Absinthe is historically described as a distilled, highly
alcoholic (45–89% ABV) beverage. It is an anise-flavoured spirit
derived from herbs, including the flowers and leaves of the herb Artemisia absinthium, commonly referred to as "grande wormwood". Absinthe traditionally
has a natural green colour but can also be colourless. It is commonly referred
to in historical literature as "la fée verte" (the Green Fairy).
Left: A reservoir glass
filled with a naturally coloured verte, next to an absinthe spoon.
Although it is sometimes mistakenly called a liqueur, absinthe is not bottled
with added sugar and is therefore classified as a spirit. Absinthe is unusual
among spirits in that it is bottled at a very high proof but is normally diluted
with water when consumed.
Absinthe originated in the canton of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. It achieved great
popularity as an alcoholic drink in late 19th- and early 20th-century France,
particularly among Parisian artists and writers. Due in part to its association
with bohemian culture, absinthe was opposed by social conservatives and
prohibitionists. Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri de
Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Aleister
Crowley, and Alfred Jarry were all notorious "bad men" of that day who were (or
were thought to be) devotees of the Green Fairy.
Absinthe has been portrayed as a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug. The
chemical thujone, present in small quantities, was singled out and blamed for
its alleged harmful effects. By 1915, absinthe had been banned in the
United States and in most European countries except the United Kingdom,
Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Although absinthe was vilified, no evidence has shown it to be any more
dangerous than ordinary spirits. Its psychoactive properties, apart from
those of alcohol, have been much exaggerated.
Left: 1896 absinthe poster.
A revival of absinthe began in the 1990s, when countries in the European Union
began to reauthorize its manufacture and sale. As of February 2008, nearly 200
brands of absinthe were being produced in a dozen countries, most notably in
France, Switzerland, Spain, and the Czech Republic. Commercial distillation of
absinthe in the United States resumed in 2007.
Traditionally, absinthe is prepared by placing a sugar cube
on top of a specially designed slotted spoon and then placing the spoon on the
glass which has been filled with a shot of absinthe. Ice-cold water is then
poured or dripped over the sugar cube so that the water is slowly and evenly
displaced into the absinthe, typically 1 part absinthe and 3 to 5 parts water.
During this process, components not soluble in water (mainly those from anise,
fennel, and star anise) come out of solution and cloud the drink. The resulting
milky opalescence is called the louche (Fr. "opaque" or "shady").
Releasing these components allows herbal aromas and flavours to "blossom" or
"bloom" and brings out subtleties originally over-powered by the anise. This is
often referred to as "The French Method."
"The Bohemian Method" is an alternative that is popular primarily due to the use
of fire. Like the French method, a sugar cube is placed on a slotted spoon over
a glass containing one shot of absinthe. The difference is that the sugar is
pre-soaked in alcohol, usually more absinthe, and then set ablaze. The flaming
sugar cube is then dropped into the glass igniting the absinthe. Finally, a shot
glass full of water is added to douse the flames. This method tends to produce a
stronger drink than the French method. A variant of "The Bohemian Method" is to
allow the fire to burn itself out. This variant, called "Cooking the Absinthe"
or "Flaming Green Fairy," removes much but not all of the alcohol.
Although many bars served absinthe in standard glasses, a number of glasses were
specifically made for absinthe. These had a dose line, bulge, or bubble in the
lower portion denoting how much absinthe should be poured in. One "dose" of
absinthe is around 1 ounce (30 ml), and most glasses used this as the standard,
with some drinkers using as much as 1½ ounces (45 ml).
Left: L’Absinthe, by
In addition to being drunk with water poured over sugar, absinthe was a common
cocktail ingredient in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and
continues to be a popular ingredient today. One of the most famous of these is
Ernest Hemingway’s "Death in the Afternoon" cocktail, a concoction he
contributed to a 1935 collection of celebrity recipes. His directions are as
follows: "Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne
until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these
traditional way to prepare absinthe
Fill the reservoir of the glass with
absinthe (or about 1/3 to 1/5 absinthe of the volume).
Place an absinthe spoon and a sugar
cube on top of the glass.
Slowly drip ice water through the
sugar until it dissolves completely. A green line will
form at the top. As this line forms it is common to
sample the absinthe by drinking off this green line to
get the full impact of the absinthe's qualities before
the drink is fully diluted.
The drink louches (turns white; this
is due to the oils being soluble in alcohol but not in
water) and new flavours come out.