Today, I’m talking about one of my favourite alcoholic beverages – the elusive and mystical absinthe.
I first came across absinthe in high school. I was working on a school assignment for history class where we had to choose a movie based on an historical event, and analyse the film for factual accuracy. Being me, I chose From Hell, the 2001 film about the Jack the Ripper murders and the so-called “Royal Conspiracy” theory. (It’s based on a graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell).
The very first sequence is a dreamy portrayal of Johnny Depp slumped in an opium den, pouring himself a glass of absinthe, adding a few drops of laudanum, placing a sugar cube on top, lighting the drink on fire, then dropping the sugar into the drink and stirring it until the flame goes out and he can drink it.
Here he is!
(As you’ll learn, this is totally and completely wrong on so many levels, but I didn’t know that at the time).
Later, in university, I had a phase of about six months where I was beyond obsessed with Vincent Van Gogh, and shortly thereafter, with the writings of Oscar Wilde. Both were absinthe drinkers, and their antics helped to fuel the drink’s association with insanity, danger, and seduction. I was in love with the idea of it, and I hadn’t even had a glass for myself yet.
I had my first taste of absinthe at some party in my hometown, in the form of a shot from a bottle of cheap “Green Fairy” that I know now could no more be called absinthe than Limp Bizkit could be called metal. Nevertheless, I wasn’t impressed. Where was the beautiful ritual? Where were the hallucinogenic effects my favourite writers and artists had waxed lyrical about?
I put the idea of absinthe on the shelf until a few years ago, when my husband asked what I wanted to my birthday and, on a whim, I said I wanted a bottle of absinthe, a traditional glass, and a spoon. We purchased some online, and I became instantly hooked.
All about Absinthe
Absinthe is an alcoholic drink made from distilled herbs or herbal extracts. It’s named after the primary herb used to make it, called wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). The other important flavour in absinthe is green anise. Most absinthes will also include the herbs petite wormwood, hyssop, and fennel.
The drink originated in France, funnily enough, in the region near where wormwood was cultivated – near Pontarlier, in eastern France. Many historical absinthes also came from the nearby Val de Travers region of Switzerland.
I de Brevans in his 1908 La Fabrication des Liqueurs details the method of making absinthe:
The raw ingredients are placed into a steam-heated still, …with the desired quantity of alcohol and half the volume of water needed for distillation; the plants are allowed to macerate 12 to 24 hours or even longer; the rest of the water is added and distillation is started. …This operation is stopped
as soon as the first spurt of distillate marks 60% (alcohol): rectification is thereby avoided.
The first part of the tails is collected separately and used to make absinthes ordinaire; only the heart is used to prepare fine absinthes. The milky liquid which distills at the end is added to subsequent macerations.
Absinthe scented-spirit is colorless. To color it, a mixture of petite wormwood and hyssop is macerated; a colorator, a special apparatus heated by steam or hot water circulation, is useful for this purpose; the process takes 12 hours.
Absinthe is put into barrels for aging, then reduced to desired proof before delivering for consumption.
Different distilleries experiment with other herbs, such as dittany, marjoram, peppermint, or lemon balm. It is usually between 55-70% alcohol, with a traditiona French absinthe declared to be 68%.
The Absinthe “ritual”
Absinthe was the drink of 19th-century Paris, where artists, writers, intellectuals and other men-about-town would gather in the salons of the Belle Époque and quaff back pints of the stuff. The mysterious ritual of absinthe drinking and the exaggerations about its side-effects fueled the decadence and glamour of the era.
If someone tries to give you a shot of absinthe, you should refuse. Well, unless you’re too far gone to care, of course :)
As far as historians know, absinthe has never been consumed neat. In the French tradition, absinthe is consumed in a ritual manner. First, a perforated spoon is placed on top of the absinthe glass. Then, a measure of absinthe is poured into the glass. Next, you place a sugar cube on top of the spoon, (he wormwood makes absinthe bitter, hence the introduction of the sugar cube.) and slowly pour ice water over the sugar cube. The cube slowly melts and the water and sugar mix with the alcohol, creating la louche – where the green absinthe “louches” into a creamy white colour as the essential oils are drawn out.
This is how I drink my absinthe. Some people drink their absinthe without sugar, or by mixing it with white wine or cognac, but that’s definitely not the norm.
