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.
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.
- 2 shots / 60 ml / 2 oz Absinthe
- 6 shots / 180 ml / 6 oz iced water
- 1 sugar cube
- Place Absinthe in an Absinthe glass or other tall glass. Using an Absinthe Spoon or hawthorn strainer to suspend the sugar cube above the drink, slowly pour iced water in to the glass. Stir the finished mixture with Absinthe spoon to ensure the sugar has dissolved fully.
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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