What is Absinthe and How to Mix, Serve and Drink Absinthe
Does Absinthe Make the Heart Grow Fonder?
What is Absinthe?
Absinthe is a vivid green, highly alcoholic, licorice flavored spirit made primarily with the three herbs: Wormwood, Anise and Fennel. Absinthe has a certain mysterious allure; it has been taboo in America and most of Europe for the better part of the last century. Before it was banned, absinthe was an extremely popular but intriguingly controversial drink. The effects of absinthe are still not clearly understood. Claims that absinthe caused hallucinations and even madness ultimately led to its prohibition in the U.S. in 1912, and most of Europe by 1915. In America the absinthe ban was not lifted until 2007.
Absinthe was originally created in the late 1700s for medicinal purposes by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French Doctor living in Switzerland. Dr. Ordinaire created a distilled tonic of herbs to cure various stomach illnesses. After Ordinaire's death, Henri Louis Pernod purchased Ordinaire's recipe book and began distilling absinthe in Couvet, Switzerland and Pontarlier, France. Both the name Pernod and Pontarlier became world renown for absinthe production over the next several decades. After the French banned absinthe in 1914, Pernod began distilling a wormwood-free, licorice flavored liqueur called Pernod Anise: currently known just as Pernod .
Although it originated in Switzerland, absinthe enjoyed its greatest popularity boom in France, particularly Paris, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Absinthe became closely associated with the Bohemian art genre. Fine art and literature of this period often focused on the unconventional, gypsy-like people who immigrated to Paris from Bohemia. Artists and writers such as Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, Mark Twain and Pablo Picasso helped fuel absinthe's questionable reputation by claiming that it could enhance creativity and cause capricious mind alterations.
Absinthe is transparent green but turns milky when mixed with sugar water. This clouding is called louche or the ouzo effect. By itself, absinthe is very potent and bitter; it can be over 150 proof (or 75 percent alcohol.) For these reasons, absinthe is traditionally served diluted with sweetened ice water. The water is sweetened by pouring it very gradually over a sugar cube.
The Art of Serving Absinthe
The Traditional Recipe for Absinthe
The Ritual of Serving Absinthe
Traditionally, Absinthe was served in a glass with a slotted spoon on top. A sugar cube was placed on the spoon and a carafe of ice cold water was served alongside the drink. The patron would slowly drip the water over the sugar and into the Absinthe. Normally, the ratio would be one part Absinthe to approximately four parts water. As Absinthe increased in popularity, the customary ways of serving it evolved. Absinthiana or Absinthe paraphernalia became more plentiful, functional, and ornate.
Originally served in an ordinary glass, Absinthe's popularity inspired it's own specalized glassware. Most were "reservoir" glasses. A reservoir at the bottom of the glass indicated the exact measure (one ounce) of absinthe with decorative markings or curvatures in the shape of the glass. These glasses had a short thick stem and were usually clear, allowing the drinker to appreciate both the attractive chartreuse green of the Absinthe as well as the louche that formed when mixed with sugar and water.
The Absinthe Spoons were often beautifully crafted pieces made of stainless-steel or silver. These spoons had a perforated area for the sugar cube and a flat end so that it could sit on the edge of the glass.
Sometimes a grille was used in lieu of the spoon. The grille was a slotted saucer-shaped piece with legs to hold it above the glass. Grilles were typically crafted out of metal or porcelain.
Because using the carafe to slowly add the ice water required too much time and focus for party-goers, the Slow Drip Fountain became popular. The absinthe fountain was a vessel on a tall stem with several tiny spigots which would let the water drip, one drop at a time, onto the sugar and into the absinthe. This was known as louching the absinthe: several guests could fill their drinks at once with a fountain. Like the other pieces, the fountains were often beautifully made and decorated.
If no fountain was available, one could also use a brouilleur . The brouiller was essentially a glass or metal bowl which fit on top of the Absinthe glass. The brouiller had a small hole in the bottom throught which iced water would drip. It could be used with a spoon or grille.
Some of the original 19th and 20th century "Absinthiana" pieces are highly sought after and valuable today.
The Art of Enjoying Absinthe
The popularity of Absinthe soared in the late 19th century. Due to the ceremony and time involved with serving Absinthe, it became the focus of many a social event. It was originally enjoyed by the bourgeoisie but by 1880 it was being mass produced which made it less expensive and available to all classes.
Many Absinthe bars began to crop up in and outside of France, including the famous Old Absinthe House in New Orleans. Because of its unusual color, absinthe became known as "the Green Fairy" and because of absinthe's popularity, five o'clock became known as "the Green Hour." The term "dancing with the green fairy" became a common reference to both the haze of the louche and, I think, the hazy feeling experienced by the absinthe drinker.
