Absinthe; we all know the name, but what is it, really?

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Let’s talk about the spirit with enough mystery and intrigue around it, you’d think it was a mythical work of fiction…

Absinthe; we all know the name, but what is it, really?

Well, let’s start with the basics. Absinthe, is an anise-flavored spirit, is often mistakenly referred to as a “liqueur.” This gorgeous liquid is derived from culinary and medicinal herbs, most importantly the leaves of the herb wormwood. It is traditionally bottled without added sugar. Therefore, it is considered a spirit. It is also bottled at a relatively high ABV. Absinthe traditionally has a natural green color, but it may also be colorless. 

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Absinthe is a french from the Latin word absinthium and Greek word absinthion meaning “wormwood.” In historical literature, it is referred to as "la fée verte” (the green fairy) and there is evidence that absinthe goes back as far as the Egyptian empire. But the credit for the spirit that we know of now goes to French doctor Pierre Ordinaire. In the late 18th century, the good doctor retreated to a small Swiss town and crafted a drinkable concoction using local herbs mixed with wormwood to produce an emerald green elixir rumored to cure just about everything; anemia, lung sickness, oh, and flatulence. Hey, bartender!

Legends says that the doc passed down his absinthe recipe on his deathbed to a trusted friend. Just a few years later, Henri-Louis Pernod, (you know that guy who is the father of the little brand Pernod), after initially distilling in Switzerland, Pernod opened a larger distillery in France to meet popular demand.

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Absinthe rose to great popularity as an alcoholic drink in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in France and was very popular among Parisian artists and writers. By the early 20th centuries it was well embedded in Bohemian culture, which made it an easy target for social conservatives and Prohibitionists. 

Interestingly though, before it became legendary, absinthe was given to French soldiers as a field treatment for malaria. As French soldiers returned from the war, they came back with a hell of a thirst for this green drink. Almost at the same time, France was experiencing a massive wine shortage, which contributed to its huge popularity. During this period in the latter half of the 19th century. In France, the 5 o’clock hour was referred to as l’heure verte, ‘the green hour.” The French were now having a full-on love affair with absinthe. Imagine Van Gogh, Picasso, Poe, Oscar Wilde and Hemingway all sitting in Parisian cafes sipping on absinthe. Imagine the discussions of the likes of Picasso and Hemingway over-indulging on absinthe, “Say there, Pablo, what’s this Cubist stuff all about?” “Well Ernie, I don’t know, what’s with this Cuban guy and the giant marlin?” But I digress.

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The Spanish also took a liking to this spirit as well. As did New Orleans imbibers. As a matter of fact, The Old Absinthe House opened in 1870, is one of New Orleans most prominent historical landmarks. By 1878, over 8 million liters of Absinthe had been imported to the US. However, France was consuming 36 millions liters per year. Woweee. 

Absinthe has been portrayed as a psychoactive hallucinogen. The chemical compound thujone, only present in trace amounts, was blamed for its alleged harmful effects. Spurred by the Temperance movement and the Winemakers Association, absinthe was associated with violent crimes and social disorder. A famous psychiatrist even set out to conduct his own experiments to prove the harmful effects of absinthe, even though he was wholly unqualified and his results were an absolute farce. Nonetheless, the Winemakers Association along with a boatload of “evidence” initiated a ban on the spirit, this ban spread throughout Europe and the US.

There are many other factors that lead to the demise of this gorgeous spirit, including a massive fire at the Pernod distillery being another, but you get the idea.

So, the absinthe slept for a very, very long time. And then, in the 1990’s countries like England, which had never formally banned the spirit, began to import the absinthe that was still being made in the Czech Republic, Spain, and Portugal. 

In 2000, La Fee Absinthe became the first commercial absinthe distilled and bottled in France since the 1914 ban. After that, other European countries began to drop their bans. In 2007, the French “Lucid” brand became the first genuine absinthe to receive the COLA (Certificate Of Label Approval) for importation to the US. And then, finally in the same year, we had our first American-made absinthe produced since the ban, St. George Absinthe Verte. However, Vieux Carre purports to be the first to distill absinthe in the US. Since that time, though other small distilleries have begun to make absinthe, contributing to the growing market. (Looks like I have more digging to do.)

Today, there are over 200 brands of absinthe being produced worldwide. 

And there are a few different ways that absinthe can be produced other than distillation. Most countries do not have regulations for absinthe, unlike whiskey for example; the method of production and the content of the spirit and such are not highly regulated. Legitimate absinthe employs one of two processes, distillation or cold mixing.

The distillation process is very similar to gin. Botanicals are macerated, steeped, and then put in a base alcohol, and then re-distilled, often twice. Traditional absinthes obtain their green color from the chlorophyll of the herbs, unlike lessor quality absinthe brands that use coloring. However, there are pink and red absinthes on the market that are naturally colored using rose or hibiscus flowers which I have less of a problem with. As long as it’s natural and botanical, I personally feel it’s acceptable in an herbal spirit. 

