Absinthe: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of the Green Fairy
The end of the 18th century in France, the cultural center of Europe at the time, saw the emergence of a vibrant philosophical spirit in salons, cafés and clubs—a spirit which in turn inspired and empowered the French people to rise up and overthrow a cruel and oppressive regime. The 19th century, although politically turbulent, culminated in a grand celebration of creative expression and joie de vivre that would span two decades: the Belle Époque—the Beautiful Times.
Absinthe Known, Absinthe Inferred, Absinthe-Wished-For
The mythopoetic power of absinthe cannot be denied. To the uninitiated, absinthe is often imagined to be some kind of deeply exotic, alchemical serum with potent hallucinogenic and aphrodisiac properties. Frequently mentioned alongside of opium, LSD and more recently ecstasy, absinthe is sometimes wrongly named “the acid of the Belle Époque,” but seldom by anyone who has ever had it. Not surprisingly, the truth lies far from the myth, and the truth is that Absinthe is little more than a refreshing and exhilarating herbal liquor that can be compared to ouzo, raki, and Chartreuse.
When examining such a legendary and sensational topic, a historian will remain aware that there are three essential identities involved: the subject as known, the subject as inferred by historical remains and the subject as-wished-for; i.e., as it has entered and been interpreted by the imagination and popular culture of the present time.
Fortunately for those who care to look for it, there exists an abundance of historical and modern evidence of the true nature of this drink. In fact, from time to time bottles of vintage, pre-ban absinthe will surface, still sealed, sometimes in near-mint condition. These have been subjected to modern scientific analysis—not to mention the scrutiny of educated palates—and are again being manufactured by commercial and non-commercial distillers alike. There also exist many contemporary accounts by those who not only imbibed absinthe, but some by those who manufactured it. We know precisely how pre-ban absinthe was made and, in some cases, by what recipes. It should also be noted that in secluded valleys of rural Switzerland, clandestine bootleggers have been making absinthe continuously since the ban.
All this notwithstanding, absinthe has maintained a mythical status in the popular mind, attended by some of the most outrageous, inaccurate and sometimes perplexing notions.
What is absinthe?
Although wormwood-infused drinks have been used in medicine for thousands of years, when we speak of “absinthe” nowadays, we are evoking a very specific spirituous liquor that rose to popularity in France and Switzerland beginning in the late 18th century.
To put it concisely: Absinthe is an anise-flavored aperitif distilled from anise, fennel and wormwood. Authentic absinthe is usually either green or clear, that is verte or blanche. When colored green, other herbs are used after distillation—as much for their flavoring and aromatic properties as for color. It is their chlorophyll that gives the peridot green hue for which absinthe is famous and which earned it the sobriquet, La Fée Verte, The Green Fairy. There is one known instance that has very recently come to light of a pre-ban rouge, or red absinthe. Little more is known of it so far than the simple fact that it existed, as shown by an advertising poster from the era.
Although absinthe is often referred to as a liqueur, this is not wholly accurate, as liqueurs are pre-sweetened and often somewhat syrupy. Absinthe is not pre-sweetened and is somewhat astringent and mildly bitter, but nowhere near as bitter as popular imagination would have it; not even so much as unsweetened tea.
Absinthe takes its name from its principle ingredient, grand wormwood, whose botanical name is Artemisia absinthium. “Absinthe” is the French word for the wormwood plant; the full proper name of the liquor, Extrait d’Absinthe, simply translates as Wormwood Extract. Other traditional ingredients include anise (Pimpinella anisum) , Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare, var. azoricum), petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica), melissa (Melissa officinalis) and hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis).
Absinthe is made by macerating the herbs for a brief time in 85 percent spirits, which mixture is then distilled, carrying the fragrant, volatile herbal oils into the liquor, leaving the vegetal matter and undesirable bitter compounds behind in the still. Absinthe is generally found in the proof range of 55 to 74 percent alcohol and is expressed in degrees of proof equivalent to alcohol percentage, i.e. 55° equals 55 percent alcohol by volume.
