Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Absinthe - A User's Guide

Absinthe Robette. Lithograph by Henri Privat-Livemont, 1896Absinthe is an anise-flavored spirit derived from the herb "grande wormwood", Artemisia absinthium. It originated in Switzerland, but was popularized by bohemian artists like Vincent van Gogh and Oscar Wilde. By 1915, absinthe was banned in the United States and much of Europe due to claims against thujone, a naturally occurring chemical in wormwood. Unfortunately, the negative claims against the drink, aside from being up to 75% ABV, did not hold up when analyzed. Absinthe was allowed back into the United States in 2007 and there are presently over 200 brands of absinthe worldwide. Follow the green fairy...

The Greeks were known to drink a wormwood-based wine but the use of wormwood dates back even earlier, at least to the ancient Egyptians in 1550 BCE, where it is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus. By the 18th century, modern absinthe containing green anise and fennel was being used as a medical elixir in Couvet, Switzerland. Like all great alcohol, its early days have passed into legend. It was used as an all-purpose medicine by Dr Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor in Switzerland, and may have been sold to the Henriot sisters of Couvet, before passing to a Major Dubied who, in 1797 with his son and son-in-law, opened the first absinthe distillery in Couvet. In 1805, they opened their second distillery in France.
 Absinthe's popularity continued to grow, even naming 5 p.m. "the green hour". By the early 20th century the French alone were consuming 36 million liters of absinthe annually, but that's a drop in the carafe against 5 billion liters of wine. It's affordability made it popular with all social classes and may have contributed to its downfall. The growing temperance movement of the early 20th century, with help from French wine-makers whose crops were being ravaged by a root rot, enacted bans in most of Europe and the United States. Crimes committed by absinthe drinkers were blamed on the hallucinogenic qualities of thujone, a chemical in distilled wormwood. However, modern chemical analysis has shown that one would die of alcohol poisoning before consuming enough thujone from absinthe to be affected.
Spain never banned absinthe but it fell out of favor there in the 1940s. Britain had also never banned absinthe, but it also was never as popular there as in the rest of Europe. In the 1990s, absinthe began to see a resurgence in popularity, starting in countries where it had not been banned due to lack of popularity.On March 5, 2007, Lucid became the first legally imported brand of absinthe into the United States since 1912. In December 2007, St George Absinthe Verte, made in Alameda, California, became the first American-made brand of absinthe since the ban.

Follow along as we prepare absinthe in the traditional way. Start by assembling the necessary equipment:
  • Bottle of absinthe. There are many varieties to choose from. Choosing a preferred style is like choosing your favorite wine. 
  • The absinthe glass has a distinctive shape, a short stem topped by a bulb and funnel.
  • A slotted spoon with which to pour cold water over a sugar cube.
  • Finally, ice cold water and a cube of sugar.
Start by filling the bulb of the glass with absinthe. The particular shade of green will vary by which style of absinthe you have chosen. In fact, in older absinthe, the chlorophyll will break down, passing from yellow to brown. While desired in classical times, modern absinthe drinkers want their spirit clear and bright.
Next, arrange the spoon over the glass with a cube of sugar on the slots. The handle of the spoon will have a notch which rests on the rim of the glass.
Now pour ice cold water over the sugar cube, dissolving it into the drink. Continue pouring until the glass is filled with the mixture.
The absinthe will turn cloudy as the water is poured in, yet maintain its alluring shades of green. This is the desired effect.
Congratulations, all that remains is to enjoy your evening with "the Green Fairy".

Absinthe Robette by Henri Privat-Livemont. 1896 Lithograph. Public Domain.
All photographs copyright of the author and released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. All other copyrights and trademarks are property of their respective owners and included without endorsement or commercial consideration.