The Fairy Tale of Absinthe

Absinthe: vintage Green Fairy posters

Absinthe is the French word for wormwood — that oh so villified plant that turns law-abiding citizens into psychopathic murderers, or so said most government officials once upon a time.  The infamous liquor, first distilled in Switzerland in the 18th century and sold as a medicinal elixir, is based on the “holy trinity” of herbs: Wormwood, Green anise (not to be confused with star anise), and Florence Fennel; those herbs are then steeped with other botanicals in a brandy spirit and distilled.  The resulting liquor is a green-colored spirit (although some are clear) that takes its hue naturally from the chlorophyll of the herbs used in its production.  So what is absinthe — a spirit or some sweet liqueur?  Although it is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a liqueur, absinthe is not traditionally bottled with added sugar, and is therefore classified as a spirit; in fact, most commercial absinthes today range from 110 to 160 proof, making it one the the most potent spirits available.  We’ll drink to that.

The precise origin of absinthe is unclear, but the medical use of wormwood dates back to ancient Egypt when wine was infused with the plant for healing purposes.  The Ancient Greeks also used wormwood extracts and wine-soaked wormwood leaves as remedies for various ailments. During the Middle Ages, people used wormwood to treat intestinal worms, an upset stomach or irregular appetite, and to alleviate the pain of childbirth.  Then France started giving soldiers the wormwood beverage we call absinthe in order to protect them from malaria.  Medicinal Mixology cannot argue with centuries of experimentation by apothecaries and shamans, unlike the governments who banned absinthe.  Sensationalism, scare campaigns, ignorance . . . so many words could be used to explore absinthe’s downfall.

How did this medicinal herb that had been used for centuries become the target of the temperance movement, and receive a reputation similar to modern crack cocaine?  Let us begin with the height of its popularity — the Belle Epoque period.  During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, absinthe was the drink of choice among the bohemian Moulin Rouge crowd of artists and writers in Paris.  Amedeo Modigliani, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway all claimed to be inspired by the magic of absinthe, and such accounts gave rise to the “la fée verte” (the green fairy).

Anti-Green Fairy propaganda

By the early 20th century, absinthe was becoming popular in America, especially in the brothels of the famous Storyville district in New Orleans.  The boozy city prides itself as the birthplace of the first absinthe cocktail — the Sazerac.  It is easy to imagine glamorous Madames and their girls flirting with affluent gentleman while sipping on Sazeracs.  Artists, prostitutes, wealthy bankers, bartenders, senators . . . everyone was drinking absinthe.

The problem is that the hallucinogenic powers of the drink have been dramatically exaggerated.  Drinking absinthe will not produce some sort of spiritual experience, unless maybe you drink half a bottle.  Of course, in that case, you would probably die of alcohol poisoning before you saw the notorious green fairy prance about the room.

Indeed absinthe was labeled a poison by conservative prohibitionists, but it was actually the cheap absinthe producers that ruined the spirit’s reputation.  In order to make the drink less expensive, and therefore available to the poorer classes, disreputable distillers added metals and other toxic materials to color the absinthe and give it the desirable cloudy texture when water was added (both qualities occur naturally in proper absinthe).  Side effects of drinking cheap, poorly distilled absinthe?  Kidney failure, psychotic spells, and seizures.  Oh, and death.  Did reformists and prohibitionists attack the distillers poisoning patrons with toxic absinthe?  No, they just condemned every absinthe distiller instead.  Then in 1905 Swiss farmer Jean Lanfray, a known alcoholic, downed a substantial amount of wine and brandy, drank a few glasses of absinthe and killed his pregnant wife and their two daughters; that was it — the final nail in the coffin.  That’s all the prohibitionists needed.  Absinthe was dead, and the Green Fairy was burned at the stake.  Switzerland banned absinthe in 1910, the United States in 1912, and France in 1914.

For nearly 100 years afterward, absinthe would be the symbol of the creative bohemians that lounged in the opium dens of Paris, and little more than a fairy tale that taunted medicinal mixologists worldwide.  The myth of absinthe owes its fame to one plant — wormwood, the essential herb mistakenly cursed as the most demonizing plant in the world.  Today we know that consuming essential oil of wormwood is fatal (so NO homemade wormwood infusions — ever!), but the toxic chemical thurjone is destroyed during the distillation process.  Scientists have tested and retested bottles of absinthe from all vintages and countries.  It’s safe to drink absinthe, so why aren’t you drinking a glass right now?

The United States legalized absinthe in 2007 to the delight of medicinal mixologists, historians, and romantics who had only read about the famous concoction.  Although absinthe will not cause any insightful visions, drinkers do acknowledge several side effects that are exclusive to the intriguing spirit: vivid dreams; a clear-headed drunkenness; a tingling, refreshing mouth-feel that numbs the tongue.

Absinthe producers had me at “tingling tongue.”  Come on, you know that sounds fun.  If you’re overwhelmed by the thought of trying such an interesting drink, don’t you worry.  We’ll explain some reputable distillers and the ceremony of preparation.

