“It was a milky yellow now with the water and he hoped the gipsy would not take more than a swallow. There was very little left and one cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now in this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of book shops, of kiosks, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont, of the Guaranty Trust Company and the lie de la Cite, of Foyot’s old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the evening; of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain- warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy.”
For whom the bell tolls
Ernest Hemingway

On March 5th, we celebrate Absinthe Day.

Absinthe, also known as the green fairy or green muse, has gathered more legends, political campaigns, government bans, and misinformation than any other drink.

All these controversies are often attributed to the simple plant known as wormwood. In fact, the name “absinthe” itself is derived from the Greek word ἀψσίνθιον, which means wormwood.

The origins of absinthe trace back to the late 18th century, with the most popular date being 1792, in the Swiss town of Couvet near the French border. The creation of absinthe is attributed to the Henriod sisters, residents of Couvet, and a French doctor named Pierre Ordinaire, who sought refuge in the town during the French Revolution. However, historical records are unclear. Some claim that Dr. Ordinaire created absinthe and distributed it to clients through the sisters, while others suggest that the Henriod sisters invented the drink and sold it to the doctor’s clients. Nevertheless, the recipe of the elixir, initially intended as a remedy for various illnesses, in 1797 was passed into the hands of Major Dubied.

Henry Dubied, along with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, established the first absinthe distillery in Couvet under the name Dubied Pere et Fils. In 1805, they expanded their operations by founding a second distillery in Pontarlier, France, known as Maison Pernod Fils. Pernod Fils became the most renowned absinthe brand until 1914, when absinthe was banned in France.

Absinthe is a strong spirit, typically ranging from 45% to 74% abv, infused with a combination of herbs, with the most significant ones being grand wormwood, anise, and fennel. Other herbs commonly used in its production include hyssop, melissa, star anise, angelica, peppermint, coriander, and veronica.

Despite its complex herbal composition, much of the legend and controversy surrounding absinthe revolves around grand wormwood, scientifically known as Artemisia absinthum, and the ketone thujone it contains.

Thujone has been associated with various effects, including hallucinations at higher doses, convulsions at even higher doses, and potentially fatal consequences at excessively high doses. It is the presence of thujone that has fueled much of the stigma and misconceptions surrounding absinthe throughout history.

Returning to its history, absinthe experienced a gradual but consistent rise in popularity since its introduction to the market. This trend continued until around 1840 when it was included in the rations of French troops stationed in tropical colonies as a remedy for ailments such as malaria and dysentery. Soldiers developed a taste for absinthe during their service, and upon returning to France, they sought it out in bars with fervor. By 1806, absinthe had become so ubiquitous in France that the traditional cocktail hour at 5 pm was often referred to as the “green hour,” owing to the drink’s pale green color resulting from the presence of chlorophyll.

Absinthe gained unparalleled popularity among the bohemian and affluent classes. The bohemians believed that absinthe bestowed inspiration upon them and affectionately referred to it as the “green muse.” For artists and writers, abstaining from absinthe was nearly unthinkable. Renowned figures such as Paul Verlaine, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Lewis Carroll, and Oscar Wilde all paid homage to the allure of the green muse in their works and lifestyles.

Absinthe’s popularity transcended the borders of France and Switzerland, spreading to Spain, Portugal, England, and the USA, where it gained a foothold among the masses. No longer confined to bohemian circles and the wealthy elite, absinthe became accessible to a broader audience. This expansion was facilitated by a decrease in price, leading to a corresponding decline in quality. Additionally, the phylloxera epidemic that ravaged vineyards at the end of the 19th century contributed to absinthe’s rise in popularity. As the price of wine soared due to grape shortages, many French consumers turned to absinthe as a more affordable alternative.

However, the grape shortages also resulted in a scarcity of grape spirit, which served as the base for absinthe production. To meet the growing demand, producers began to substitute grape spirit with technical spirit, often of inferior quality. While this led to lower prices, it also compromised the overall quality of the absinthe being produced. Consequently, widespread consumption of absinthe led to an increase in alcoholism, reminiscent of the Gin Craze that occurred in England during a previous era (About gin and its complicated history- here).

