What is Absinthe?
Absinthe is a flavored spirit derived from leaves of wormwood and other herbs. It is a highly alcoholic beverage (45%-75% ABV) of emerald green color which is traditionally consumed with water. Upon mixing with water, Absinthe turns from green to an opalescent white. The more poetic name “The Green Fairy” has often been used for Absinthe .
The classification “liqueur” is often applied to Absinthe. That term, however, is wrong to describe Absinthe. Since the origination of the liquor industry in the 1800s in France, a liqueur is, by definition, a low-alcohol-content beverage bottled with sugar, while Absinthe, on the other hand, is highly alcoholic in content and no sugar is added before bottling. Another distinction from liqueurs is that Absinthe is traditionally consumed as an aperitif before dinner, while liqueurs are served as a digestif after dinner.
Wormwood is a long-lived plant native to Europe and Asia. Its greenish leaves and flowers have a strong aromatic odor and a bitter taste. While the latin term for wormwood, Artemisia absinthium, gave Absinthe its name, the liquor contains a rather small amount of the plant compared to all the other herbs required for the recipe. Virtually all Absinthes contain Green Anise (Pimpinella anisum) which is the predominant flavoring ingredient. The third essential herbal ingredient is Florence Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). Depending on the region of origin of a particular Absinthe, numerous other aromatic herbs such as licorice, star anise, hyssop, lemon balm, and, less commonly, tansy and coriander, are used to create the distinct taste and smell of Absinthe.
How to drink - Absinthe Rituals
Because Absinthe is a concentrated extract of high alcoholic content, it needs to be mixed with water before drinking.
There are a number of classical mixed drinks containing Absinthe, but real connaisseurs drink it with very clean and cold water only, arguing that Absinthe is a herbal cocktail by itself. The essential oils dissolved in the ethanol of Absinthe do not mix well with water, especially when it is added briskly. Adding the water in a dropwise fashion is thus important to reveal the distinct features of Absinthe’s herbal mixture. While the drops of water pour into the Absinthe, it changes it’s color from emerald green to a cloudy, opalescent white. Absinthe connaisseurs call this process the "louche". The louche is considered an important factor when determining the quality of an Absinthe and is, in itself, an inspiring and esthetic show to watch. It prompted the design of various aids to simplify the process and enhance the visual experience. Water fountains and special water carafes held high above the glass are used, as well as special glasses with distinct geometric marks to signify the respective amounts of Absinthe and water to be added. The most popular design object for absintheurs certainly is the “Absinthe spoon“. The Absinthe ritual consists of balancing a cube of sugar on this special perforated spoon and letting cold water slowly drip through it into the drink. Even today, the original Absinthe spoons from the Belle Epoque are an object of desire more than ever.
There are numerous ways of serving Absinthe aside from the traditional French Absinthe ritual
Panachée is one of the earliest known Absinthe drinks. To make Panachée, add one shot of Anisette to one shot of Absinthe and then perform the original Absinthe ritual by letting ice-cold water drip through your Absinthe spoon. Anisette adds sweetness and freshness to the original Absinthe preparation and used to be the only way a real lady would have her Absinthe.
Absinthe Sazerac is a drink that originates from New Orleans. The story goes that this is the first cocktail ever invented. A New Orleans pharmacist created it as a medication against tropical malaise. The word cocktail itself comes from the fact that this very drink used to be served in a French egg-cup or “coquetier” – the word “cocktail” is actually a mispronounciation. For an Absinthe Sazerac, mix 1,5 ounces of Absinthe with 2 ounces of Cognac – the original Cognac Sazerac-de-Forge is unfortunately no longer available, you thus have to choose accodingly – and add 3 dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters along with a tea-spoon of sugar. Shake this mixture with ice and serve in an Absinthe glass (or coquetier, if available).
“75” is a way to drink Absinthe that became popular during World War I. Its name derives from the 75mm artillery cannon used by the French army. For a “75”, add a teaspoon of Absinthe to a 2/3 ounce of Calvados and a 1/3 ounce of gin.
