The US government legalized absinthe more than a decade ago, but mystery and misunderstanding still surrounds the spirit. So we decided to help a bartender out and offer seminars on the worthy drink.
Absinthe, also known as the ‘green fairy,’ is a beautiful and unique spirit with a colourful history. But people always ask us, “Oh, but that’s not the real stuff, is it? Doesn’t the real stuff make you hallucinate”
We answer, “Yes, we’re using the real stuff. And no, it won’t make you hallucinate.”
Here’s our expert’s guide to absinthe
If you master the following 7 simple topics, you’ll be a conversational match for any self-proclaimed absinthe aficionado. You’ll better serve the knowledgable patron, and perhaps teach him a thing or two. And most people know so little about the drink that, if you remember the lessons in these seven steps, you’ll basically become an expert.
1. Know where absinthe comes from
Absinthe originated in 18th Century Switzerland as an over-the-counter medicine. Most potable ethanols share similar origin stories as well as similarly unproven health benefits.
A gentleman named Major Dubied acquired the original recipe for absinthe and in 1797 opened the first distillery in Couvet, Switzerland. Dubied, together with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, named the distillery Dubied Père et Fils (Dubied Father and Sons).
In 1805, the trio opened a second distillery in France called Maison Pernod Fils — the name Pernod remains in today’s booze conglomerate Pernod-Ricard.
2. Know why absinthe was banned
From 1850 to 1900, famous artists (think Ernest Hemmingway, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, etc.) cherished the green fairy. So did notorious drinkers like opiate-addicted Bohemians.
The widespread popularity of absinthe, its famous (and infamous) drinkers, and its high alcohol content (a minimum of 60% ABV) combined to create a certain reputation. The public knew the drink as a cause of profligacy.
In 1905, an alcoholic Swiss farmer under the influence of absinthe murdered his wife and two children. This murder hammered the final nail in the spirit’s coffin. While the farmer had also been drinking wine, beer, and cognac all day, absinthe took the blame.
The murder inspired a public petition to ban the green fairy, and 82,000 individuals signed. Thus began the absinthe prohibition in Switzerland.
A handful of other nations followed suit: the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Absinthe, however, remained legal pretty much everywhere else.
The modern day resurgence of absinthe likely began when Brits ‘realized’ that they had never banned it to begin with, and imported the drink.
3. Know how absinthe is made
Meet the Holy Trinity of botanicals: grande wormwood, florence fennel, and green anise. Absinthe makers macerate these greens in a distilled neutral grain spirit, and then redistill the result so that bitter compounds don’t outshine the nuances of the botanicals.
If distillers bottle the drink after the first distillation, the absinthe acquires the label blanche (Switzerland) or bleue (France) due to the liquid’s transparency. These styles can be quite delicate and even somewhat fruity. Oftentimes, I have noticed notes of melon and creamy chamomile.
Some distillers perform a secondary maceration of herbs and botanicals. This further step results in a much more herbaceous finished product. The second maceration also imparts chlorophyl to the spirit and adds the famous green colour. These absinthes appropriately gain the label verte.
4. Understand the chemistry behind the louche
Louche, the French word for ‘opaque’ or ‘shady,’ refers to the cloudy colour that appears after the distiller adds water. Think of adding water to an over-proof whisky. Same concept.
Adding water opens up the absinthe, unlocking essential oils. In fact, the drink gains a louche (shadiness) when the botanicals release solid compounds (primarily anise and fennel). The release of the essential oils also cause the drink to become much more aromatic.
5. Know the different ways absinthe can be prepared
Around the world, bartenders serve absinthe in two popular styles: the French style (the most traditional), and the Czech Republic’s modern Bohemian style.
The Traditional French Style
This is where those beautiful and ornate fountains come into play:
So, you take a glass that looks something like this:
You get an absinthe spoon that looks like this:
And you put a sugar cube on that spoon. Like this:
Then you slowly run the water over the sugar cube.
Note that you don’t need a fancy fountain to do this. You can simply pour ice-cold water from a pitcher or a mixing tin over the sugar cube. Hell, you can even use simple syrup instead of a sugar cube! And then you’ll get a more consistent result.
The Czech Republic Style (a.k.a the Modern Bohemian Style)
Many consider absinthe from the Czech Republic an inferior product because the Czechs don’t use wormwood. The Czechs often create absinthe using a neutral grain spirit and then adding artificial flavours. As a result, the drink does not louche (see above).
