In the universe of consumer products, the spirits category is perhaps the most beset with mysticism, misinformation, and consumer ignorance. And there is no spirit more shrowded in mystery and mysticism than absinthe. Much of the modern misinformation involving spirits is perpetuated by the PR folks pushing their clients' wares, and often helps boost sales--"ultra-premium" vodka, anyone? But in the case of absinthe, the glamor and allure that once drew people to the spirit also proved to be a double-edged sword that ultimately provided its enemies (temperance types, social conservatives, winemakers losing market share, and opportunistic politicans) the weapon it needed to push a near worldwide ban on the product.
Fortunately absinthe is no longer prohibited in this country (as of 2007). But to understand why it was prohibited in the first place it is necessary to separate myth from fact, because for many the allure of absinthe is guided by mystical notions regarding hallucination and such. And while that may help fuel sales, it was those same ideas that helped bring down the hammer of prohibition on the product, and so it stands to reason that it can happen again with the right combination of negative public perception and the shifting of political winds.
What is absinthe?
Absinthe is an anise-flavored spirit first created in the mid-1700s in Switzerland. Originally the base spirit was grape eau de vie (brandy) which was distilled with various culinary and medicinal herbs and botanicals, but now it's common to find absinthes with other base spirits like neutral grain or beet distillate. It usually ranges between 120 and 140 proof (60-70% alcohol). Its primary component (and its most controversial) is a plant called Artemisia absinthium, or grand wormwood. Wormwood is a leafy plant that is closely related to tarragon and mugwort. Since ancient times it has been used to cure a number of ailments like rheumatism and menstrual pains. Vermouth actually gets its name from wermut, the German name for wormwood, because wormwood was a key flavoring component in vermouths up until the late 19th century. Along with wormwood, green anise and sweet fennel complete the "holy trinity" of absinthe's botanical flavoring. In addition to these three primary ingredients, absinthes often contain other botanicals such as hyssop, coriander, lemon balm, and Chinese aniseed.
Why the controversy?
At the heart of the issue is a substance within wormwood called thujone, which has been the subject of a great deal of false information and fabricated science. Long story short, after a number of highly publicized and sensational murders which happened to involve the consumption of absinthe by the perpetrators, the enemies of absinthe had enough political willpower, scientific conclusions (of dubious validity), and public outrage on their side to declare absinthe a dangerous mind-altering substance that seduces the lower classes to commit heinous crimes. By 1915 a prohibition on absinthe was declared in numerous European countries (except England; the British were too enamored with their gin to be affected adversely by absinthe). The United States issued a ban in 1912, and although the ban wasn't technically on absinthe--but rather the thujone contained therein--it effectively became a ban on absinthe. Interestingly enough, the misinformation campaign against absinthe bares many resemblances to that used against another green substance that is still illegal in this country, but I digress.
So is thujone really dangerous, or at least the amount found in absinthe?
Yes, and no. Yes, thujone in high doses has shown to cause epileptic seizures in lab mice. But absinthe contains such trace amounts of thujone that one would die of alcohol poisoning long before they ever consume enough thujone to have any appreciable effect.
Then why was absinthe to blame?
The fact is that absinthe producers eventually gained more powerful enemies than friends. Or at least the enemies of absinthe were more vocal in their opposition than its allies, even if the opponents were technically in the minority. The combination of prohibitionists (who were opposed to all spirits, not just absinthe), wealthy social conservatives (many whom hypocritically opposed absinthe for the lower classes but consumed it themselves), wine makers (who were losing profits to the "green fairy," especially after the bacteria phyllexora had practically destroyed much of the French grape crops), and politicians (who were eager to exploit these newfound constituents), eventually helped turn the tide of public opinion against absinthe. The biased pseudo-science that came out was used by the opponents of absinthe, and as is too often the case, nobody bothered to check the facts. And thus absinthe was banned.
Now that absinthe is legal again, what do I look for when buying a bottle?
This part of the spirits buying process is always inherently difficult for the consumer precisely because of the lack of consumer know-how. Government labeling requirements hardly ever help since the government itself is too often misinformed on the matter--it did take over a century for the government to lift the ban. The first thing to know about absinthe is that it is made one of two ways, and this is the primary factor in what separates a good, authentic Absinthe from inferior imitations.