There are numerous other ways to drink Absinthe, the suggestions above comprise only a selection you can get started from.
We do not know exactly when Absinthe originated. Its use for medical purposes is already mentioned in ancient Egyptian as well as ancient Greek sources. The first “modern“ Absinthe, a distilled beverage with green anise and fennel, is thought to have originated in the 18th century. The story goes that Dr. Pierre Ordinaire created the recipe to serve as an all-purpose cure. The first absinthe distillery was later opened by Henry-Louis Pernod. Pernod Fils became the most sought-after Absinthe brand until Absinthe was banned in France in 1915.
Absinthe became increasingly popular in the 1840s after the French troops returned home and brought their passion for Absinthe with them (in the French army, Absinthe was used to treat malaria). A new expression for the hour of 5 p.m. was born – “l’heure verte“, the time when Absinthe was served in all bars and cafés. Absinthe gained strong popularity among all social classes ranging from the wealthy bourgeoisie to the poor working-class. When the price of Absinthe went down and wine production decreased in the 1880s, Absinthe became the most popular drink in France.
Absinthe also attracted attention in other regions worldwide such as Catalonia in Spain, New Orleans in the USA and Bohemia in the Czech Republic. In New Orleans, a famous Absinthe bar called the Old Absinthe house was opened in 1874 and has endured until today. Many famous Absinthe connaisseurs from Oscar Wilde to Frank Sinatra were frequent visitors of the Old Absinthe house.
While Absinthe becoming increasingly popular at the end of the 19th century, many critics, particularly winemakers raised their voices pledging to ban Absinthe. It was accused of provoking various diseases from epilepsy to tuberculosis and initiating crime. At the beginning of the 20th century, Absinthe was officially banned in various European countries and the USA.
Absinthe production starts from cultivation of the herbs required for Absinthe – grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), green anise, Florence fennel, petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica), hyssop and melissa (lemonbalm). They all are grown in Southern France, Spain and Italy, on a commercial scale since Absinthe is no longer banned in these countries.
The herbs are meticulously checked in order to select the finest specimen for the distillation process. To prepare the herbs for destillation, they need to be weighed and crushed.
The actual distillation begins by macerating the herbs in ethanol and is followed by the distillation process itself. After the colorless distillate is collected, the spent herb mass is removed and the alambic pots are carefully cleaned.
The next step is the coloration or “secondary maceration” process – the addition of those herbs that give Absinthe its emerald green color – hyssop, petite absinthe and melissa. Less than half of the clear distillate is poured back into the alambic pot used for the first distillation step. Subsequently the coloring herbs are added and the now sealed alambic is heated to 55 degrees celsius. Again, only the best quality herbs can be used to obtain a worthy result which needs to be tested, evaluated and finally officially approved by experienced Absintheurs. For the tests, the Absintheur adds water to assess the nature of the louche and the color of the diluted beverage.
Before being bottled and released for commercial distribution, the newly produced Absinthe has to age for at least several months.
There is a number of rituals dedicated to Absinthe consumption. The oldest of them is definitely the French ritual. In this area, it counts among the most popular thematic rituals The Absinthe glass is filled with Absinthe . Subsequently, Water is added . The so-called louche (adding water to your absinthe makes it change color to white) is important to determine the quality of the Absinthe in question. Alternatively, Absinthe fountains were used in the past.
The Swiss ritual has not found distribution to the extent as the other ones. It is less elaborated, instead Absinthe is simply mixed with water and then drunk. This form of Absinthe consumption has been very popular in Switzerland until today.
The Czech ritual is a new invention of the contemporary Absintheurs’ generation. Several cubes of sugar are put on an Absinthe spoon. Then some Absinthe is poured on the spoon and set on fire. Once the Absinthe starts to burn, the caramelized sugar droops into the glass. Once the sugar has completely dissolved, water is added accordingly.