Earnest Hemingway invented his own way of enjoying Absinthe and called it "Death in the Afternoon." To try his beverage simply add one ounce of Absinthe to a Champagne glass and top off with chilled Champagne. Enjoy with caution.
For More Absinthe Recipes...
- A Taste for Absinthe Book
A Taste for Absinthe book features 65 recipes for classic & contemporary absinthe cocktails.
The Controversy and The Ban
Absinthe gained notoriety for being many things including a psychoactive drug, hallucinogenic, stimulant, narcotic, painkiller, aphrodisiac and even an anti-parasitic. Wormwood or Artemisia absinthium is one of the principle herbs in Absinthe. Thujone is an active chemical found in wormwood (as well as mint, juniper, sage and others) and was mistakenly thought to be the hallucinogen in absinthe. Today it is widely recognized that absinthe is not a hallucinogenic but the effects of thujone are still controversial. By the early 20th century, claims began to circulate that absinthe was dangerously addictive and could lead to a specific type of social disorder known as Absinthism. The symptoms of Absinthism were reportedly hallucinations, delirium, violent behavior and convulsions.
Conversely, absinthe advocates claimed that the effects of absinthe did not differ much from any other spirit and that it was no more or less harmful. Ultimately though, absinthe was banned from France, Switzerland, America and several other countries by 1915. Bear in mind that the 18th Amendment or Prohibition of the sale of all alcoholic beverages in the U.S. was put into effect by 1920 as a result of the temperance movement of that era.
Is Absinthe Really Dangerous?
Studies have attempted to validate claims that absinthe is more dangerous than other spirits but they have never been conclusive. In the 1870s a French psychiatrist named Dr. Valentin Magnan who, incidentally, believed that absinthe was the downfall of his race, conducted a study using guinea pigs. Dr. Magnan closed the small animals in glass jars with concentrated wormwood oil. The fumes caused the subjects to convulse. From this, Dr. Magnan concluded that absinthe caused seizures. His conclusions were later discredited because he did not differentiate between concentrated wormwood oil and absinthe which has only a small amount of wormwood in it.
Dr. Magnan's studies did, however, isolate the chemical thujone as the potentially dangerous compound in wormwood. In extreme quantities, thujone can cause convulsions and even death. Straight wormwood oil is up to 50% thujone. By comparison, absinthe has approximately .00003-.00007% thujone.
In 1970 a British Journal published an article comparing the molecular shape of thujone to that of cannabinoids such as marijuana. The theory was that because thujone molecules are very similar in shape to cannabinoids, the effects on the brain must also be similar. This theory also proved false when it was determined that thujone activates completely different receptors in the brain and so does not affect the consumer like a cannabinoid.
In 2007 the United States lifted the ban on absinthe in response to a re-surging demand for the curious drink. Absinthe can now be legally imported or manufactured in America. However, since the effects of thujone are still not entirely understood, absinthe imported into the United States is required to be certified "thujone free." Technically, less than 10mg/kg is considered thujone free. Therefore, only certain brands that meet these standards can be sold in the United States. French-made "Lucid" is recognized as the first "real" absinthe to be sold (post ban) in America. Among others, Absente brand absinthe is a very authentic and high quality brand as well.
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The Author Tries Absinthe
The Author Tries "Dancing with the Green Fairy"
You can't knock it until you've tried it, right? So, having never tried absinthe myself, I felt it would be unfair to write another word on the subject without gaining some personal experience. I am happy to report that I neither hallucinated nor lost my mind. (But please don't consult my husband on the later.)
I started by mixing one once of Absente refined absinthe with 4-5 ounces of ice cold water. I dripped the water as slowly as I could over the sugar cube and watched the louche appear. It really was quite captivating. The scent was of fennel or anise with strong herbal undertones. I was pleasantly surprised by the mild sweet flavor; it basically tasted like the candy Good & Plenty. I had expected something strong and medicinal but the absinthe was refreshing and sweet without being syrupy.
I stopped after one glass but I am not much of a drinker so one was enough to give me an idea of the effects of absinthe. I would agree with those who call absinthe a stimulant. I felt wide awake and yet a bit fuzzy around the edges. I did feel that there was something unusual going on with my vision but I would certainly not describe it as hallucinating. Colors seemed a bit more vivid and my peripheral vision was less clear. Overall, I would describe the effect as pleasant and subtle. Had I continued to imbibe, however, I have no doubt that the effects would have become more discernible.
Here is my conclusion: like with any of life's pleasures, moderation is the key. Absinthe alone was probably never so much the problem as just good-old-fashioned overindulgence. Whether we are speaking of chocolate, good wine, absinthe or anything else, there really can be "too much of a good thing."