What is Absinthe?
Have you ever seen Eurotrip? No? Add it to your list. Anyway, in the movie some recently graduated high schoolers take an unsupervised trip to Europe. Eventually, all their kooky decisions land them in Amsterdam at a club where the bartender serves them up some potion-y looking green drink.
After a few sips, a green fairy appears in the form of a drunk man suggesting that they get into further trouble, I won’t spoil the rest. What they were drinking was Absinthe, and no it will not make a green fairy appear in front of you, and no it’s not like you’re getting roofied. Does that make sense? I’ll let Oscar Wilde explain:
“After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”
Let’s explore a more literal definition. Absinthe is a French word for the wormwood plant, known in Latin as Artemisia absinthium, artemisia comes from the Greek "wormwood" the latter from Artemis, the ancient Greek goddess of the hunt.
Absinthe has a very high ABV, ranging anywhere between 55 and 75 percent alcohol by volume, which equates to about 110 to 144 proof. The standard for whiskey is 40 percent (80 proof) so you can see why it is supposed to be diluted.
As for it’s ingredients, they can vary, but the three main ones are anise, fennel and wormwood, they are of course soaked in alcohol, and the mixture is then distilled. The process itself isn’t what gives it the green color though, according to How Stuff Works it goes like this:
“In the distillation process the herbal oils and the alcohol evaporate, separating from the water and bitter essences released by the herbs. The fennel, anise and wormwood oils then recondense with the alcohol in a cooling area, and the distiller dilutes the resulting liquid down to whatever proof the absinthe is supposed to be (based on brand variations or regional laws). At this point, the absinthe is clear; many manufacturers add herbs to the mixture after distillation to get the classic green color from their chlorophyll.”
It can almost be considered Mother Nature’s Spirit! But as you can tell, no other chemical is added, so where does the trippy hallucinogen factor come in? The chemical to blame is thujone, and it is released from the wormwood. Should the dosage stay low, you’re safe, but too much thujone can be toxic. Don’t be scared, it is actually found in a lot of foods but there isn’t enough in Absinthe to hurt you either thanks to the distillation process. In the U.S., thujone levels in absinthe are capped at 10 milligrams per liter, while absinthe in Europe may have 35 milligrams per liter.
Absinthe has received a bad rep for too long, absinthe related deaths have been exaggerated through history to blame something other than the real killer- alcoholism. If you’re drinking a lot of cheap Absinthe, yeah it may contain some other poisonous ingredients, in this concern it is no different than Moonshine.
A Brief History:
As far as the first use of absinthe, there’s little clarity, but for wormwood there’s proof that it was popular as a medicine in ancient Egypt. Doctors used to make a drink that contained wormwood and added honey to the brim of the glass, it served as medicine for children. The brilliant idea of a French doctor in 1792, Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland sold it as an, “all-purpose” elixir.
The extracts from the plant itself and soaking the leaves in wine were used as remedies throughout ancient Greece as well. In fact, the Greeks recorded evidence of a wormwood flavored wine was called as, absinthites oinos. But we’re going to take the French route for this one.
The tale of Dr. Pierre is a “tale” because other accounts claim two sisters were already selling their own absinthe elixir prior to 1792 and he may have ripped them off. In any case, in 1797 it was a Major Dubied that ended up with the formula (he credits the sisters) and began a family business.
The Major, his son Marcellin, and his son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, are credited with opening the first absinthe distillery called, Dubied Père et Fils, in Couvet, France. Business went well so in 1805, in Pontarlier, France, they opened a second one. Their company name became Pernod Fils and it was the most popular brand of absinthe for over 100 years.
It was still heavily used as a medicine to treat illnesses such as malaria in the 1840s. However, it exploded in popularity throughout all social classes. Cafes, bistros, restaurants, anywhere with a bar in the 1860s had it. Back then, their version of a Happy Hour (5 pm) was called: l'heure verte ("the green hour"). What a time to be alive!
Then things the bans began… In the 1880s absinthe was so popular and mass produced, the price of one bottle dropped sharply. It didn’t slow down either, in 1910 it was reported that French people drank 36 million litres of absinthe per year. But they drank 5 billion in wine so, once again-who’s the real enemy? Alcoholism. So what happened? People started acting bizarre and blaming it on the green drink. It was easy for them to do so, given that the popularity of absinthe spiked during the temperance and wine shortage in France. People always blame the hooch. Pop culture certainly did not help, famous French painters like Degas interpreted what they felt when they drank it and it does not seem like a fun ride.
Once the winerys got back to business they considered absinthe the competition, which isn’t totally wrong it did essentially replace wine for some time, but the warfare and exaggerations were truly dramatic. This movement included defaming absinthe as a healthy dose of madness to completely lunatic behavior.
Absinthe’s nickname was, La Fee verte (The Green Lady), which originated with the “love affair” many drinkers felt they had with absinthe. The temperance movement went as far as to blame murder on the consumption of absinthe (the story of Jean Lafaray, a Swiss farmer from 1905 who killed his whole family), and therefore the Green Lady became the Green Curse. The Swiss banned drinking absinthe in 1908 and after votes were in, they put it in their own constitution.
In 1914, France banned all sale and consumption of absinthe, following suit from other countries like Brazil and Belgium, and that’s how it was for about another 100 years. It wasn’t until the 1990s that absinthe began being mentioned without the bad connotation attached. But it was still largely illegal so how did distilleries get around it?
Well, the UK never banned absinthe, because it was never popular there. A large loophole existed in the law of the United Kingdom, where absinthe was never all that popular, and as such, never banned. At this time only bohemian absinthe was sold and therefore didn’t quite take off since it wasn’t the French/Swiss original.
It wasn’t until the year 2000 that France lifted the ban and the first bottles sold were the given name, “La Fée Absinthe,” Switzerland waited until 2005, and finally in the U.S. absinthe was made legal in 2007.
Nowadays, Absinthe is a fun addition to any cocktail, though some still shy away from it, we promise you it’s worth a drink.
There are many rituals on how to drink absinthe, but one involving fire named The Bohemian Method (Eastern European culture), involves letting the flame extinguish. This is where the flaming Green Fairy originated.
Absinthe in cocktails was a favorite of some of the world’s most intelligent writers. Just to name a few it included, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway invented "Death in the Afternoon" we’ll teach you how to make it sometime during our Drink of the Week articles. That’s all for now (and it’s a lot).
We hope you’re feeling a little more educated on a typically taboo subject now, and more daring to go for the cocktail with absinthe next time it presents itself to you. Who knows, it could be the green fairy calling…
Thanks for reading, and as always…