In spite of internet and popular culture claims to the contrary, absinthe cannot be made at home from a kit by soaking herbs in spirits. This can be compared to soaking barley in spirits to make whisky or adding grape Kool-Aid™ to diluted neutral spirits to make wine.
Absinthe is a simple drink. Proper preparation consists of very slowly diluting it with dripping iced water—whether dripping from a specially made absinthe fountain, or by hand from a carafe—to a ratio of approximately three to five parts water to one part absinthe, and sweetened to taste.
A measure of absinthe, around 1 to 1.5 ounces, is poured into a glass. Absinthe glasses were, and are, often made to indicate the level of a proper “dose.” Lacking an absinthe glass, a properly sized wine or water glass will do. Then a flat, perforated trowel-like absinthe spoon is placed on top of the glass and a sugar cube placed on top of the spoon. The perforations allow the water and melting sugar to pass into the glass of absinthe below.
The slow addition of water causes the herbal oils to gradually come out of solution and the drink takes on a turbulent, cloudy, opalescent “louche.” A good louche—not too thin, not too opaque—is a point upon which absinthes are judged.
Although some purists frown upon it, ice may be added. This should be taken into account while determining the dilution ratio and when pouring.
Legend has it that absinthe, as we know it, first saw light in Switzerland, dripping from the small still of an exiled French doctor by the name of Pierre Ordinaire, in 1792. This was just three years after the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution.
Although there is scant evidence of his actual existence, Dr. Ordinaire is an indispensable fixture in the legend of absinthe. Pernod Fils reports in their catalog from 1896:
“We cannot resist the urge to reproduce the portrait drawn of him by a Swiss writer. He was, apparently, an eccentric, of great height, riding through the Val de Travers on a small Corsican horse known in the region as the Rocket. His unusual appearance did not fail to surprise the village populations; it gave rise to many jokes and persistent astonishment among the children. Ordinaire did not appear to be concerned with this; the gravity of his character was not affected. He was a doctor not without talents for his time, and he did a good job of bringing the medical art to the Val de Travers. He joined the practice of medicine to that of pharmacology; the majority of doctors of the countryside did no differently. Mr. Ordinaire did not scorn the panaceas; he employed one in particular, the elixir of wormwood, composed of aromatic plants of which only he knew the secret. Many people, having made use of it, declared themselves radically cured and the doctor could not pretend to be other than pleased and to prescribe its use. Dr. Ordinaire would have been well astonished if anyone had predicted the high destinies to which his elixir would be called. At his death the mysterious recipe passed into the hands of the young Henriod ladies of Couvet. Cultivating the necessary herbs themselves in their garden, they distilled them in the family home. The production of the elixir at the time amounted only to a few pots, which were sold with some difficulty by hawking. Little by little, however, thanks to its fragrance and pleasant taste, the elixir came to the attention of not only the sick, but to that of more and more fans, so that the recipe had already acquired monetary value when Mr. Henri Louis Pernod acquired it to exploit it commercially.”
According to one Swiss version of this legend, it was the Henriod sisters who were the original inventors and Ordinaire was a scoundrel who stole the formula, selling it to a Major Dubied, who in turn employed Henri Pernod, who would later become Dubied's son-in-law.
There exists a Latin alchemical treatise on wormwood dating from 1667 that appears to give details on the distillation of a spirituous liquor containing some of the very ingredients we know as the herb bill of a traditional absinthe. It is still being translated at this writing, but it appears to be the earliest known record of distilled absinthe-like liquor.
Although we will likely never know the exact origins of the very first absinthe ever distilled or the name of its inventor, the beginnings of commercial absinthe are pretty well documented.
It began with Abram-Louis Perrenoud, a distiller by trade, living in Couvet in the Val de Travers region of Switzerland. Somewhere around the year 1794, Abram-Louis scribbled this recipe in his diary:
Extract of Absinthe
For 18 pots of eau-de vie, (approximately 34 litres)
a large bucket of grand wormwood,
2 handfuls of lemon balm
2 of green anise
same amount of fennel
1 handful of petite wormwood
same amount of hyssop.