And another important factor to remember when choosing an Absinthe brand, be sure to grab a bottle that has dark glass, because exposure to light will cause the color in the liquid to fade to clear and then brown.

The ABV on absinthe varies going back to the lack of official definitions. Lucid, for example is bottled at 62%, St. George at 60% and Pernod 68%. 

So, what is absinthe made of other than wormwood leaves? Well, even when recipes are kept secret, we still know that, the wormwood is actually grande wormwood and at least two other ingredients; green anise and sweet fennel. These three ingredients are referred to as the Holy Trinity. 

Now let’s talk taste and uses. Expect anise flavor (black licorice), right away, predominantly. However, if you don’t like anise don’t back away from this spirit yet. 

There are many more botanicals in this bouquet; lots of grassy notes, earthy flavors, and spiciness. 

There are also different styles of absinthe as well. With other flavors coming to the forefront, we will mostly see Verte (Green) in the US. There is also Blanche (white), Absenta (Spanish, which has a slightly different flavor if it’s traditional absenta; it may have predominant citrus notes due to its use of Alicante anise). Also, there is Hausgemacht (German) and Bohemian-style absinthe also referred to as Czech-style.

If you are just not having the anise, and you still don't care for it straight, that’s OK because absinthe is a wonderful cocktail ingredient. 

But first, before we get into cocktails, let’s talk about how to enjoy absinthe in the traditional way.

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The traditional French preparation involves placing a small slotted spoon (these were specifically designed for absinthe and they are making a comeback) over a special glass; a pontarlier glass is one option. There were specific glasses designed just for absinthe, which would have a reservoir or line to show the correct amount of absinthe to pour in. One would then place a sugar cube on the spoon, with the measured amount of absinthe already in the glass. Then, ice water would be dripped slowly over the sugar cube to dilute the absinthe. Often, an ice water fountain would be used. 

Then there is the Bohemian method. One would pre-soak the sugar cube in absinthe, sit it on the spoon, light it on fire, and then drop it into the glass. A shot of ice water would then be dumped into the glass to put out the flame. Most experienced absinthe drinkers will tell you that this is not a preferred method, as it may ruin the absinthe flavor. Not to mention, you have a good chance of lighting your face on fire!

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And there are the cocktails. By the 1930’s absinthe was a very popular cocktail ingredient and is cited in many reputable bartender guides of the times. One of the most famous of these is Ernest Hemingway’s “Death In The Afternoon.” It goes like this: pour one jigger of absinthe into a champagne glass, fill with champagne, drink three to five of these slowly. So Ernie, so cheeky.

Absinthe adds a unique and irreplaceable element to cocktails, especially whiskey cocktails. Let me just drop two names right here. The Sazerac and Cocktail A La Louisiana. Am I right? Article over, mic drop. Cheers.

Okay, I’m kidding, but you get the point, right? If not, let me leave you with a few recipes that might interest you. I highly suggest you find a local watering hole that knows how to serve absinthe properly and give it a try before you purchase bottles. Ask your bartenders which brands they prefer; your well-trained bartenders are always a great source of knowledge that is there for the tapping. 

Drink in good health, and let me know if you catch the green fairy!

Sazerac
1 sugar cube
2 dashes Peychaud bitters
1 teaspoon water
Ice
2 ounces rye whiskey
1/8 teaspoon absinthe
Twist of lemon peel for garnish

Place sugar in a separate cocktail glass. Add bitters and a splash of water. Muddle and stir to dissolve sugar. Then, add ice and whiskey. Take another glass and rinse it with the absinthe, coating the sides of the glass. Dump the excess absinthe.) Strain the contents from the whiskey glass into the absinthe glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

McKinley’s Delight
Ice
2 ounces rye whiskey
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 teaspoon cherry brandy
1/4 teaspoon absinthe

Place ice in a cocktail shaker. Pour in whiskey, sweet vermouth, cherry brandy, and absinthe. Shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Cocktail A La Louisiane
1 ounce rye whiskey
¾ ounce Benedictine
¾ ounce sweet vermouth
1/8 teaspoon absinthe
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Luxardo cherry for garnish

Add a handful of ice to a mixing glass. Pour in whiskey, Benedictine, sweet vermouth, and absinthe. Shake in bitters. Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry or a twist of lemon.

Sherman Cocktail
2 ounces rye whiskey
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1/2 teaspoon absinthe
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Twist of lemon for garnish

Place ice in a cocktail shaker. Pour in whiskey, sweet vermouth, and absinthe. Shake in Angostura and orange bitters. Shake or stir to mix. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

Cheers!

Sailor
ABV Network Mixology
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Jeremy Schell