Last Sunday's Life Wire article on absinthe started me thinking - the Green Fairy has indeed returned to the U.S., but what exactly do we know about it? We know it by reputation - it's the scourge of the bourgeois, hallucinogenic, intoxicating, green-tinted and tasting of black licorice, favored by notables like Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet and others. But mostly, the reputation is notorious.
So I've compiled some background information from online sources and pared it down to a few interesting facts, notes and historical tidbits. Also, I tried it. I sampled a brand called Absente, or "absinthe refined," which is made in New Jersey with Southern wormwood or "petite absinthe." The difference is small, but this particular wormwood doesn't contain as much thujone and is able to be produced at acceptable levels. So it's the real deal, but a muted version, and can be purchased in the U.S.
It even came in a lovely van Gogh-esque box with a complimentary silver absinthe spoon. I didn't buy sugar cubes, which I think might've made all the difference, but I did use a lump of sugar and dripping water to achieve the result. (It's not good by itself; trust me.) First fact: the water doesn't just run through the spoon rapidly. It hardly drips, in fact, and takes quite a while to make its way through the sugar and the holes in the spoon to the glass. Seriously, like 15 minutes. So, be patient. It's not something I'd want to order in a bar if I were really wanting a drink. Although, with a 120 proof alcohol content, it might just be worth it. Remember when 100 proof stuff was what you dared your friends to drink? Just try this.
When it was finally done it tasted very, very much like licorice. But like licorice dipped (soaked, really) in Everclear or bottom-shelf vodka. It was strong. Not the kind of strong like a shot at the bar, where you realize 10 minutes after taking it that you're a little woozy and clumsy. This was the kind of strong where you get tears in your eyes and feel like you're in an old-timey cartoon taking a swig out of a bootleg jug with big black Xs scrawled across it. Eye-crossing strong. Rubbing alcohol strong. Although, for the strength I have to say the taste ain't half bad. I'm not surprised it was banned.
Absinthe is a distilled anise-flavored spirit that's highly alcoholic, made from herbs including wormwood (Artemesia absinthium). It's unusual from most spirits because it bottles at a high alcohol proof (between 60-70 percent alcohol, or 120 to 150 proof) but is normally diluted with water when consumed.
It originated in Switzerland but is known for its popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in France, particularly among artists and writers. It was thus associated closely with bohemian culture. Soon it was portrayed as dangerously addictive and psychoactive, causing hallucinations and other symptoms. It was banned consequently in several countries.
The traditional method of preparation is to pour absinthe into a glass, then place a special slotted spoon on the top with a sugar cube on it, then drip cold water until the cube is disintegrated and the drink diluted to a ratio of 3 to 1 or 5 to 1.
The reason this complicated process is done is mostly so that the components that aren't soluble in water (fennel, anise, etc.) come out of the solution and cloud the drink, creating the characteristic cloudiness, or "louche." Adding water allows the herbs in the liquor to blossom and bring their individual flavors to light.
Did You Know? Fast Absinthe Facts
- Consuming essence of wormwood (wormwood extract) can be toxic.
- Historically there were five types of absinthe - ordinaire, demi-fine, fine, superieure and Suisse.
- Absinthe can also be made clear, blue or red in addition to the traditional green color.
- The precise origin of absinthe is unclear. The medical use of wormwood dates back to ancient Egypt, but the first clear evidence of the liquor in the modern sense dates to the 18th century.
- Absinthe's popularity grew in the 1840s, when it was given to French troops as a malaria treatment. (That's my kind of medicine.)
- By the 1860s it was so popular that most cafes and bistros signaled 5 p.m. as "l'heure verte," or "the green hour."
- Many countries never banned absinthe, including Britain.
- It's depicted in famous paintings by Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet.
- Oscar Wilde's account of absinthe drinking described it as the feeling of having tulips on his legs after leaving a bar.
- Today, absinthe is known to not cause hallucinations.
- Some modern specialists, such as Ted Breaux, claim that alleged affects may be caused by the fact that some of the herbal compounds in the drink act as stimulants, while others act as sedatives, creating an overall lucid effect of awakening.
- In 2007 the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) relaxed the absinthe ban and approved sale of several brands, which have to pass TTB testing to ensure the thujon levels are less than 10ppm.
For more background on absinthe visit the Wikipedia page. Also, check out the Absinthe Buyer's Guide for information, including an interview with Ted Breaux, co-founder of absinthe producer Jade Liquors, a real absinthe aficionado.
Absinthe Recipes (if you can get it, or any other pernod variant)
Fresh mint leaves
Soda water or seltzer
Muddle 2 lime wedges and fresh chopped mint. Add ice, then add 2 oz Absente. Add splash of simple syrup. Top off with soda water or seltzer. Add a few more mint leaves for garnish. Mix and enjoy.
Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon"
Pour one jigger of absinthe into a champagne glass, then add iced champagne until it obtains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.