The formulation gained regional popularity not merely as a tonic, ostensibly its intended purpose, but as a beverage in its own right.
Major Daniel-Henri Dubied, a lace merchant with no distilling experience, recognized the commercial potential of the formula and purchased the recipe from Perrenoud, employing Abram-Louis’ son Henri-Louis, who had learned the distilling trade from his father. In 1798, along with Dubied’s sons, they began producing absinthe under the name of Dubied Père et Fils. In 1805, after several permutations of partnership, Henri-Louis changed his surname from Perrenoud to Pernod and he established a distillery of his own in Pontarlier, France: Pernod Fils.
Over the next one hundred and ten years many brands, some extraordinary and many substandard, came and went. Pernod Fils remained the standard to which all aspired – or chose to imitate.
So how did absinthe gain its notoriety? What led to this drink being banned almost globally? Politics, of course.
At first absinthe was a fairly expensive commodity, indulged in primarily by the upper middle class, but by the latter part of the 1800’s several factors collided to bring absinthe into strong competition with wine as the national beverage—in a country famous for, and economically dependent upon, its wine.
At the time, wine was known to be natural and healthy and hence, spirits produced from wine—eau de vie, marc, brandy—were thought to be healthier and superior to less expensive spirits produced from beet sugar or grains. For this reason, absinthe producers preferred grape spirits to other alcohol. Whether grape spirits produce a better absinthe remains a topic for debate among absintheurs today.
When a phyloxera (tiny, aphid-like root lice) epidemic decimated the grape crops of France toward the end of the 19th century, wine prices—and hence, grape spirits prices—soared. Most manufacturers of absinthe switched to the cheaper alcohols out of economic necessity while others—most notably Pernod Fils—used the fact that they continued to use grape spirits to assert that their product was healthier as well as superior to that of their competitors. This also justified continuing to charge premium prices for premium absinthe. The effect of all this was that suddenly many absinthes were cheaper than wine, and at a much higher proof.
No longer exclusively the drink of the upper classes, absinthe was more accessible to the working man and in particular, as we well know, the “bohemians.” The bohemians were self-impoverished artists, writers, musicians, free-thinkers and counter-culture types—essentially the beatniks, hippies, or punks of the era. These are the “famous absinthe drinkers” we hear so much about: Rimbaud, Verlaine, Toulouse-Lautrec, Satie, Debussy, Van Gogh, Gauguin, etc.
Bohemianism was actually something of a movement, peopled with “cultural gypsies” who had seceded from the conventional lifestyle in pursuit of “Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love” as it was so aptly put in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. The term bohemian was used because at the time it was erroneously believed that gypsies had originally come from Bohemia.
Although it no doubt approached the status of a sacrament to many of these figures, absinthe has become particularly associated with them more than others simply because it was they who chronicled its role in their lives and work; lives and work which were extraordinary enough to merit a place in history.
With the ubiquity of inexpensive absinthe, the bohemians, and nearly everyone else, indulged themselves enthusiastically; so enthusiastically in fact that alcoholism began to be a serious problem in France.
At the same time, less scrupulous manufacturers were cutting corners even further by adding poisonous adulterants such as copper sulfate for coloring and antimony chloride to enhance the “louche.” These no doubt contributed in part to the reported harmful effects of absinthe and it is perhaps because of this that the gathering enemies of absinthe coined a whole new social disease: absinthism.
The Myth of Absinthism
Charles Dudley Warner wrote in 1870: “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” He was writing of his alliance with Harriet Beecher Stowe in support of the abolition of slavery, but he might as well have been referring to the parallel visions of two normally opposing factions: the powerful lobbyists of the now-recovering wine industry and the growing temperance and prohibitionist movements. Absinthe, their common adversary, was doomed.
With both sides arguing that absinthe brought its own unique health hazards, a myth was born.
The myth was largely the work of Dr. Valentin Magnan. His flawed studies on the effects of absinthe would be considered bad science by today’s standards and they also received criticism from his peers at the time. The fact remains however that these were the formative work behind the assumptions and superstitions that many—including the FDA—cling to even today.
