Chasing the Green Fairy

January 24th, 2008

Absinthe, the Green Fairy, la Fée Verte – ask most people about this pale green spirit and they will conjure up tales of hallucinations, madness and perhaps even a certain noted artist’s missing ear. Some may have even tried it in nightclubs, often in flaming glasses, though few will have enjoyed anything but the buzz of consuming a substance presumed illicit and the heady kick of alcohol they will have received.

Which is all a bit of a shame really because as exciting as all those tales are, Absinthe is actually a perfectly safe drink and at its best an artisanal product which can be enjoyed just as fine whisky and Cognac is. Absinthe is made by steeping herbs in high-proof alcohol, which produces a very bitter solution which is then distilled in to a clear, highly flavoured spirit. The key herbs used in production are green anise, the primary flavour component, as well as florence fennel and grande wormwood – otherwise known as Artemisia absinthium which is where the name Absinthe comes from.

Some Absinthe, called Blanche, is bottled without any further processes (except the addition of water to bring it to the desired strength), but most has extra herbs added to it for a short time to produce the famous green tint. These Verte Absinthes usually have a fairly subtle green colour to them, though a lot of lower quality and fake absinthes have a more saturated, sometimes even luminous, green hue.

Absinthe glass and spoon

Absinthes bad reputation stems from the late nineteenth century, when it began to be blamed for all number of crimes and social problems. Encouraged by the temperance movement, who saw it as an easy target, and the wine companies who were battling the effects of the phylloxera plague, the spirit was soon seen as a social menace that only drunks, criminals and artists consumed.

Criticism largely centred on the fact that Absinthe contains thujone, a chemical thought to induce hallucinations and still today the basis of much Absinthe misinformation. Recent studies show thujone has no such effects, and while it is poisonous it is in such low quantities in a finished bottle of Absinthe that you would die of alcohol poisoning long before you consumed enough thujone to be dangerous. The real reason for reports of hallucinations was likely the fact that Absinthe is so high in alcohol content, its popularity with alcoholics and drug users, and the placebo effect of consuming something that is supposed to be mind-altering.

Nonetheless, in the first few decades of the twentieth century the mythical dangers were widely believed and Absinthe was banned in much of Europe, as well as the USA, Australia and several other countries. Only recently have bans begun to be repealed, and unfortunately a rush of poor quality products have filled the European markets, playing on all the misconceptions that caused Absinthe to be banned in the first place. There are even kits sold that supposedly allow you to make your own absinthe by steeping the supplied herbs in spirits, but without the distillation step all you get is a highly bitter mess.

Thankfully there are many quality brands around too, and these are slowly starting to become more available both online and in the real world. Even in America, where until very recently Absinthe was presumed to be entirely outlawed, several bottlings are starting to become available. These Absinthes take advantage of the fact that the ban is based on thujone content, which in most real Absinthes is actually fairly low – low enough to creep in under the 10ppm limit that classifies a spirit as containing thujone. I’m no Absinthe expert so can’t really recommend brands, but take a look around the excellent Wormwood Society website for reviews and further information.

Absinthe Drip

Absinthe Drip

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The traditional way to consume Absinthe is by adding sugar and water, by way of a absinthe spoon which suspends a sugar cube above the glass, and an Absinthe fountain which drips ice cold water over the cube slowly dissolving it. The water also makes the Absinthe cloud up, taking on a milky appearance known as a louche. This is caused by the botanical oils which separate from the alcohol when the water is added. Thankfully you don’t need to go to the expense of an antique Absinthe fountain to enjoy the Absinthe Drip – a jug of ice-cold water will do the trick just fine.

The Absinthe Drip is unlike any other drink I’ve ever tasted. It has an almost milky texture, with a strong anise flavouring and lots of herb undertones. The sugar cube lends a slight sweetness that lingers in the mouth, but there is a very mild bitter edge from the wormwood – from what I’ve read though Nouvelle-Orléans, the Absinthe I used, is less bitter than many. Given that I’ve never been a huge fan of anise flavourings, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the anise of Absinthe – it seems to have an extra depth, a certain something, which I found very appealing.

