Absinthe is more notorious than any type of alcohol, and perhaps beverage of any kind. But all the mystique swirling around it is really much ado about nothing. Absinthe will not make you hallucinate. Not even a little. It’s just a high proof spirit - not a liqueur, there’s no sugar added - that’s infused with herbs and other botanicals, most prominently anise, wormwood (more on that below), fennel, and hyssop.
Absinthe’s primary flavor is from anise, or what most associate with black licorice candy, which is accompanied by a general an herbaceousness that's somewhat indicative of Chartreuse, though brighter and more ethereal.
Absinthe is traditionally very high in alcohol, typically somewhere between 55%-72% ABV. This likely accounts for the strong reaction experienced by some drinkers, but I assure you it’s just alcohol at work. The name absinthe comes from the scientific term for wormwood, which is Artemisia absinthium.
Using Absinthe in Cocktails
Absinthe was a very common cocktail ingredient in classic cocktails of the pre-prohibition age. Because of its potency, a little goes a long way, it’s usually applied in rinses, splashes, and dashes - which is why I have absinthe permanently stored in a dasher, as pictured above. The most famous absinthe cocktail is certainly the Sazerac, though I’m also partial to the Improved Whiskey Cocktail, Corpse Reviver #2, and Turf Club/Tuxedo #2.
Here are a few brands I've had success with. If you run across any others, of for more recommendations, check out absinthes.com. I had no idea how many brands of absinthe there were until I found that site. Holy cow, there’s a lot of them on there.
Pernod Absinthe - I’ve always used Pernod Absinthe which is what we’ve always used at Clover Club. It’s delicious, balanced and makes excellent cocktails. Note, this is not to be confused with Pernod, which is made by the same company but a different product. The labels look similar, so make sure you see “absinthe” written on there. Another telltale sign is the absinthe is 55% ABV, Pernod is 40%.
Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe - Maybe the best absinthe, I've ever had. A bit spicier than Pernod.
St. George Absinthe Verte - Also excellent. It's made in California and the first absinthe produced in America following the ban, is another one too.
When absinthe was banned, more on that below, a number of anise-flavored spirit products entered the market to fill the void, the most common of where were as Pastis, Pernod, Ricard, and Herbsaint. These are still available today. They are typically closer to traditional 40% abv spirit proof. for years were the only option for classic absinthe cocktails, my first Sazerac was made with Pernod, in fact. They work fine in cocktails, but now that the genuine article is available again, I’d stick with that, if available.
How Absinthe is Made
Absinthe is produced very similarly to gin. It begins as a neutral spirit, traditionally grape-based but any can be used. The botanicals are then macerated in the spirit and distilled. A second infusion is then done after distillation to add more flavor and color, which is traditionally a pale to forest green. This has earned absinthe the famous nickname "la fée verte”, or the green fairy. Green anise, mint, and sometimes, spinach are typically used for the coloring, though some brands use an artificial colorant.
While it was indeed a common cocktail ingredient, the classic and most popular method for consuming absinthe in it’s day was simply with sugar and water. The mixing was traditionally done by the drinker, even in a bar or restaurant. About 2 oz of absinthe was poured into a roughly 10 oz glass, over which a slotted metal spoon was placed with sugar cube perched on top. The glass, spoon, and sugar was served accompanied by a carafe of chilled water which the guest would slowly pour over the sugar and into the glass, dissolving the sugar and mixing the drink. The classic dilution was in the realm of 3-5 parts water to 1 part absinthe.
Absinthe glasses and absinthe spoons were designed specifically for these rituals. Bars and restaurants eventually began sporting “absinthe fountains” which had multiple ice water-dispensing spigots that customers would hold their glass under and could control the speed of the dripping water. Not many establishments still feature these. Though one prominent one is at the excellent award-winning bar, Maison Premiere in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Clouding When Mixed with Water
If you’ve ever added water to absinthe, or any anise-forward alcohol like ouzo or raki, you’ve noticed that the liquid instantly becomes cloudy. This is because anethole, the flavor compound responsible for the anise/licorice flavor, is not stable in water. So when the proof become low enough, in the word of Harold McGee, the molecules separated from the continuous liquid into little water-avoiding droplets, and these scatter like the fat globules in milk.
The History of Absinthe
Like many spirit histories, absinthe’s origins emerge from the ambiguous mist. But the clearest line to absinthe as we know it today begins in the late 1700s in Switzerland. From there, it gained popularity in France and thrived through the 19th century, spreading to several international markets including all of Europe and the United States.