Absinthism, he claimed, was marked by hyperexcitability, epileptiform convulsions, hallucinations and addiction:
“In absinthism, the hallucinating delirium is most active, most terrifying, sometimes provoking reactions of an extremely violent and dangerous nature. Another more grave syndrome accompanies this: all of a sudden the absinthist cries out, pales, loses consciousness and falls; the features contract, the jaws clench, the pupils dilate, the eyes roll up, the limbs stiffen, a jet of urine escapes, gas and waste material are brusquely expulsed. In just a few seconds the face becomes contorted, the limbs twitch, the eyes are strongly convulsed, the jaws gnash and the tongue projected between the teeth is badly gnawed; a bloody saliva covers the lip, the face grows red, becomes purplish, swollen; the eyes are bulging, tearful, the respiration is loud, then the movements cease, the whole body relaxes, the sphincter releases, the evacuations soil the sick man. Suddenly he lifts his head and casts his eyes around him with a look of bewilderment. Coming to himself after awhile, he doesn't remember one thing that has happened.”
That will get your attention.
In order to reproduce the symptoms observed in “absinthists” in laboratory animals, Dr. Magnan used pure wormwood oil extract in his experiments, not commercially made, finished absinthe, which contains only a small amount of the herbal oils. This can be compared to doing a study on the effects of daily coffee drinking by feeding animals gargantuan doses of pure caffeine, the equivalent of 200 cups daily.
The British medical journal, The Lancet, published a number of articles about absinthe throughout the Belle Époque. In 1868:
“WE think it time that an authoritative and exhaustive inquiry should be made as to the effects of excessive absinthe drinking, about which a great deal is being said just now, not merely by medical men, but by the public. It is quite clear that a great deal of what has been said is mere nonsense, and will not bear a moment's investigation. And when one reads carefully even the seemingly authoritative description of the symptoms given by M. Legrand … it is impossible to fix on any definite peculiarities which clearly distinguish poisoning with absinthe from poisoning with any other concentrated alcohol, taken in small doses repeated with extreme frequency…
For our own part, we have never been convinced that there is anything in the symptoms of acute or chronic absinthism as they are described, essentially different from those of acute or chronic alcoholism which has been produced by the imbibition of innumerable drams of any spirit.
“We have repeatedly seen the whole train of symptoms, which are now so much talked of, produced by the constant drinking of brandy or rum. As for hallucinations, there is nothing more common. At any rate, it will take a good deal of very solid and precise evidence to convince us that the trifling amount of essence of wormwood contained in the liquor called absinthe, adds any considerable poisonous power to the natural influence of some 20 or 30 ounces per diem of a highly concentrated alcohol,
And again in 1869:
“The question whether absinthe exerts any special action other than that of alcohol in general, has been revived by some experiments by MM. Magnan and Bouchereau in France. These gentlemen placed a guinea-pig under a glass case with a saucer full of essence of wormwood (which is one of the flavouring matters of absinthe) by his side. Another guinea-pig was similarly shut up with a saucer full of pure alcohol. A cat and a rabbit were respectively enclosed along with a saucer each full of wormwood. The three animals which inhaled the vapours of wormwood experienced, first, excitement, and then epileptiform convulsions. The guinea-pig which merely breathed the fumes of alcohol, first became lively, then simply drunk. Upon these facts it is sought to establish the conclusion that the effects of excessive absinthe drinking are seriously different from those of ordinary alcoholic intemperance.”
The particular compound which excited the attention of scientists and critics was thujone, a terpene found in the volatile oil of wormwood—as well as in sage, rosemary, thyme, tansy, white cedar, tarragon, lavender and a number of other herbs and botanicals commonly used in kitchens around the world.
In high enough doses, thujone is a potent neuro-toxin shown to produce hallucinations, epileptiform convulsions, brain damage and renal failure. Fortunately, the trace amounts found in authentic absinthe and other foods are far below what would be considered hazardous. Since virtually any substance is subject to abuse, and any chemical compound consumed in excess will be found to be toxic or damaging, it is likely that thujone was nothing more than the scapegoat sought, found and exploited.
