Absinthe. La fée verte. The Green Fairy. What began as a medicine became a craze that sparked almost 100 years of controversy. In the 1800s, it was so popular that happy hour was named after it; by the early 1900s, it was maligned and vilified to the point that it was banned in most of Europe and the United States. But what is it? And what’s the big deal, anyway?
How to Understand it
Absinthe is made from alcohol, grand wormwood, green anise, and florence fennel and has a bitter — yet vaguely sweet — licorice flavor. The beverage can include other herbs and ingredients, including hyssop, melissa, peppermint, and coriander. The herbs are part of what gives absinthe its famous green color.
Wormwood, one of the main — and certainly most controversial — ingredients in absinthe, was first used by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks as a remedy; it was still being used for its medicinal value into the 1700s, when the modern absinthe recipe evolved in Switzerland.
In the 1800s, absinthe made its way to France in the hands of its soldiers, who had used it as a malaria preventative. It soon became popular amongst the French, who spread the beverage to Europe and the United States. It was much beloved by many famous authors, artists, and musicians, as well as aristocrats and common folk.
Absinthe became so popular, in fact, that wine producers felt threatened by its existence and began to spread rumors of the violent effects of wormwood on those who drank it. Coupled with the temperance movement of the early 1900s, it was enough to get absinthe banned from most of the world.
Fast forward to modern times, and science has stepped in to discredit absinthe’s detractors. Despite the hype, absinthe does not make you hallucinate, nor does it make you any more violent than any other alcohol. In 1991, Germany lifted its ban on absinthe; Switzerland, France, the United States, and many other countries followed suit within the next 20 years.
How to Drink it
Most modern absinthe is around 60 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), or 120 proof, so don’t drink it straight unless you’re actually sick — and even then, don’t drink too much unless you like lying on your floor!
Traditionally, the beverage is prepared with a 1:1 ratio of absinthe to water. The water is often dripped onto a sugar cube suspended over the absinthe. Not only does the water help dilute the alcohol, but it also helps release the aromas of the herbs and causes the drink to take on a desirable, cloudy appearance.
Some beverage houses set the sugar cube on fire, a modern preparation known as “The Bohemian Method.” I do not recommend this; not only does it destroy the flavor of the absinthe, but it also makes you look like an uneducated tourist.
Absinthe can be served in any container, but it looks best in a clear glass that can show off the lovely green color.
How to Mix it
Absinthe doesn’t have to stand alone. The following recipes come from my favorite, local-to-me absinthe maker, Philadelphia Distilling, who are responsible for Vieux Carré.
1.5 ounces absinthe
2 ounces rye whiskey
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Shake with ice and strain into an old-fashion glass (or an egg-cup), garnish with lemon peel.
Death in the Afternoon
1.5 ounces of absinthe added to a champagne flute
Add iced champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness.
Iced “Green” Tea
1 ounce absinthe
2½ ounces brewed & chilled black tea
¼ ounce triple sec
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
¼ ounce maraschino liqueur
In a mixing glass, combine all ingredients and shake. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice and garnish with a lemon slice and an orange slice.
Photo Credits: Barney Wrightston, chelle, Eric Litton, Хрюша.