, it once again became legal in America to buy.
This potent liqueur was outlawed in many countries for years following multiple instances of harmful effects and even deaths of its drinkers, most of which were due to over indulgence of the green spirit. Since the 95 year absinthe ban was lifted in the United States in 2007, many brands have been released with lower thujone levels. During the bans, homemade absinthe kits became popular, however this became dangerous. Ingestion of too much wormwood or the use of wormwood extract can be toxic and poisonous.
There have been a number of famous absinthe drinkers throughout history, most notably among artists and writers in the 19th century. Pablo Picasso, Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Rimbaud, Ernest Hemingway, and Oscar Wilde to name a few and absinthe has been mentioned as having influence on their work. Possibly the best known absinthe imbiber was Vincent Van Gogh, who drank it for years (presumably addicted to it), painted still lives of absinthe, and some believe he was under its influence when he cut off his ear.
HOW TO DRINK ABSINTHE:
It is not recommended to drink absinthe straight because of its potency and pungent taste. Don’t take it as a straight shot - you may not taste anything else for days. A better way to drink absinthe is to use the classic preparation method known as the absinthe ritual. It is a far more passive option that involves water, a sugar cube, and specially designed spoons and glasses.
The preferred way is to slowly drip water over a sugar cube and into the spirit, which becomes cloudy (pictured here with recipe) -
- Ice water
- 1 to 1.5 oz Absinthe
- 1 Sugar cube
Fill an absinthe fountain with ice water. Pour the absinthe into an absinthe glass and place an absinthe spoon topped with the sugar cube across the rim. Position the glass under a spigot of the fountain and slowly drip water over the sugar cube until the sugar dissolves and the absinthe turns completely opaque. (You will need roughly 5 ounces of water per ounce of absinthe). Stir briefly before serving. (Courtesy of Liquor.com)
According to Jim Meehan, an award-winning mixologist and a Liquor.com advisor, you can also use small quantities of absinthe (a few dashes, a rinse or a quarter-ounce) to add a floral and bittersweet quality to just about any cocktail. You will need a bottle of absinthe to make a proper Sazerac, Corpse Reviver #2, and Death in the Afternoon. These are classic New Orleans cocktails and very popular during Mardi Gras (see cocktails below).
Absinthe is hallucinogenic.
Absinthe marketers love to capitalize on the product’s illicit reputation, but the fact is that it’s no more likely to make you see or hear things than whiskey, tequila, or other common spirits. Recent scientific studies have demonstrated, beyond doubt, that even absinthes prior to the ban contained no hallucinogens, opiates or other psychoactive substances. The most powerful ‘drug’ in absinthe is and has always been a high volume of cleverly disguised, seductively perfumed alcohol.
Absinthe was banned because it’s hallucinogenic.
So if absinthe isn’t hallucinogenic, why was it banned in most European countries and the US in the early 20th century? “Absinthe became a victim of its own popularity when the French wine industry and temperance movement targeted a common scapegoat to promote their respective agendas,” according to Ted A. Breaux, one of the world’s leading absinthe experts. The professional scientist and researcher has been studying the Green Fairy for decades and was instrumental in getting absinthe back on store shelves in America.
In reality, it was “cheap, adulterated versions of the drink” says Breaux, sold by unscrupulous manufacturers, not unlike bathtub gin during Prohibition, that caused problems.
Absinthe in the US isn’t real.
“A few exceptions aside, the quality and authenticity of absinthes found in the US market is very good,” Breaux says. And that means they’re made with Artemisia absinthium, AKA grande wormwood, the herb that gives the concoction its name and its flavor. “In contrast, the Euro market remains heavily contaminated with offerings that amount to flavored vodka and green dye posing as absinthe, many being offered at prices well beyond their value,” he says.
Absinthe is from the Czech Republic.
In the early 1990s, after the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic received a rash of “tourists willing to pay a premium for any bottled green (or bluish) liquid labeled ‘absinth’.” The truth is that the spirit was invented in Switzerland around the turn of the 19th century and was produced there and just over the border in southeastern France. “During the height of its popularity [in the late 1800s], more than 95 percent of the world’s absinthe was produced in that region,” Breaux says.
Absinthe should be served with a flaming sugar cube.
The classic method of serving absinthe involves slowly dripping water into the spirit, often over a sugar cube held on a special perforated spoon. But in “another tradition that magically appeared in the 1990s,” Breaux says, the sugar is first soaked with alcohol and lit with a match. Though impressive, the “fire ritual” is really designed to distract from the fact that a cheap and artificial product will not louche, or turn cloudy with the addition of water, like it should. It’s not necessary.
Since absinthe has become legal we have seen many brands become available throughout the world, but most of them will cost you a bunch. The listed prices are in PA, Here are just a few with varying proofs - Vieux Carre Absinthe (120 proof, $59.99), Pernod Anise Liqueur (80 proof, $29.99), Lucid Absinthe (124 proof, $49.99), Jacquin’s Anisette (60 proof (more of a liqueur), $11.29)), and Absente Grande Anise Absinthe (138 proof, $66.99).
Abisante, Anisette, Pernod, and Herbsaint are often used to replace Absinthe in modern-day cocktail recipes.
There are many great absinthe cocktails. When mixing with absinthe it is important to remember that the anise is a strong flavor and it is recommended to measure its portion according to the recipe. Also, be sure to properly clean any bar tools that have contained absinthe as the flavor and smell can remain for a while and contaminate other, non-absinthe drinks.
Because of these finer qualities, absinthe is a fine addition to cocktails. Like bitters, it can add a finishing touch of aroma. It is strong enough to act as a base spirit and other options.
Death in the Afternoon
Champion drinker Ernest Hemingway claimed to have invented the Death in the Afternoon, a risky pairing of absinthe and Champagne, himself. His exact instructions suggested adding iced Champagne to a jigger of absinthe until it attained “the proper opalescent milkiness,” then proceeding to drink three to five of the cocktails in one sitting.
- 1.5 oz Absinthe
- 4.5 oz Chilled Champagne
Glass: Champagne flute or coupe
Pour the absinthe into a Champagne flute or coupe. Top with the Champagne.
(Courtesy of Liquor.com)
- 75 oz Tenneyson Absinthe
- .75 oz Lillet Blanc
- .75 oz Pür Likör Blossom Elderflower Liqueur
- .75 oz Lemon juice
- 1 dash Gin
Garnish: Lemon twist
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake, and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
(Courtesy of Liquor.com - This recipe is served at Louro in New York.)
- 1 cup Fresh blueberries
- Simple syrup (one part sugar, one part water)
- 1 cup Pernod Absinthe
- .5 cup Elderflower liqueur
- 1 cup Fresh lime juice
- 3 cups Coconut water
- 1.5 cups Pomegranate soda
Garnish: Lemon and lime wheels
In a punch bowl, crush the blueberries and a splash of simple syrup. Add the remaining ingredients except the pomegranate soda, plus plenty of ice. Stir well and top gently with the pomegranate soda. Garnish with lemon and lime wheels.
(Courtesy of Liquor.com)
Corpse Reviver and Sazerac pictured here -