Made popular during the late nineteenth century, Absinthe was the aphrodisiac of La Belle Époque. It was portrayed as a psychoactive drug and was banned from most Western nations around 1915. This is a very condensed version of what is Absinthe, its history and how it fell out of fashion–because it became an illicit substance. So why, then, can you walk into any well-stocked liquor store and buy yourself what has been known until now as bootleg hooch?
Absinthe enjoyed a revival in Europe in the 1990’s, when most countries repealed their bans against La Fee Vert, or Green Fairy as absinthe is affectionately called. It was not until 2007 for the U.S. repealed its bans. However, the Absinthes of today varies slightly from “La Fee” of the Belle Époque in that today only Absinthes with a low level of wormwood are acceptable for import and sales. (I’ll get to why the wormwood is so significant later in this article.)
The moonshine of its time
Traditional Absinthe was the moonshine of its time. In the late nineteenth century, much of it was made in back yards and cellars with little control over the proportions of ingredients. Was it to blame for the hallucinations, wild rollicking and even murder for which it was blamed? It is likely that the wormwood in Absinthe, the ingredient most commonly blamed for Absinthe’s ill effects, caused little to none of the pain for which it was held responsible.
However, as Michel Roux, a noted spirits innovator and founder of a modern Absinthe brand called Absente once explained it to me, “You can make alcohol with anything you can distill or ferment. So without regulations, people were making Absinthe with the cheapest ingredients possible. Mixing wormwood and a high concentration of cheap alcohol, you can make poison.” Which makes it quite easy to understand why regulators were anxious to put a stop to the dangerous trend.
A better understanding of how Absinthe is made
Ok, so Roux’s explanation makes the danger clear. But in order to full understand what is Absinthe, you need to get to know the process involved. Absinthe is a liquor, not a liqueur as it is sometimes mistakenly called, meaning it is a flavored spirit distilled and bottled without the addition of sugar.
The blend of flavoring varies with the maker, which is why there are so many brands of absinthe available. A quick Google shopping search showed me that close to two dozen brands are currently available for purchase online at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, with each manufacturer wishing to put their own spin on the spirit, the flavor profile can range wildly from a bottling heavy with licorice and sweetness to something light and faintly herbal.
However, the one common denominator in all absinthes is wormwood. Artemisia Absinthum, or wormwood, is a perennial plant that grows wild in Mediterranean climates. And this ingredient is what makes Absinthe interesting!
The significance of wormwood
There is an active ingredient in wormwood, thujone, which was thought until recently to react in the body similarly to THC. So why the limit on wormwood in modern day absinthe production? Well, we now know that in massive doses, thujone is toxic to the brain and liver and can cause convulsions – but hey, even nutmeg is toxic if you eat the whole jar!
Today, what truly gives absinthe its seductive powers is the high level of alcohol (I recommend a two-drink maximum with this potent spirit). According to modern Absinthe experts, high proof is the result of reduced wormwood levels. Why? Well, in the Nineteenth Century, wormwood gave Absinthe much of its body in the good ole days, and, of course, the easiest way to bring body back is by increasing proof.
How to drink Absinthe
But I consider Absinthe to be aphrodisiac not just because of the wormwood and possible other blend of aphrodisiac herbs. It is also the ceremonial preparation that makes this drink something special. You can’t really understand what is Absinthe, until you’ve experienced it served in a traditional fashion.
Traditionally, absinthe was mixed with water, or louched. Sugar, preferably in cube form, is usually added to make the drink more palatable. However many of today’s more finely crafted absinthes need no sugar to be enjoyed.
The Absinthe was first poured into a special Absinthe glass (see Edouard Manet’s famous painting The Absinthe Drinker for illustration). Then a flat, slotted absinthe spoon was balanced on the rim of the glass; a sugar cube balanced on top. Three or four ounces of water were slowly poured over the cube until the sugar was dissolved. The spoon was then slipped into the drink for a final stir before the absinthe was ready for imbibing.
You can certainly serve a glass of Absinthe to your lover using this form of culinary foreplay. Any absinthe, with the drink’s rather extreme proof, will benefit from the addition of water.
Several years ago I tasted through some of the most popular, commercial absinthes available. Here are my tasting notes.
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