Overall the Absinthe Drip is a very different drink, but one that definitely grows on you. I had very mixed feelings about my first one, and struggled to finish it, but after a bit of experimenting I found that with a little less water and sugar it was quite an agreeable libation. The more I drink it the more I start to appreciate its subtleties, and while I certainly don’t think I’ll be drinking Absinthe Drips regularly I will be trying it again, perhaps sampling some other brands to see how they fare. I’ve read excellent things about the rest of the Jade line – what other Absinthes are worth looking out for?

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Posted in Absinthe, Recipes

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8 responses to “Chasing the Green Fairy”

  1. Lydia Lydia says:

    I tried this with my absinthe bottle but I did not get milky liquid like you descibe am I doing something wrong?

  2. Jay Jay says:

    Lydia, the milky look, called the louche, occurs when the herbal oils that are suspended within the high-proof absinthe come out of suspension as the water lowers the alcohol content.

    Lower quality absinthes which have not been produced traditionally and hence do not contain these oils unfortunately do not produce a louche. So I’m afraid it’s probably not you, but rather your absinthe, that is at fault.

  3. Raztus Raztus says:

    Hmm, sounds good. Would be good to find out some good cocktail mixes. I have been reading about absinth chocolate and am getting obsessed by all things absinth….

  4. Ryan “Midas” Ryan "Midas" says:

    I’ve tried the flaming / sugar /bright green versions of “absinthe” but am still on the look out for a good bottle of the stuff to give it an official try. You have to admit its reputation certainly precedes it.

  5. niels niels says:

    quality absinths might still not louche – then they probably will be spanish absinths. absinth production was never banned in spain (or in denmark for that matter where absinths were produced well into the 1970ties by ‘de danske spritfabrikker’) and has continued until today. spanish absinths are usually somewhat different from the traditional french ones coming back into the market. the ‘lehmann’ is a good example of an excellent and comparatively cheap spanish-style absinth – but it doesn’t louche and has only a vague taste of anise.
    if you want the real real thing in absolutely the best quality, try ‘la fee’.

  6. Will Will says:

    I recently purchased a bottle of Lucid (for ~$70…ouch) which proudly claims on to be the first absinthe legally sold in the US since the initial banning. It had no problems with the louche.

    There was only one mix recipe on the tag that involves pineapple juice, mint, and some Sprite. Wish there were more appealing recipes, though…

  7. Jay Jay says:

    Will, be sure to checkout some of the other cocktails with absinthe I’ve posted about. Quite often they only use a few dashes because absinthe is such a strong spirit, but it often has a very strong and enjoyable influence on the drink.

  8. Jason Jason says:

    I thought I would add my two cents, hopefully to prevent someone from buying a bad bottle of absinthe and then swearing it off for good.

    First of all, if you have time, check out the link to the Wormwood Society site. They have a forum that is a treasure trove of info and they won’t stear you wrong.

    Second, if it is spelled “absinth” on the bottle, instead of “absinthe”, don’t buy it unless you have really done your homework and know what you are getting. The stuff made in the Czech Republic uses the first spelling. As far as I know, there is no Czech made absinthe that is made the traditional way. Most are just thujone/wormwood bombs made to separate the uninformed from their money. I have yet to find or hear of a Czech made absinthe that isn’t swill. So avoid, avoid, avoid.

    Generally speaking, the good stuff is either made in Switzerland, France or the US. There are a few absinthes made is France that can be just as bad as the Czech stuff, such as Le Tourment Vert, Absente, and La Fee. I don’t think I have run across a bad Swiss absinthe.

    Interestingly enough, since absinthe is so new to the US market, the US distillers making it are mostly all small artesian distillers. As result, some of the best stuff on the market is made in the US. Walton Waters, Meadow of Love, Pacifique, Marteau and Leopold(if you can find them), and Vieux Carre are all worth checking out.

    As for availability, here is the US Lucid and Kubler are fairly easy to find. Both are ok but not great. They are good enough though that if you absolutely hate either, then absinthe is probably not for you. However, if you can stomach the stuff and even enjoy it a bit, then you should really try a good bottle.

    Lastly, 3:1 water ratio is usually the standard, but each brand and palate will have a sweet spot that might be slightly above or below this ratio. Generally speaking though, the higher the alcohol content, the more water that will be needed. When you are done adding water, the alcohol content should be roughly the same as a glass of wine (12% to 15%).

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