As most absinthe enthusiasts will attest, absinthe is the most controversial and poorly-understood beverage out there. I won’t get into the whole history, with mad Parisians cutting off their own ears, going on murderous rampages and all that while supposedly under the influence of the Green Fairy, but suffice it to say, absinthe had been banned in the United States and many other countries for the better part of a century. The green liquor was supposedly hallucinogenic and drove its adherents to madness, kind of like a fin-de-siecle version of Four Loko spiked with LSD.
To make a long story short, all of this was scientifically proven false in the 2000s, by a Louisiana chemist and absinthe enthusiast by the name of Ted Breaux. Wormwood was supposed to have been the “active ingredient” in absinthe, as it contains a substance called thujone, a known convulsant in laboratory animals. Mistakenly, it was thought that thujone was responsible for all the bad behavior of those absinthe-addicted Parisians back in the day. However, to go into convulsions by ingesting thujone, an average human would have to drink so much absinthe, he/she would die of alcohol poisoning long before ANY “effects” were felt from the thujone. Other herbs like sage also contain thujone, so really, banning absinthe because it contains trace amounts of thujone made about as much sense as banning sage. Further, based on rigorous chemical analysis of samples of pre-ban absinthe, it was found that the old absinthes really didn’t even contain that much of it to begin with – below the FDA and EU limits, even. So, by exploiting that legal loophole, absinthe was in effect legalized and good to go in the United States. You can walk into a liquor store and buy absinthe no less “real” than that enjoyed in Paris cafes circa 1910.
So what is absinthe? It’s simply a very potent distilled herbal liquor, colored naturally in the case of a verte (green absinthe) or left colorless in the case of a blanche (clear absinthe). Although absinthe may contain any number of different herbs, it must contain these three in order to be real absinthe – green anise, fennel, and grande wormwood, the Holy Trinity of absinthe. In addition, absinthes might well contain hyssop, petit wormwood, star anise, melissa, lemon balm, mint, sage and who knows what else.
What does it taste like? A good absinthe should be well-balanced between the three main herbs, with notes of any secondary herbal character flitting in and out from time to time. It should not taste purely of sweet licorice by way of the anise and fennel – the wormwood should ideally be giving the drinker a bitter counterpoint.
I have in front of me Absinthe Nouvelle-Orleans from France’s Jade, a well-regarded distiller of absinthe. The idea behind this bottle was to create a historically-faithful replica of the absinthes that were enjoyed in New Orleans prior to the ban:
This particular absinthe probably isn’t available in South Florida, but you might be able to find La Clandestine, another well-regarded bottle.
When pouring absinthe, you want to pour just a little bit, as it is extremely strong, and you’ll be diluting it with water. Most absinthe glasses have a fill line of sorts, like the one I’m using in the picture, but if you don’t have a dedicated absinthe glass, a wine glass will work perfectly – you’ll just have to eyeball the ratio. I like a ratio of about 3.5 parts water to 1 part absinthe. Some people go as high as 5 to 1, but I think that’s too watery.
Observe. If you have an absinthe verte, you should see a pale green color that looks natural, *not* as if one added green food coloring. Dip your nose into the glass. The herbal aroma should be extremely concentrated, probably burning your nostrils a bit, as this is 68% ABV, after all. Don’t drink it yet – you’ll want to louche it up first as follows:
Drip cold water onto a sugar cube suspended above the absinthe on a slotted spoon. If you prefer a less sweet drink, omit the sugar cube. The absinthe will swirl around, turn cloudy, and release its herbal aromas into the room. This is called the “louche.”
Now the absinthe is ready to drink. Diluted, the glass is about the same strength as a standard glass of wine. It tastes bracing and fresh, like a basket of Alpine herbs steeped in the waters from a cold mountain stream. I’m getting a good deal of baby powder in the nose along with green anise, which typically indicates that the absinthe contains hyssop. It tastes like a creamy Good ‘n Plenty with a pleasing bitter edge.
So refreshing, I don’t understand why most of South Florida hasn’t caught on yet. Toss out your preconceived notions and give it a try. It’s also worth noting that absinthe was a component of many classic cocktails, so if you’re a cocktail aficionado, you definitely want some in your liquor cabinet.
If you’re interested in learning more about absinthe, check out the Wormwood Society web page, the premier absinthe information source, IMO: http://www.wormwoodsociety.org