Indeed, thujone became the scapegoat for all the perceived sins associated with absinthe. This infamous substance was believed to cause hallucinations, leading to widespread fear and condemnation of the spirit.

In 1905, a tragic incident involving absinthe fueled the public outcry against the drink. Swiss farmer Jean Lanfray, already known to be a habitual heavy drinker, consumed a concoction of absinthe along with copious amounts of cognac, crème de menthe, beer, and wine before committing a heinous act – the murder of his wife and two daughters. Despite the fact that Lanfray’s alcohol consumption included various other beverages and that he had a history of alcohol abuse, absinthe was singled out as the primary culprit by the media and the public.

In response to growing concerns over the perceived dangers of absinthe, Switzerland enacted a ban on the spirit in 1908. This marked the beginning of a global movement to prohibit absinthe, with other countries soon following suit.

In 1912, the USA implemented a ban on absinthe and any beverages containing thujone. France followed suit in 1914, with a complete ban on absinthe, including production, enforced in 1915. Subsequently, absinthe was prohibited in Switzerland, the USA, Belgium, Italy, Bulgaria, Germany, and several other countries, leading to a significant decline in its popularity worldwide.

However, as the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum. The ban on absinthe in France prompted the rise in popularity of pastis, another potent spirit infused with anise extract. When diluted with water, the anise oils in pastis create an opalescent cloud in the glass, adding to its visual appeal and imbuing the drinking experience with a sense of ritual.

Indeed, the blame attributed to thujone for the negative effects associated with absinthe have been exaggerated. The concentration of thujone in wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe, is relatively low, even lower than that found in common herbs like sage. Furthermore, the concentration of thujone in absinthe itself is also minimal. It’s practically impossible for a person to consume enough absinthe to reach a hallucinogenic threshold due to thujone. Ethanol intoxication, stemming from the high alcohol content in absinthe, is a much more significant risk.

Similar effects were observed in England during the Gin Craze, despite gin not containing any thujone.

Since absinthe’s rehabilitation, regulations have been established to limit thujone concentrations. In Europe, the limit is typically set at 35 mg/l, while in the USA, it’s set at 10 mg/l. As a result, absinthe can now be enjoyed without concerns about thujone-induced hallucinations. However, it’s essential to remember that excessive consumption of any strong spirit can lead to health problems, even without the presence of hallucinogens.

The revival of absinthe’s reputation began in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it gained significant momentum. Absinthe was never banned in the Czech Republic, although it also never achieved widespread popularity there. Since the 1920s, the Czech company Hill’s had been producing absinthe, but its quality was often criticized.

In 1998, Hill’s decided to export its absinthe to the British market, where absinthe had also never been banned. Surprisingly, it found success despite its perceived low quality. However, this sparked outrage among absinthe lovers, leading to the emergence of a new absinthe brand in 2000 called La Fee Absinthe, made in France with help of absinthe expert Marie-Claude Delahaye. La Fee Absinthe was the first absinthe produced in France since the ban in 1914.

The Netherlands lifted its ban on absinthe in 2004, followed by Belgium and Switzerland in 2005, and the USA in 2007. With these bans lifted, absinthe regained its freedom and access to the market, marking a significant milestone in its resurgence.

How is absinthe made? Switzerland is the only country with strict regulations on this; the rest of the world leaves it to the producer’s discretion.

There are two principal methods to make absinthe: distillation and cold mixing. In Switzerland, only distillation is permitted.