Absinthe suggestions are listed below in full detail, but first we’ll talk about the ritualistic preparation of a glass of absinthe (it’s as meticulous as a Japanese tea ceremony).  There are two popular methods: the French Method and the Bohemian Method.

the ritual of absinthe: fountain, spoon, and sugar

Traditionally, the French Method of preparing absinthe included placing a sugar cube on top of a specially designed slotted spoon, and then placing the spoon on a glass which has been filled with a measure of absinthe.  Iced water is then poured or slowly dripped over the sugar cube in a manner whereby the water is slowly and evenly displaced into the absinthe, such that the final preparation contains 1 part absinthe and 3 to 5 parts water.  The ratio depends on the alcohol content of the absinthe: if the absinthe is well below 68% abv, then use 3 parts water to 1 part absinthe; if the absinthe has an abv near 68%, then use 4 parts water to 1 part absinthe (usually the standard or traditional ratio); and if the absinthe has an abv far above 68%, use 5 parts water to 1 part absinthe to dilute the strong spirit.  As water mixes with absinthe, the essential oils of the herbs used during distillation come out of solution and cloud the drink.

The Bohemian Method is recent invention that involves fire. Like the French method, a sugar cube is placed on a slotted spoon over a glass containing one shot of absinthe. The sugar is pre-soaked in alcohol (usually more absinthe), then set ablaze. The flaming sugar cube is then dropped into the glass, thus igniting the absinthe. Finally, a shot glass of water is added to douse the flames.  Purists cringe when they see absinthe prepared this way.  If you want a genuine absinthe experience, skip the pyrotechnics.

Absinthe distillers will tell you they enjoy the spirit with pure, ice water slowly dripped over the absinthe.  No sugar, and certainly no fire.  Sometimes we like sugar, and sometimes we find that certain absinthes really don’t need it.  For your initiation ceremony, go for the sugar cube and fountain because you only get to experience the first time once.

Give me a glass already, because I’m dying for my tongue to tingle and to experience this “clear-headed” boozy feeling.  Fine, but a few words of caution: don’t set your heart on seeing the illusive green fairy.  That minx has been hiding from us for years.  No sightings yet.  Maybe the fairy tale of the green fairy is just that–  a tale.  

Here are some suggested absinthes that are produced by recipes originally used by distillers and apothecaries who marketed their brews as medicinal elixirs.  No artificial color or flavors are used in the production of these fine absinthes.

Let me preface this by saying if you do not like the aromas or flavors of fennel, anis, star anise, or liquorice, then absinthe is not for you; but if you find those flavors enjoyable, then get ready for a new experience that will excite your tongue and invigorate your body.

absinthes we recommend: pacifique, st. george absinthe verte, kübler

Delicious absinthes for the sipping pleasure of adventurous medicinal mixologist:

American Absinthe

❖  Pacifique Absinthe Verter Superieure
Alcohol Level: 62 %   (124 proof)
Description: Absinthe Pacifique has been made in exact accordance with an 1855 French recipe, using only organically-grown botanicals. Much of the Grande wormwood and Roman wormwood used was grown in the distiller’s herb garden.  The aroma will transport you to an Alpine meadow in springtime, and the taste includes flavors of candied fruit, minty wormwood, and spicy angelica.  For most absinthe lovers, Pacifique is one of the top three producers of absinthe in the United States — the other two key players are Leopold and Walton Waters.

❖  Walton Waters Absinthe Superieur
Alcohol Level: 68 %  (136 proof)
Description: Named after the green reflection from the trees on the waters of the Delaware river as it courses through Walton, Walton Waters is a harmonious blend of grand wormwood, anise, fennel, roman wormwood, hyssop and lemon balm.  This superiour absinthe, with its forest green color, is one to be recommended by knowledgeable absinthe drinkers.  Slightly bolder and creamier than its sibling, Meadow of Love. Smooth and full mouth-feel with a mild, spicy tingle, and soft hints of lemon.

❖  Walton Waters Meadow of Love
Alcohol Level: 68 %   (136 proof)
Description: Using the same six core herbs as the Walton Waters Absinthe Superieur— Grand wormwood, anise, fennel, roman wormwood, hyssop and lemon balm — Meadow of Love celebrates the region’s bounty with herbs from small farms and local herbalists.  A flowery, feminine absinthe with a soft, clean and wonderfully balanced flavor.

❖  St. George Absinthe
Alcohol Level: 60 %   (120 proof)
Description: St. George Spirits Absinthe Verte is made with fine brandy, star anise (as opposed to the commonly used green anise), mint, wormwood, lemon balm, hyssop, basil, fennel, tarragon and stinging nettles. This infamous liquor reveals seductive flavors of anise complimented with sweet grassy tones, light citrus, white pepper, and subtle, yet noticeable, mint freshness.  The flavor is extremely spicy in comparison to more commercialized absinthes. The subtleties provided by the terragon and nettles make the absinthe quite intriguing.  If you enjoy a more vegetal, spicy absinthe with notes of basil and star anise, this is definitely an absinthe to try.  We cannot say this is the best absinthe in the history of the world, but we think it’s delicious and we have a sentimental attachment to the master distiller, Lance Winters, whom we’ve worked with in the past.