It is also important to remember that, in French, the word “absinthe” may be used for the plant and the essential extracts as well as the drink. This permitted no small amount of abuse by anti-absinthe lobbyists when quoting Magnan's and other scientists’ findings.
In the end we find that the entire basis for the current dark reputation of absinthe was formed by political manipulation, moralistic propaganda, and the bad science used to serve them.
The work of the temperance leagues and incompetent or dishonest scientists was not without effect. As the problem of alcoholism grew, so did the accompanying crime and other social issues associated with it. Whenever a violent crime was committed, if any connection to absinthe could be made, it was seized upon as proof of the demonic influence of the Green Devil.
This all came to a head in Switzerland in 1905 when a man named Jean Lanfray, in a drunken rage, murdered his pregnant wife and two daughters and then attempted to kill himself. Of course, Lanfray was an absinthiste-—an absinthe addict. It was pointed out that he had had two glasses of absinthe prior to the murders. What was not pointed out was that he was an habitual drunkard who drank any kind of alcohol that he could get his hands on, and that he would consume as much as five liters of wine a day. He had drunk the two absinthes that morning before going to work. He had also drunk a crème de menthe, a cognac, and six glasses of wine at lunch, another glass of wine before leaving work. At home, a cup of coffee with brandy, a liter of wine and then another coffee with marc in it. Undoubtedly it was the absinthe, taken perhaps as much as eight to twelve hours earlier, which pushed him over the edge.
Shortly after the Lanfray incident petitions were circulated and the public began increasingly to adopt the position that absinthe was a menace; a position based on media manipulation and misinformation, and which also fattened the larders of the wine industry.
Absinthe was banned in Switzerland in 1910, in the USA in 1912, and finally in France in 1915. With the Green Fairy in exile and WWI escalating, the spell was broken and the Belle Époque had come to an end.
Absinthe As Wished For
Thujone gets a lot of sensational press on the fringes of the absinthe world. Given the events of the cusp of the 1960’s and 1970’s, warnings about hallucinations strike a familiar note to the hopeful “inner-space” explorer—in fact that seems to be the one bit of information upon which many focus, blithely ignoring the foaming at the mouth, explosive incontinence and the seizures.
So begins the invention of the idea of absinthe as a psychedelic recreational drug and talk of absinthe’s “Secondary Effects.”
Regardless of how exaggerated and spurious they may have been, it seems that the early health warnings are taken as a sort of code: “We only forbid this substance because it will get you high and free your mind.” Perhaps this is partly because warnings of this type have been issued over virtually every substance that has been deemed suitable for recreational use and/or consciousness alteration. In the popular and uninformed imagination, absinthe is a dark and forbidden addictive drug, like opium, perhaps consumed in “absinthe dens.” As romantic and seductive as that notion may be, it is of course founded on myth and misinformation.
This confusion was not helped when, in 1975, del Castillo et al. suggested that the geometric similarity between the thujone molecule and that of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) might indicate similar effects by activating the same receptors in the brain. Even though this was demonstrated not to be the case as early as 1978 and again in 1998, you will still find this misinformation repeated as fact in magazine and newspaper articles, on internet forums and web sites and in private discussion. Thujone is fetishized by those seeking a new exotic high. It’s more fun than the truth, which is that absinthe is just booze, doesn’t actually contain much thujone, and it never did.
Unless one makes a study of it, one is unlikely to know just how omni-present absinthe was at its height of popularity. Let’s imagine for a moment the scene in France at the turn of the century. There were over 30,000 cafés in Paris alone. The drink of favor was absinthe, which throngs of people congregated to imbibe every day at 5:00 p.m., giving this “Happy Hour” period the nick-name l’Heure Verte, the Green Hour. Are we really expected to believe that the majority of the drinking population of France was sitting around in cafés every day, hallucinating on absinthe?
The “Secondary” Effect
So what is the secondary absinthe effect that one hears so much about?