These Czech distillers then set the sugar cube on fire and dump it in, which ignites the entire drink. You can make just about anything taste good when you add caramelized (browned or burnt) sugar.
6. Know the essential absinthe cocktails
Three cocktails make our list of absinthe essentials: The Corpse Reviver #2, the Death in the Afternoon, and the Sazerac.
Corpse Reviver #2
The Corpse Reviver #2, a 1920s classic, has gained major popularity for good reason. This drink is a perfect palate-cleansing refresher that also maintains a bit of underlying complexity to keep things interesting. If you’re looking for an accessible cocktail for an absinthe newcomer, the #2 is your drink.
Corpse Reviver #2 Recipe:
- 1 oz (30 ml) Gin
- 1 oz (30 ml) Cointreau
- 1 oz (30 ml) Lillet Blanc (or Cocchi Americano for historical accuracy)
- 1 oz (30 ml) lemon
- 1/4 oz (7.5 ml) Pernod
Shake, strain, garnish with a cherry.
I personally like to use Pernod (technically an anise liqueur and not an absinthe) in a Corpse Reviver #2. Pernod is quite bright and shines through the other ingredients well. Pernod is also more economical than other options.
Death in the Afternoon
The Death in the Afternoon was created by none other than Ernest Hemmingway. The Death takes a more traditional French approach to an absinthe cocktail but then uses champagne instead of water. This particular cocktail really allows the green fairy to shine in all its glory, so use something gangster. For a real treat, grab a bottle of Jade 1901, a nice quality bubbly wine, and pony up to that desk or favourite reading chair and have a deep think. Maybe read some Hemmingway.
Death in the Afternoon recipe:
- 1 oz (30 ml) of a gangster absinthe
- Optional: simple syrup or granulated sugar to taste
- Top with a good sparkling wine
The Sazerac is essentially a whisky cocktail (whisky, sugar, water, and bitters) with the addition of absinthe. It’s served in a chilled rocks glass, neat. The glass should be half full. The drink looks very simple, and so it should.
Despite its simplicity, the Sazerac is actually one of the most challenging drinks to master. The difficulty lies in achieving an ideal sweetness. Not all sugar cubes are created equal, so using cubes can result in inconsistent drinks. To avoid the variability and achieve a consistent sweetness, use simple syrup. The chemically controlled sweetness levels put you in complete control. Note that a lighter rye, like Bulleit, might require a touch less sweetness. A bigger rye, like Rittenhouse, might call for a touch more.
Somewhere between more sweet and less lies the perfect drink.
- 2 oz (60 ml) American Rye (or Cognac, or both)
- 1/4 oz (7.5 ml) simple syrup
- 1/4 oz (7.5 ml) Absinthe
- 7-9 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
Stir, strain into chilled small rocks glass, express lemon oils over the drink (optional: toss lemon zest in the drink).
7. Know a bit about thujone
First, a couple fun wormwood facts to pass on to your guests:
- The first known medicinal use of wormwood occurred in 1552 B.C.
- In the Bible, wormwood and its bitterness became a metaphor for injustice.
- In the middle ages, new mothers would rub wormwood on their nipples to ween their babies.
Most people know that absinthe contains wormwood, and many blame wormwood for the drink’s hallucination potential. Wormwood, however, is not the cause. Thujone, an active ingredient within wormwood, can cause side effects. Thujone is to wormwood what THC is to cannabis.
While thujone consumption can yield mind-altering effects, remember that every chemical, even the most benign ones, can prove lethal when consumed to excess. What’s more, sage, the kitchen herb, contains more thujone than distilled wormwood. Most thujone doesn’t survive the distillation process. Absinthe drinkers would probably die from alcohol poisoning before they would feel the effects of thujone.
Also contrary to popular belief, thujone, if it does anything, increases cognitive capacity. If absinthe drinkers feel the effects of thujone, they’ll probably feel a higher state of clarity (in the midst of their intoxication). Maybe that’s why 19th century artists drank so much absinthe.
That said, don’t drink homemade absinthe. Home distillers sometimes erroneously mix wormwood oil with a neutral grain spirit — this combination is poisonous. Distillation makes the wormwood safe to drink.
There you have it…
7 steps to present yourself as an absinthe expert, even if you secretly aren’t one. What are some of your favourite stories about absinthe?