Swiss Absinthe

❖  Clandestine La Bleu
Alcohol Level: 53 %   (106 proof)
Description: Absinthe Clandestine’ is an authentic La Bleue made in Switzerland, the birthplace of absinthe. Its creator Claude-Alain Bugnon was the first clandestine distiller granted legal status by the Swiss government in the spring of 2005. For years he had been responsible for a significant quantity of bootlegged absinthe that brought attention to the small region. Perfume of Alpine meadow with bright anise, wildflower and wormwood aromas. This absinthe is left uncolored and clear (the bottle is blue) and will take on the desired milky hue when cold water is added.

❖ Kubler Superieure
Alcohol Level: 53% (106 proof)
Description: Kübler Absinthe was first produced in 1863 and was the first brand to be sold legally in Switzerland after the national ban on absinthe was lifted in March, 2005. Kübler was launched in 1863 by J. Fritz Kübler, and Fritz later opened the Blackmint Distillery in 1875. His absinthe received numerous awards and medals in competitions around Europe before the Swiss government banned absinthe in 1910. In 2001, the Swiss ban was lifted and the brand was revived by Fritz’s great grandson Yves (a fifth generation Kübler), who runs the present day distillery.  The principal ingredients in Kübler Absinthe are the herbs grande wormwood and anise. Kübler uses a neutral grain base spirit distilled from Swiss wheat, and then adds hyssop, lemon balm, coriander, star anise, fennel, Roman wormwood and mint.  A robust, powerful absinthe for those who love fennel.  Despite it’s intensity, the absinthe tastes very fresh — like munching on wild foraged fennel while hiking through a meadow.

French Absinthe

❖  Belle Amie
Alcohol Level: 72 %   (144 proof)
Absinthe Belle Amie was created for the world-renowned Parisian absinthe-specialist shop Vert d’Absinthe in Paris. Liqueurs de France was presented with an absinthe recipe from 1908 that the owner had always wanted to experiment with and commercialize under his own label. The project was presented to the Emile Pernot Distillery, and distillation began in February 2007. Every effort was made to remain faithful to its historic origins; in fact, some of the plant ingredients were grown on a private farm in Pontarlier.  The deep, olive-hued liquor is herbaceous and refreshing.  The immensely pleasurable aroma and remarkably intense flavor-profile make this a refined, impeccably balanced absinthe with flavors that continue to develop and surprise.

❖  1797
Alcohol Level: 75 %    (150 proof)
Description: An extremely limited production of one of the first known written absinthe recipes discovered.   The recipe, documented in 1797 and attributed to Abram-Louis Perrenoud (Henri-Louis Pernod’s father) was translated from old French and put into production by two absinthe historians using ancient measurements and coloring techniques, along with only local Pontarlier absinthe plants.  A more herbaceous and slightly medicinal absinthe that is certainly a tasty historical experiment.  This may have been what absinthe was like before the Pernod son went main-stream.  A bit thin, but there is a satisfying roundness of flavor which is very full and balanced.  The taste is more vegetal than floral.  A more medicinal absinthe in comparison to commercialized interpretations today.

❖  Jade Nouvelle Orleans
Alcohol Level: 68 %   (136 proof)
Description: Absinthe Nouvelle-Orléans represents the inspired work of native New Orleanian T. A. Breaux (master distiller of the US-based absinthe Lucid), and its heritage is rooted in the original New Orleans absinthes that made the Sazerac cocktail famous. Its unique distillation of stimulating herbes toniques is just what the Belle Époque apothecaries prescribed for various subtropical ailments. With its light, refreshing mouth-feel to its luscious floral finish, who would want to believe it was just a ‘medicine’?”  Plenty of fennel, and a decent helping of anise, but the minty wormwood is subtle.  A pleasantly creamy absinthe that tingles the tongue ever so slightly.  No flavors overpower the other allowing the nuances of each herb to really come through, making this a softer, more round absinthe that is as complex as trying to answer the question “what is art?”  Indeed, this is a beautiful expression of absinthe.  Poetry in a glass.

Please do NOT attempt to make your own absinthe or to infuse any spirit or wine with wormwood.  The distillation process burns off a toxic chemical naturally present in wormwood that can kill you, so don’t play with wormwood unless you have a functioning still at home.

Also, Czech absinth (notice the lack of the “e” on the end) is completely different than traditional absinthe.  It is basically a spirit infused with wormwood.  More like a wormwood bitter or tincture, Czech absinth taste like fire water.  Skip it.

If you’re interested in taking the perfect absinthe experience somewhere more private, then create your own absinthe den at home.  We suggest a fountain, some spoons, and classic glasses in our Amazon A-Store if you really want to do it right.  After you’ve selected the tools you need and prepared your absinthe of choice, turn on some Stan Getz, drape red fabric over your lamps, put on something sexy, and light a candle or two.

Drink to good health!

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