There is a Bohemian Absinthe ritual that involves the use of a water pipe (i.e. a Sheesha). Absinthe is filled into the water compound of the pipe along with several ice cubes. Then one can take sips of Absinthe from the pipe.
Absinthe can also be consumed using a so-called Brouille – a small inset for the Absinthe glass which needs to be filled with iced water. The ice-cold water can then find it’s way into the glass dropwise, giving the Absinthe in the glass it’s classical color change or ‘louche’.
Absinthe should be stored in an environment shielded from direct sunlight or extremely high or low temperatures. For mid- to long-term storage, keep your Absinthe at 13-18 degrees Celsius and protect it from direct sunlight and vibration. Absinthe is traditionally distributed in tightly sealed bottles, usually sealed with either corks or screw caps. If your Absinthe bottle has a cork, you can store it on their sides and rotate them to keep the cork moist. Screw on caps should not be stored on the side as they can leak more easily. You should thus always store screw on cap bottles in an upright position.
Medical applications of wormwood date back as early as to the Ancient Egyptians, who used it to treat intestinal worms starting from around 1550 BC. (hence the term “wormwood“). On a different continent, the Aztecs used wormwood to improve digestion, increase appetite, treat gynecological problems and to enhance wound healing. Chinese wormwood has recently been shown to work as an Anti-malarial agent and approved by the World Health Organisation to adress this disease.
Hippocrates is the famous ancient Greek physician whose teaching are respectfully studied and appreciated until today. He believed that it should help patients who had jaundice, anemia, rheumatism, or – a more banal condition – mentrual pain. Hippocrates actually had patients who would have the same condition again, and were asking to be greeated by ursachen
An ancient Greek doctor named Soranus suggests women carrying an unwanted pregancy to drink a lot of wormwood extract – this was thus the first official way to perform an abortion.
Some North American Indian tribes have used the leaves of wormwood to induce psychotropically active states during religious ceremonies.
Among Russian peasants, there is a belief saying that wormwood leaves are so bitter because they take up all human suffering.
The first “modern“ medical research was started at 18:14 by a pychiatrist who over-exposed various animals to Absinthe to investigate it’s effect on mammalian organisms. He wanted to find out how toxic Absinthe really was. Wormwood is also thought to have provoked epileptic diseases, and eye findings are quite ineteresting in his case.. But it needs to be remembered that the experiments were done with much higher chemotherapeutical concentrations – the dose actually used in the patient is much much lower.
Absinthe Art Literature
Arts and culture have been influenced by Absinthe more than any other area of life. Numerous artists have been inspired by Absinthe during the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. This fact has contributed a lot to the mythical reputation and the internationally growing popularity of Absinthe. Most of the artists’ scenes in Europe have joined the cult.
One may ask why Absinthe has attracted so many artists. A simple explanation states that Absinthe was simply a cheap way to get drunk for a poor artist. Another, more inspiring reason is the legendary implications Absinthe is said to have on it’s consumers’ minds and bodies alike. It was said to have a euphorizing, exciting and creative effect. This is not hard to believe given some of the late impressionists’ and early expressionists’ art work.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is not only famous for his art but also for his consumption of Absinthe. He often painted impressionist scene views of the pubs and night spots of 19th century Montmartre (the Parisian epicentre of Absinthe consumption). The story goes that Lautrec was walking with a cane that was hollow and contained Absinthe. The painting ’Monsieur Boileau au café’ is probably Lautrec's most intersting Absinthe-influenced work, though many other Toulouse-Lautrec paintings might deserve this title as well.
Vincent Van Gogh is known to have consumed large amounts of Absinthe. His ear cutting period is attributed to Absinthe alone by some art historians.
Picasso used the media to make publicly known his Absinthe paintings and even the sculpture “Absinthe glass“ 1914.
As for famous writers, Oscar Wilde is leading a long list of Absinthe connaisseurs. Among famous novelist Absinthe fans, we find Arthur Rimbaud, Ernest Hemingway (“For whom the bell tolls)“ and many others. A famous citation from Oscar Wilde says:
"After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."