Here’s a video that shows the ritual with an absinthe fountain to dispense the water.
There’s another ritual that is performed today, the so-called Bohemian ritual. It’s pretty commonly known among European backpackers who get off their faces in Prague. Despite what you’re told while on your Contiki tour, it’s not an historical ritual, and was basically invented in the 80s to entice tourists with a unique and “ancient” sounding alcoholic tradition by Czech distillers who wanted to compete with flaming sambuca and other trends.
In “the Bohemian Ritual” (air quotes required), a shot of absinthe is poured, then a teaspoon of sugar is dipped in. You then set the alcohol-soaked sugar alight and burn it until it caramelises, then you dunk the spoon into the absinthe. This usually makes the drink light up itself. You then pour in some ice water to quell the flames, and down it goes.
The Green Fairy
Part of absinthe’s mystique goes back to its reputation for producing hallucinations and making its drinkers go slowly insane. It’s been known throughout history as “the green fairy” because it plays tricks on your mind.
This reputation was so prevalent that for a time, absinthe was banned in the US and many parts of Europe.
But how much of absinthe’s reputation is actually true?
First of all, absinthe has a strong alcohol content, so anyone drinking it is going to get way more fucked up, way faster than drinking anything else. Many of the so-called effects of absinthe can be chased back to the fact that the drinker was off his or her face.
The wormwood used to make absinthe contains an active ingredient called thujone. This active ingredient has been used for centuries by doctors as a stimulant, antiseptic, and remedy for fevers and cramps. You’ll actually find wormwood oil in Vick Vaporub. It’s this ingredient that is thought to give absinthe its hallucinogenic effects.
Too much thujone is dangerous. It’s caused seizures in lab rats at high levels (which is a bit disgusting, but that’s a whole different topic). However, what you get in absinthe is only a teeny tiny fraction of this, and the research suggests it shouldn’t even be enough to get any effect at all.
Some scientists now believe that the effects of absinthe actually don’t relate to thujone at all, but to the active ingredients in some of the other herbs.
When I drink absinthe, I feel very relaxed, and there’s perhaps a tiny amount of “numbness” or removal – the slight sensation of looking over one’s shoulder into the world. But it’s hard to say if that’s because of the green fairy or because I usually drink if after dinner when socialising with friends and feeling relaxed and warm.
There are a lot of absinthes on the market that boast high levels of thujone or promise a dizzying high. This is all marketing hype – what you’re buying is likely a poor-quality absinthe made from herbal essences instead of real herbs, and a bunch of marketing hype.
Green fairy aside, absinthe is delicious, and you should definitely try it!
I get all my absinthe from an online store called Alandia. This is a German store, but even though the German’s don’t have a good reputation for absinthe (they tend to follow the Bohemian Ritual), trust me when I say these guys are legit.
They do their own branded absinthes made in the French tradition, as well as offering a pretty outstanding selection of absinthes from distilleries around the world.
My favourite is this Alandia Moulin Vert, which is distilled in France and has a really rich, complex herbal taste. Also, the label is so pretty! I recently got a bottle of the République Vintage, which is distilled based on a 19th century French recipe, and is more of a fresh, hearty flavour. And again, it has a super pretty label.
(Because I’m me, I tend to choose the absinthes I want to try based largely on how pretty the label is).
You can also get all the accessories you need to complete your absinthe ritual. All my glasses, spoons, and sugar cubes come from here. My next purchase will be a fountain to sit on the desk in my library. Alandia have awesome accessories sets.
In conclusion, absinthe is awesome, and you should give it a go. But make sure you do it right with a proper French louche before you decide whether you’re a fan or not. Come to my place, we’ll have a glass and shoot the breeze together.
(I tried to find a great metal song about absinthe, but this was the only one I knew. It’s the only CoF song I really liked).
More absinthe info
There’s an AWESOME absinthe FAQ on Absinthe Classics that has a great section all about the influence of absinthe on creatives like Van Gogh and Hemingway.
Everything You Know About Absinthe Is Wrong, from Salon.
A great article from the BBC on How Absinthe Became Literature’s Drink.
You can buy absinthe and accessories from Alandia.
When I’m not chasing the Green Fairy or forgetting to update my blog, I write dark urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels. Join my VIP Reader’s Group to stay up-to-date with all my series, and get FREE books.