High-quality absinthe is made exclusively through distillation, similar to the process used for high-quality gin. First, a base spirit, typically grape-based, is infused with herbs to extract all necessary components, then it undergoes redistillation. The result is a colorless, clear product with 72% alcohol by volume, which can be diluted to the desired concentration and used as is for Blanche or la Bleue absinthe. The natural green hue of absinthe, caused by chlorophyll, is achieved through a second maceration with select green herbs, including petite wormwood, hyssop, melissa, and others. After the second maceration, the absinthe is diluted to the necessary concentration. Absinthe containing chlorophyll is the only type that can be aged; chlorophyll acts as tannins in wine, imparting a more complex flavor profile.

The most classic and high-quality absinthe is made by distillation and colored with chlorophyll. However, chlorophyll decomposes in light, so these absinthes are sold in dark glass bottles and should be stored in a dark environment.

Of course, there are cheaper production methods, such as synthetic coloring.

To significantly reduce production costs, some producers opt for cold mixing instead of distillation. This approach is similar to the one used for cheap cold compound gins and flavored vodkas, where aromatic essences and synthetic colors are simply added to the base spirit.

Many inexpensive absinthes are made using this method. Without strict regulations on absinthe production outside of Switzerland, it can be challenging to determine the quality of the absinthe you’re consuming. You can infer quality based on price or check the producer’s website. Alternatively, you can stick with reputable producers known for making quality absinthe.

Today, absinthe comes in various hues beyond the traditional colorless and green. You can find absinthes in yellow, red, black, and blue. Both natural and synthetic colorants are used in these variations.

In addition to the multicolored cheap cold-mixed absinthes, there are several styles of traditional absinthes made by distillation:

1. Blanche absinthe: White absinthe (referred to as la Bleue in Switzerland), this is a colorless, clear absinthe that does not undergo secondary maceration after secondary distillation.

2. Verte absinthe: Green absinthe, distinguished by its green color and vibrant botanical taste derived from secondary maceration. While absinthes colored by synthetic colorants after re-distillation may also be called Verte absinthe, their taste is much simpler.

3. Absenta: A Spanish regional variation of absinthe, slightly different from French absinthe in its herbal composition.

4. Bohemian-style or Czech-style absinth: Sometimes spelled “absinth” without the “e” at the end. This style of absinthe is more wormwood bitter than traditional absinthe and is made without anise, fennel, and other herbs with essential oils. As a result, it does not produce an opalescent cloud when diluted with water. Not every absinthe made in the Czech Republic is Czech-style; it is a distinct style rather than a geographical identity, although it originated in the Czech Republic.

What are the ways to serve absinthe?

The traditional French ritual for serving absinthe involves the following steps:

1. Take a glass.
2. Pour a small amount of absinthe into the glass.
3. Place a special absinthe spoon with perforations over the top of the glass.
4. Position a sugar cube on the absinthe spoon.
5. Slowly drip icy water over the sugar cube, allowing it to dissolve and mix with the absinthe.
6. Enjoy the mesmerizing opalescent cloud that forms as the water mixes with the absinthe.
7. Once enough water has been added (typically three to five parts water to one part absinthe), savor the drink.

Various contraptions were invented to facilitate this process, such as cups with holes in which ice could be placed to melt and drip through the hole. During the height of absinthe’s popularity, many European cafes provided carafes of ice water so patrons could dilute their absinthe according to their preference.

Alternatively, the American way to serve absinthe is to simply add water and sugar to the absinthe and mix it together.

There is also a Bohemian style of serving absinthe that was likely inspired by the popular Feuerzangenbowle in those regions. In this method, pour absinthe into the glass, place the sugar on the absinthe spoon, but instead of dripping water over it, soak the sugar in absinthe. Then, ignite the sugar, let it melt and drip into the glass, and ignite the absinthe in the glass. After a moment, extinguish the flame with a splash of water. It’s impressive, but it doesn’t necessarily enhance the taste of absinthe. This style of serving is typically associated with Bohemian-style absinthe, known for its simpler taste.

And of course, there are many cocktails made with absinthe. I’ll discuss some of them.

Whether you choose to enjoy traditional absinthe or a classic cocktail, raise your glass to the rich history and complexity of this intriguing spirit. Cheers!

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