The first type is called distilled absinthe, in which the flavoring botanicals are thrown in the still along with the base alcohol then redistilled, so that the new distillate is imparted with a the taste and aroma of the botanicals. This method also gives the new distillate a slightly oily texture, which happens to be a critical component in judging quality absinthes, because it is this oiliness which causes the "louche," or cloudy effect that occurs when mixed with water. More on that later. The redistilled spirit comes out clear, and is reffered to as a Blanche or le Bleue. To get its green color, the new distillate goes through a secondary maceration in various herbs which not only imparts a more complex herbal flavor to the absinthe but also gives it the signature green color from the chlorophyll in the herbs. It is said that in addition to attributing a green color, the chlorophyll in absinthe performs a function similar to tannins in wine.
The other type is cold-mixed absinthe, which is nothing more than infusing the base spirit after distillation, often with artificial coloring and flavoring, much the same way flavored vodkas and other cheap flavored spirits are made. The infused spirit is not redistilled, but rather packaged as such and sold to the unsuspecting consumer. Because many absinthes produced in this method involve artificial flavoring, they will not produce the same "louche" effect when reacting with water, indicating they don't contain the same natural herbal and botanical oils as authentic absinthe.
Unfortunately absinthe production is not uniformly regulated, so there's no uniform legal definition of absinthe that allows the consumer to know which is the real deal. As a result, some producers of inferior cold-mixed absinthes have even been known to indicate "distilled" on their labels simply because the base alcohol was a result of distillation. Currently, Switzerland is the only country in which absinthe is legally defined--and not surprisingly, the production of cold-mixed absinthe is prohibited there.
So I suppose one way of assuring a quality product is to simply buy a Swiss-made brand like Kubler, or the surprisingly good Mansinthe, made by none other than Marilyn Manson. Other reliable brands are Vieux Pontarlier, Pernod, and Lucid, which are all produced in France. There's also a really good American brand called St. George Absinthe Verte made in the Bay Area, which probably has the most nontraditional botanical profile of the quality absinthes, with subtle notes of lavender and tea.
Enough with the history lesson, how the hell do I drink it?
You can drink absinthe straight if you want to, but with its high proof and strong flavor profile, it's not really recommended. The traditional way to drink absinthe is as follows:
1.5 oz Absinthe (the PDT Book calls for Vieux Pontarlier)
4.5-6 oz Ice cold filtered water
1 Sugar cube
Tools: Absinthe spoon, absinthe fountain or water carafe
Glassware: Chilled absinthe glass (pictured above)
Method: Pour absinthe into the chilled glass. Place the Absinthe spoon over the rim of the glass and set a sugar cube on top of the spoon. Using the fountain, carafe, or pitcher, slowly drip the cold water over the sugar cube into the glass. As the dripping water dissolves the sugar cube, the "hydrophobic" layer of undiluted Absinthe rises to the top. When the mixture "louches" or becomes completely cloudy, it is ready. Use the spoon to stir and dissolve any remaining sugar, and enjoy.
The slow drip is really the key to proper execution. Too fast of a drip and you get overdilution of the absinthe without fully dissolving the sugar cube. This is what makes the fountain so useful. Of course not everyone can afford a classic absinthe fountain so if you find the whole drip thing too difficult, you can dissolve the sugar in the cold water and mix that in with the absinthe.
Just make sure your water is ice cold. The cold water helps to not only dilute the strong spirit and make it potable, but also helps release the fragrant aromatics of the botanicals in it. The sugar also helps soften the edges of the spirit, but some dispense with the sugar altogether since many absinthes are already slightly sweetened. So depending on your personal taste and which brand you use, you may adjust your sugar or find yourself dispensing with it altogether.
You may have heard of some people consuming absinthe in an alternative method that involves soaking the sugar cube in the high-proof absinthe and setting it ablaze, then dropping the sugar into the absinthe so that the entire mixture is on fire. This is known as the "Bohemian method," and it's not an advisable one. For one, it's not the traditional way of enjoying absinthe, despite what its proponents might claim. Second, the resulting blaze causes most, if not all of the alcohol to burn off, which completely negates the purpose of the entire endeavor. Alas, if you have undeniable pyromaniacal tendencies, no one can stop you, but at least you've been informed of your foolish ways.
*This post is part of a series in which Payman takes on the task of making and writing about every cocktail featured in the PDT Cocktail Book, as well as providing an awesome photo of each drink taken by Vanessa Bahmani Photography.
**Got a question? He can be found on twitter @paystyle, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or simply drop him a comment below.