Absinthe was famously banned under the presumption that it was dangerous and made people go crazy with LSD-like hallucinations. This, of course, has greatly contributed to the mystique that still swirls around it today. But as I said above, it’s just not true. Why did everyone believe totally inaccurate assumption? It was a case of several converging elements, many of which were anecdotal, but one was scientific, allegedly. Let’s start there.
Wormwood and Thujone
Wormwood, with its witchcraft-y sounding name, is often cited as the culprit in absinthe that causes madness and hallucinations. But wormwood is not dangerous. It is a Mediterranean herb and a member of the Artemisia genus, which itself is a member of the daisy family. It has been used as a flavoring ingredient in alcohol as far back as 1500 BC - there's hard evidence of the Chinese were putting it in wine - because it improves the flavor and/or covers up bad ones. There are several examples today of alcohols that contain wormwood that were never banned, including Chartreuse and vermouth. In fact, the German word for wormwood is "wermut" which where vermouth gets it's name.
There is a chemical compound found in wormwood called thujone. Back in the 19th century, thujone was believed to induce effects to similar cannabiods when ingested. This belief was based on highly skeptical research, but the press printed it and public bought it. This led to the conclusion that overindulging in absinthe would make one trip. It was later proven that thujone does not, in fact, cause any psychedelic effects. It can be dangerous in large doses and cause convulsions and muscle spasms. But there are only trace amounts of thujone in absinthe. One would die of alcohol poisoning long before thujone levels became an issue. Still, this argument, based on a 19th century understanding of chemistry, was a compelling one.
Another key reason for Absinthe’s fall was that it was targeted on by both the wine industry and temperance movement - albeit for different reasons. Absinthe outsold wine in France, so companies were more than happy to fan the flames of consumer doubt in its safety. The temperance movement - whose sole objective was a ban on alcohol, particularly on moral grounds - viewed absinthe as a poster child for their narrative which was all about the social decay caused by alcohol. A contributor to their narrative was the widespread use of absinthe in bohemian culture which was made up of writers and artists and included icons like Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Edgar Alen Poe, just to name a few. While famously romanticized in movies like Moulin Rouge, at the time this movement and lifestyle was detested by social conservatives, and it’s association with absinthe led to further vilification. It certainly didn't help that some of these artists' did indeed suffer from mental illness - Van Gogh probably being the most famous one. Even more incriminating was the depiction of absinthe-hallucinations in some of these artist's works. Nothing was wrong with absinthe, of course, but that's how it's been framed. Some brands today still can't help but try to capitalize on this misunderstanding.
Albert's Maigan's "Green Muse", painted in1895.
The label of a faux absinthe called absente.
Murder and Panic
At the end of the 19th century, a public wariness of absinthe was setting in and some bans began in the late 19th century. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was a horrific incident in 1905 Switzerland which appeared to confirm everyone’s worst fears. One afternoon, a Swiss farmer named Jean Lanfray went out to lunch and got exceptionally drunk on several glasses of wine, Cognac, creme de menthe, topped off by two ounces of absinthe. He then went home and, following a violent argument with his wife, murdered her and his two children before and attempting to kill himself, unsuccessfully. In court, his lawyer argued it was a classic case of absinthe madness. Lanfray was sentenced to 30 years in prison, he didn’t get the death penalty because he was intoxicated, and presumably not responsible for his actions (pretty infuriating). Still, he killed himself after 3 days in prison.
The murders and trial were vigorously covered by the media and incited a widespread fear of absinthe’s effects, all of which was eagerly corroborated by wine and temperance advocates. From there, bans began to fall fell like dominoes. In 1912, it was deemed illegal in the United States, and in France in 1914. Some countries never instituted a ban, including the United Kingdom and Spain, but the market all but evaporated for the rest of the 20th century.
Towards the end of the 20th cenutry bans on absinthe began to be lifted. Essentially what happened was some companies realized that there might be a market for absinthe again and they set about to demsontrate to governing authorities that it was totally safe and always had been. In the United States it finally became available again in 2007, with the caveat being that all absinthe must be “thujone-free”, which is defined as 10 parts per million. But most absinthes are under this levels anyway, including pre-ban absinthes. In Europe, the minimum levels allowed are 35 parts per million, which is a negligible difference that will have no impact on the drinker. Case in point, sage has high thujone levels than wormwood and isn't regulated at all.
Naturally, after nearly a century’s worth of rumors and suggestive depictions in popular culture, consumers were eager to try absinthe when it returned, if for nothing else out of pure curiosity. But even when no one hallucinated or went made, but just good old-fashioned drunk, the absinthe resurgence continued. This was likely thanks in part to its presence in a wide array classic cocktails, which were also seeing a revival at this time. So, thankfully, the Green Fairy is flying again, and this time she's not coming down.