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What is Absinthe and How to Mix, Serve and Drink Absinthe

Updated on January 23, 2015

Does Absinthe Make the Heart Grow Fonder?

What is Absinthe?
What is Absinthe? | Source

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

Serving Absinthe is an Art
Serving Absinthe is an Art

The Traditional Recipe for Absinthe

Start with 1 ounce of absinthe
Start with 1 ounce of absinthe
Use a slotted absinthe spoon
Use a slotted absinthe spoon
Place the sugar cube onto the absinthe spoon
Place the sugar cube onto the absinthe spoon
Set the spoon on top of the glass of absinthe
Set the spoon on top of the glass of absinthe
Slowly drip 3-5 ounces of ice water over the sugar cube
Slowly drip 3-5 ounces of ice water over the sugar cube
The absinthe will turn a milky white.  This clouding is called la louche (pronounced  LOOSH)
The absinthe will turn a milky white. This clouding is called la louche (pronounced LOOSH)

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.

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.

The Author Tries Absinthe

Can you see me now?
Can you see me now?

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."


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    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      8 years ago from The Zoo

      Thank you Jimmar and Vespawoolf!

    • vespawoolf profile image

      Vespa Woolf 

      8 years ago from Peru, South America

      This is a great hub. I love your photos and the history of absinthe. I was first introduced to this spirit by a Parisian friend who, as she prepared the absinthe using her special spoon, explained to me that it can even cure the H1N1 virus! Voted up and across the board except funny.

    • jimmar profile image


      8 years ago from Michigan

      Very informative. I brought a small bottle back from France (same as you photo). Didn't really care for the stuff, Pastis either.

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      9 years ago from The Zoo

      Thanks Stephanie, I'm going to check out that book!

    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      9 years ago from New Jersey

      Mrs. Menagerie, I found this article particularly interesting since I started reading a book last night called "Writers Gone Wild" by Bill Peschel. Many of the opening scenarios include writers and/or their friends being crazy or addicted to absinthe, which at the time was simply called a poison.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I appreciate your insight and light nature of your writing. You are funny and enlightening.

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      9 years ago from The Zoo

      Thanks so much RedElf!

    • RedElf profile image


      9 years ago from Canada

      I loved the title of this on sight - how clever! I loved the hub as well. Thanks for an entertaining and interesting read.

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      9 years ago from The Zoo

      Thanks so much for reading my hub and leaving your great comments. I recently saw a cooking show where they had a new theory about the artists who reported that absinthe caused hallucinations way back when. They think that it was the paint fumes mixed with the absinthe that may have caused all the trouble. Hmmmm...I don't know anything else about it.

    • psychonaut profile image


      9 years ago from Eastern Europe

      Thanks for a great and informative article, Mrs Menagerie. We've been able to get absinthe again in this part of Europe for some time now and it's become a firm favourite of mine. I'm not a huge drinker, but I like a few now and then and absinthe is my drink of choice when I'm having a few at home with friends.

      We even managed to find a proper fountain and spoons, so we do the whole thing properly. The ritual itself actually adds to the enjoyment.

      I've got to say from my experience that I don't think there's anything seriously dangerous about absinthe. It's a very strong drink just in terms of alcohol and you'll be very drunk on a few of them, in much the same way as you would on overproof rum. But the superb taste makes it a much more enjoyable experience and it has a certain warming and dreamy quality, but I've never sensed the alarming thujone effects that are touted as being dangerous. In any case, the amount of thujone is really miniscule.

      By the way, wormwood is also the principal flavour in vermouth (the French word for wormwood is vermouille) and I've never heard any alarmist hysteria about that.

      Once again, thanks for an interesting and informative article!

    • miss_jkim profile image


      9 years ago

      Great Hub, informative and well written. Thanks for sharing your experience and obvious research into a very misterious topic. I've been wanting to give it a try for a long time.

    • Arian Rey profile image

      Arian Rey 

      9 years ago from Pearl of the Orient Seas (PHILIPPINES)

      I've seen this absinthe on the film of Leonardo de Caprio about a French poet, right? Some herbs can really affect our vision. Here in the Philippines, we have this tree called banaba where the leaves can cure stomach pain or colds. Yet, if you drink much of it, you'll experience hallucination. It means that the toxicity level of this herb is too much that dilution by water should be administered to lessen its effects.

