No spirit is as scandalized with erroneous fictions or held in as much mythopoetic awe and esteem as much as absinthe. La Fée Verte,(The Green Fairy) flits in-between the pages of beverage history, weaving the romanticized notions of Muse with the terrifying myths of Madness. At the risk of touching on what by outside appearances is a taboo subject, absinthe merits a closer look for its impact on the global beverage history in its relatively short lifespan.
Outside of all of the overblown myths and notions, Absinthe’s ingredient makeup is relatively simple. The main components of a good absinthe are grand wormwood (Artemesia absinthium, for you science geeks), fennel and anise, as well as differing combinations of other herbs, depending on the origin of distillation. Throughout history wormwood infusions have been used for medicinal properties specifically in treatment of gastrointestinal parasites, menstrual pains, and as a mild sedative.
Medicinal properties aside, it is in part the grand wormwood that gives absinthe some notoriety since it contains thujone, a substance related to menthol that has chemical properties similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active component in marijuana. Though disappointing to some, scientific studies have proven over and over that the two are distinctly unrelated in regards to psychoactive properties. The only similarity between thujone and THC seems to be the mystery of exactly how these naturally occurring substances directly work on the brain.
There are two types of absinthe, absinthe blanche (clear) and absinthe verte (green). Green absinthe is derived from the chlorophyll from herbs added after distillation, and is the drink being referenced by the moniker Green Fairy. Often incorrectly classified as a liqueur, absinthe is not bottled with sugars, and thusly is properly termed an aperitif spirit. The flavor of absinthe is distinctively anise-based, though like other spirits, if it is a star-quality absinthe, the more complex layers of herbs and wood-notes will develop on the palate. And, like the legend dictates, it is highly alcoholic in its distillation, clocking in at anywhere between 110-144 proof (55-72% abv), which surpasses the average of whiskey at 80 proof (40% abv).
Part of the fun of absinthe is how it is consumed; this should not be your pick for a game of Quarters! Because the botanical components of anise and fennel oils will not dissolve in water, higher proof alcohol is required to produce the absinthe, which makes it unsuitable for drinking as a straight shot. Not only is it unpleasant when taken neat, much of the aromatics are missed as well. When diluted in ice water, the oils from the anise and fennel get knocked out of the absinthe and create a cloudy effect called a louche (the French term for turbulent, or cloudy). Traditionally, absinthe is poured into a glass, a slotted absinthe spoon placed over the glass, with a sugar cube on top of the spoon. Then ice water is then slowly dripped or poured over the cube to sweeten the absinthe, and the water is poured until the sugar mostly dissolves. The absinthe will turn an opalescent and translucent color as the louche develops, and the full aromatics of the absinthe are released. It has become a current fad to light the sugar on fire on the spoon, but I have never personally ascribed to this method, as the sugar caramelizes and ruins the taste of the absinthe. Not to mention, it’s dangerous, since with the wrong move the sugar cube could possibly ignite the highly volatile absinthe in the glass!
The history of the first absinthe distillation is a bit, pun intended, cloudy. The legend of it claims that a certain French doctor in exile, Dr Pierre Ordinaire, began the first distillations of absinthe elixirs, but no accounts verify this. History does agree that sometime in the 1790s in France, interest in distilling absinthe and providing it to commercial masses began. Its original competitor was wine due to heavy bacterial contaminants in the water supplies. Wine was added to the unsafe water, because the alcohol content was just enough to make it safe to drink, and thusly made it consumed by the masses. Because of this, absinthe was primarily consumed by the upper class, to distinguish amongst the more bourgeois wine drinkers.
However, in the late nineteenth century, aphylloxera beetle epidemic decimated the wine crops of France, and the prices of wine soared. The higher alcohol content and lower comparable price of absinthe made it available now to every working man, and it could be diluted in water more effectively than wine. Alongside this social change, the bohemian movement began to rise on a global scale, and starving artists and authors such as Picasso, Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, Poe, Debussy, Van Gogh, Gauguin & Hemingway began to lavish their attention (and their arts) on their Green Fairy muse. Absinthe houses were everywhere from the streets of Paris to the corners of New Orleans, and like any other spirit within an economic climate, cheap knockoffs by unscrupulous distilleries developed, and absinthes containing highly toxic substitutions such as antimony chloride and copper sulfate coloring began making their way to the masses. Literal madness ensued, stamping the association of absinthe drinking with such violent acts as Van Gogh’s love-maddened ear-hacking, Hemingway’s alcoholism, and emanations of the haunting Green Fairy depicted in works of art and prose by those abusing it.
“Absinthism” soared to become a social disease that politicians declared necessary to eradicate. Seeking to emphasize the “sin” in absinthe, politicians sought to literally demonize its properties, heavily emphasizing psychoactive qualities ensconced within the eerie green liquid. Propaganda declaring that absinthism caused criminal craziness, tuberculosis and epilepsy caused an official ban of absinthe in most countries in 1915. After strict regulations were put into place, absinthe became legally available in banned countries after 1988.An absinthe revival ensued, and interest in its lavish ceremony increased.
So now that it’s been demystified, are you ready to try some? I have it on excellent authority that neither the pre-banned, bootlegged, nor the currently released absinthes provide any sort of intergalactic hallucinogenic experience, unless you’re talking about it with someone who has never actually tried drinking it themselves. You won’t develop ninja skills, see mad tracers, or start bending the space-time continuum with your mind (sorry, I speak the truth). However, like any spirit that contains high a.b.v., lack of moderation of absinthe can result in having the mind erased. So be responsible when imbibing!
Missoula doesn’t offer overmuch in the selections of absinthe, but I feel that they offer enough to the intrepid beverage experimenter! If you’re Montana-proud, Ridge Distillery out of Kalispell has both a beautiful expression of Absinthe Verte and Absinthe Blanche. Grizzly Liquor carries Ridge’s Extrait d’ Absinthe Verte; it is complex and smooth with a rich, opaline louche. Beginners and seasoned absinthe drinkers alike should really enjoy this one.
I highly recommend visiting The Wormwood Society (www.wormwoodsociety.org) where there is tons of information on how to drink absinthe. If you’re a seasoned absintheur looking to get in touch with your inner American bohemian, try Ernest Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon.” Pour 1 ½ ounces of absinthe into a champagne flute, and pour 4 ounces of Brut Champagne over it. Then you, too, can have your own Midnight in Paris.