Absinthe is one of the items I hear people spout misconceptions about the most, and that’s saying a lot because working at a distillery you hear a lot of really off shit. I know I say this a lot, but to really understand absinthe you have to look at it’s history and heritage.
Like most liquors, the exact story of absinthe’s origins is somewhat contested, and as always, in my opinion not that important. The important thing is that absinthe became popular in France sometime in the late 19th century. During this time there was a bit of a limited mindset when it came to alcohol. France had long been known for its wine production and with the proliferation of distilled spirits, it earned a reputation for exquisite brandies. Throughout the world, French wine and Brandy was the pinnacle of alcoholic consumption, no less so in France itself. As the new man in town, absinthe rapidly earned a reputation as a drink for vagrants, probably due in part to its unusually high ABV, up to around 75% v. 40% (as is the average brandy). Just as absinthe was gaining ground in France, Phylloxera struck the french grape vines, crippling the industry and with time, almost permanently destroying it. With this sudden void came a huge shift in drinking culture across the globe. Within the country, absinthe was ripe to take its place.
Keep in mind, during this time period Western society was also in the midst of a ‘soft prohibition’ movement. Stronger beers and even stronger distillates were creating a widespread drunkenness that was deeply alarming to a great deal of people. With the sudden disappearance of good French wine, people were turning to harder liquors but without much more moderation.
Absinthe itself was not an unusual addition to the line up of flavored spirits and digestifs that were popular at this time. While it can be flavored with upwards of 20 different herbs and spices, most notorious is its inclusion of wormwood. It has a signature licorice/ anise flavor that people either love or hate. Good Old wikipedia lists its usual ingredients as wormwood, fennel, and anise, the so called ‘holy trinity’ that is in all absinthe. It can also include “hyssop, melissa, star anise, angelica, peppermint, coriander, and veronica”. Basically, it is a typical herbal mashup of whatever has been given a medicinal property at this point. It is wormwood though that would eventually be the sand upon which the spirit stood.
After the downfall of wine, absinthe presided over French society. Every day, upon leaving work, it was traditional for men to stop by their favorite watering hole to enjoy a few hours before heading home. Soon enough this became known in some circles as the “Green hour”, because it was so characterized by the signature greenish ‘glow’ of absinthe. Distillers of the spirit reveled in this abundant time, making good use of this unrelenting demand, and delivering their own styles. As with all sudden booms, there were certain unscrupulous providers who took rancid spirits, barely covered them with barest amounts of herbs and shilled them to anyone foolish enough to purchase… but such is life in competitive industries. As this boom grew, so too did the objections of prohibitionists.
Eventually, the source and solution to the phylloxera problem was discovered and the wine industry began to rebuild. In spite of the drives of prohibitionists, absinthe had continued to flourish and presented formidable competition to other alcohol providers. The French wine industry leveraged its considerable power against the spirit, a move that still colors public perception of absinthe to this day. As with most things people want banned, they took the stand that it made people morally unfit, and furthermore, the beverage itself was incredibly dangerous. The argument primarily focused around wormwood and one of the chemicals in it: thujone. At the time, a certain scientist in France was able to isolate thujone and proceeded to give a significant amount of it to a lab rat. When the rat (understandably) reacted poorly, it was used as evidence that absinthe was dangerous. Now the modern day equivalent of this would be to give several grams of pure caffeine to a lab rat and then use the results to say that nobody should be allowed to consume soda, coffee, or tea. It simply wasn’t good science. Nevertheless, abolitionists and the wine industry prevailed and soon the reputation of absinthe was smeared across the globe and it was subsequently banned.
Only recently has absinthe been experiencing a revitalization, thanks to the efforts of passionate consumers around the globe. The bans have all been lifted, so rest assured that when you go into a bar, you are most certainly getting “The good stuff”. No winks required, though if you want to slip your server a little something extra I bet they wont stop you.
How to Drink Absinthe
Undoubtedly if you have gotten this far you probably have some idea of a traditional absinthe serving. I was fortunate enough this Christmas to receive a full absinthe ‘kit’ as a gift (big thank you to my brother, he definitely won this Christmas) so I recently had the pleasure of enjoying it the traditional way.
Due to the herbal nature of absinthe, along with certain fatty acids that are in the beverage, when adding water it changes the consistency and color of the drink. This is the source of many of it’s names, most of them including the word ‘green’, since it takes on a mildly greenish hue or glow. This is also the reason that absinthe has the complex, traditional serving method that it does.
Things you will need (in a traditional kit):
- Absinthe Fountain- mine is all glass, adorned with a green fairy on top. There are multitudes of designs, I’m sure one suited to your own personal taste. My brother bought them from here.
- Absinthe Spoons – These are specially designed spoons which hold sugar, but allow it to drip into the glass below. There are also many designs, apparently mine is a design of a wormwood leaf with ribbon wrapped through it. Very nice, and probably the one I would have picked out myself.
- Sugar – While I have a specifically packaged “absinthe sugar”, I have yet to discern how it might be different from just sugar cubes. Other than… really great packaging.
- Absinthe – take your time picking out an absinthe. If it is within your capability, try to find a bar that serves several types of absinthe so you can taste a variety or at least do plenty of research. Besides good reviews, my absinthe was picked on the merit of having the most significant change in color when adding water. It really just depends on what you value in your drink.
- Glass – Of course there are specific glasses that you absolutely must have in order to drink absinthe, otherwise you might as well not even try… but for real, they are pretty but don’t loose your mind on the glassware. If you do desperately need them (because you and I are just like that), try looking through Goodwill. They are always my number 1 source of glassware.
First, you fill your absinthe fountain up with ice water. When there are so few ingredients in a drink, the quality really counts for everything so try to use a good water. Personally, I prefer something a little more on the mineral-y side but it’s at your discretion.
Second, you will place your absinthe spoon on top of the glass so it is laying flat. The ridge on the spoon just above the decorative part is for laying on the edge so that the spoon is somewhat more ‘locked in’. It took me a little bit too long to figure that out.
Third, you place your desired amount of sugar on top of the flat part of the spoon. I used three, since I am a weenie and new to absinthe. After that, you slowly turn the handle of the spout above your absinthe spoon until it begins to drip. I prefer mine on a slow drip because I don’t do this often and I like to watch the sugar melt slowly. Whatever you prefer is undoubtedly the right way to do this though. Add as much sugar and water as you like, right up until the glass is full.
Unfortunately, this time I did not take pictures of the absinthe as it changed… Mostly because I did this shortly before work and it was a poor time to really enjoy the absinthe ritual, especially since my bosses were there. I will be sure to do so in the future because I am an avid purveyor of drink porn and absinthe surely delivers. Enjoy!
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