    • Mark Knowles profile image

      Mark Knowles 

      9 years ago

      Absinthe was banned in France and then the rest of Europe after lobbying from the wine industry. Sales of wine were falling because Absinthe was so popular so a campaign was launched to get it banned. It is not hallucinogenic and causes no more or less poor behavior than most alcohol. The stuff you tried in the US is "US approved" which I understand is missing some ingredients. The real stuff I have to buy in Italy because the French stuff is also doctored.

    • bbqsmokersite profile image


      9 years ago from Winter Haven, Florida

      Cooking Channel TV just did a show - the Moe Rocca one - Foodography I think? Anyway, from New Orleans where they talked about Absinthe.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Dr. Oz had a special guest the other day that recommended drinking Absinthe. It supposedly prevents cancer by turning off the cancer signals. Anyhow, this was a very good hub. Thanks a bunch for testing it on yourself and being honest.

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      9 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Just finished listening to the podcast and had to come and read this fantastic hub that you have written. I am sold I have to make it a mission now to try Absinthe.

    • MobyWho profile image


      9 years ago from Burlington VT

      Your writing is great...I could almost feel the effects of the absinth - and I'm stark sober at 7:00 a.m. Wonderful photos too! Thanks

    • mariahpoo profile image


      9 years ago from Northern California

      I enjoyed this hub very much. Great Job.

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      9 years ago from The Zoo

      Hello Les Trois Chenes,

      I'm so excited you are planning an absinthe party...I should do the same. Maybe a costume party with a bohemian, fun!

      Thank you for stopping by!

    • Les Trois Chenes profile image

      Les Trois Chenes 

      9 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

      I live in France and am working my way up to an absinthe party, so it's good to hear your experiences.

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      9 years ago from The Zoo

      Thanks for the comment and I'm glad you are going to give it a try. Although, please drink responsibly...hehehe!

    • SUSIE DUZY profile image


      9 years ago from Delray Beach, Florida

      Thanks for this informtion. Very interesting.

    • melbel profile image


      9 years ago from Midwest, USA

      We ordered Absinthe from the UK (origin France) to come here to the States in an unmarked package (hehe.) Along with the Absinthe we ordered the absinthe glass, the classic absinthe spoon, and some nice shaped sugars. I'd known about the lack of the effect the drink had and had warned my friends about it. Nonetheless, they were disappointed about the lack of effects and we ended up selling what remained in the bottle.

      It did get us drunk REALLY fast and was very unique. I know nowadays you can get certains kinds of it here in the states, but am not sure which ones. We'd ordered La Fee which is French for "the fairy" (At least when you spell it correctly!)

      I heard from someone that the idea of the drink having effects are probably from opium and other things that Absinthe drinkers would add to the beverage.

    • profile image

      Buddhist Hotdog 

      9 years ago

      Spooky, spooky the hub, very atmospheric...and green. I once drank absinthe, two little shot glasses of it, set afire and laced with sugar round the top of the glass. I got split up from the rest of the group in the crush of the Saturday night and walked home feeling a bit dazed. My flatmate assures me that I got home at 2 a.m., but I would swear on my life that it was full daylight when I was walking home. Swear it. Spooky, spooky drink.

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      9 years ago from The Zoo

      Hi Sterling Sage and thanks! You make an excellent point about "educating oneself..." Right you are!

    • Sterling Sage profile image

      Sterling Sage 

      9 years ago from California

      Very well-written, clear and concise hub. Thanks for the info!

      I might try Absinthe some day, but the idea of consuming thujone does make me a little nervous. I've read that it has potential dangers, but it's always hard to sort out the truth from the hysteria in such cases. I guess I'll need to do a little more research before I decide.

      I like your point at the end about moderation. Let me suggest that educating oneself about a substance before ingesting it is equally important. Cheers!

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      9 years ago from The Zoo

      Thanks for reading my hub and your kind comments!

    • Angie Jardine profile image

      Angie Jardine 

      9 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Absolutely fascinating, Mrs M.

      I especially liked the fact that you experimented with it yourself. Perfect clinical analysis ... :)

    • Matt in Jax profile image

      Matt in Jax 

      9 years ago from Jacksonville, FL

      Very educational and well-written. I still haven't tried it yet, but am definitely very interested.

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      9 years ago from The Zoo

      Thank you Simone!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      9 years ago from San Francisco

      Oh, this is SO COOL. Your photos and explanations are great. What an awesome Hub!

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile imageAUTHOR

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      9 years ago from The Zoo

      Thanks for reading LeisureLife!

    • LeisureLife profile image


      9 years ago from USA

      Very interesting and well written hub! Thanks for the info


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