Some people—but not all—have observed a very subtle and short-lived “buzz” when drinking authentic absinthe. It is usually described as a sort of mental clarity or a “clear-headed” drunk: whereas most liquor produces a slower, thicker mental state, absinthe seems to contain a balanced stimulant effect. When one would normally be slurring and weaving and nodding off after too much Bourbon, one is likely to be still quite convivial, bright and alert after a few absinthes. This is not to say one doesn’t get every bit as intoxicated from absinthe. Over-indulgence quickly replaces this clarity with the more familiar deleterious effects of any alcohol.
It appears that the relaxing and disinhibiting effects of alcohol are complimented by the stimulation and lightness thought to result from the particular combination of herbs. Modern research suggests that it is the combination of herbal ingredients, more particularly the fenchone from the fennel and the anethol from the anise, which works in synergy with the other ingredients to produce this effect. The author has experienced a “secondary effect” identical to that of absinthe, from drinking a liquor made from fennel alone. It should be repeated that not everyone experiences “secondaries” and that some believe them to be nothing more than the placebo effect.
Absinthe wasn’t banned everywhere. Although its decline into obscurity no doubt engendered the supposition that the ban was universal, absinthe remained legal in the UK, Spain, and Eastern Europe. Of course that’s probably because it was never very popular in these places and was not perceived as being a problem. Still, absinthe production dwindled and by the mid 1900’s had all but disappeared except for the clear “la bleue” bootleg or “clandestine” absinthe of the Val de Travers region of Switzerland, which has flourishes up to the present.
After a period of 40 years of relative obscurity, during which the reputation of absinthe took on a shape more appropriate to an urban legend, the Green Fairy was ready to re-emerge from her cocoon, twisted into a most unlikely and—to anyone who knew her—unrecognizable form. In Czechia in 1990, just after the Velvet Revolution and the return of privately owned enterprise, a small distillery began producing what it called “absinth.”
According to their official history, Hill's Liguere was established in 1920 by Albin Hill. He starting out as a wine wholesaler and soon after began producing his own liquor and liqueurs. In 1947, his son Radomil opened his own branch of the business and it was then that they began producing “absinth,” 160 proof Alpsky Rum and Zubrówka (bison grass vodka, “good for the sex drive!”). The next year the communist regime took over and seized the distillery, putting the Hills out of work. After the revolution in 1990, Radomil having successfully negotiated for the return of his property, he began producing Hill’s Absinth.
It should be noted that although there exists much absinthe-related art and antiques from all over France and Switzerland from before the bans a hundred years ago—glasses, spoons, advertising posters, menus, distiller's catalogs and invoices, books and distillation manuals, antique absinthe bottles of many brands, paintings depicting absinthe and absinthe drinkers—there is so far nothing which suggests that Hill’s absinth existed prior to 1990.
The liquor is a very pale turquoise blue and bears no resemblance to absinthe. It contains little or no anise and does not louche when water is added. Tests have suggested that it possibly contains no wormwood and its peculiar minty flavor has been compared to mouthwash. It is almost certainly an “oil mix,” meaning that essential oils are simply mixed with a neutral alcohol base, artificially colored and then bottled rather being distilled from natural herbs, as an authentic absinthe would be. By all appearances Hill, knowing that precious few people in his market knew anything about what absinthe should be like, and very likely not knowing himself, simply concocted an odd-tasting liquor and dubbed it “Absinth.” Subsequent Czech imitators came up with similar inventions and worse: noting that bitterness was among the words used to describe pre-ban absinth, they conjectured that it should be terribly, terribly bitter. Consequently, many Czech absinths are.
Nonetheless, Hill’s and absinth made its way into the bars and rock clubs of Czechia, especially Prague, where it was discovered by the metal, darkwave and punk set—the bohemians of our time; and where better than Bohemia itself? In some cases, confusion of the essentially unrelated 19th century French use of the term “bohemian” has been opportunistically used to validate the lineage of Czech absinth.
