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Absinthe

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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.

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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.

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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 Edgar Degas.

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 slowly."

The traditional way to prepare absinthe

 

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  1. Fill the reservoir of the glass with absinthe (or about 1/3 to 1/5 absinthe of the volume).

  2. Place an absinthe spoon and a sugar cube on top of the glass.

  3. 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.

  4. The drink louches (turns white; this is due to the oils being soluble in alcohol but not in water) and new flavours come out.

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