Part of the romance and interest of authentic absinthe lay in its ritualistic preparation—the sugar cube and the special spoon; the dripping water; watching the louche develop and smelling the herbal fragrances bloom. Unfortunately, most Czech absinths don’t louche. A new element was necessary to make the paraphernalia relevant.
No doubt borrowing the preparation of the Café Brûlot, a traditional coffee drink where a brandy or cognac-soaked sugar lump is ignited in a spoon before adding it to the coffee, people began lighting absinth-soaked sugar on fire before dumping it in their drink along with the water. This makes for an initially interesting and dramatic display, as any flambé will, but the burnt sugar adhering to the spoon, the indissoluble globs at the bottom of the glass, and the introduced charred taste of carbonized sugar will leave a true absintheur cold. Of course this ritual also calls to mind the preparation of heroin by cooking it in a spoon; another unfortunate connection with illicit and dangerous drugs.
With very few exceptions, Czech absinths are considered to be inferior, and in most cases outright fraudulent imitations of authentic absinthe.
As unfortunate as the events which led to the re-emergence of absinthe may be, it is fortunate that they occurred, because they created the market and the interest which inspired French and Swiss distillers, both legal and clandestine, to pressure their governments and the new European Union to re-examine the case against absinthe. As a result, many countries, especially France and Switzerland have reformed their absinthe laws and absinthe is again being legally produced there.
Several old absinthe distilleries, those of Pierre Guy, Paul Devoilles and Emile Pernot, are again producing quality, old-style absinthe by the same methods, recipes and ingredients as they formerly had done. Also, new distillers are joining the trade. Most notable among these is Jade Liqueurs.
What to look for in a good absinthe
Absinthe is judged by similar criteria as other spirits, essentially: color, aroma and taste. It should not be tasted or drunk neat. Both the alcohol and the anise oils are too strong and will immediately disable your palate.
First, note the color, if any. Does it appear to be artificial, or is it most likely natural? Is it clear and bright, or hazy and throwing sediment?
Next, the aroma before adding water. Does it merely smell strongly of alcohol, can you smell the herbs? Is it a rich, interesting, perfumed fragrance and do the herbs seem in balance; or does one overwhelm the others? Is it one-dimensional and unremarkable? When adding water the volatile oils come out of suspension and more of their fragrant properties are released. The aroma should “bloom” with more complexity.
Also as water is added, watch the absinthe louche. Does it develop gradually and gracefully or does it begin to louche almost instantly? Is it thin and watery or thick and milky? A good louche should come on slowly and develop a rich and creamy look, but still have a slight translucent, opalescent appearance when viewed in good light. Full sun is the best place to observe the louche. The color should be interesting and jewel-like, with amber highlights, not flat and dull.
How does it feel in your mouth? Mouth-feel is a good indicator of quality ingredients and good production technique. It should feel rich, creamy and smooth, not excessively astringent and dry.
How does it taste? Drinking absinthe should remind you of walking through an alpine meadow on a late spring day. It should be cool, crisp, clean and refreshing; not heavy, oily or overly bitter. It should taste neither medicinal nor mouthwash-like. It should taste well balanced and interesting, not one-dimensional. While absinthe is an anise drink, it should not taste like black licorice candy, but have more of the other herbs showing up as well.
Common flaws are:
Too bitter. Often from the mistake of using the wrong type of wormwood in the post-distillation coloration or intentionally from the common misconception that absinthe is supposed to be very bitter. Absinthe should be no more bitter than tea.
Too minty. A big problem with Czech and Eastern European products. While mint can be used to advantage, if you can easily detect the characteristic cool, mint taste, it’s probably too much.
Camphorous. Use of the wrong type of fennel. Florence fennel only should be used. Common fennel is not the same type.
Too much anise. Some of the lower quality French and Spanish absinthes rely on too much star anise to get a good louche, at the expense of producing an almost chemical candy-like character.
Too little anise. Mostly a problem with the Czech products, but also some of the French ones. Czechs prefer to avoid anise altogether, thus bypassing the classic flavor profile of proper absinthe. Some French brands simply use too little to get a good louche and full flavor.
While the sale and importation of absinthe into the US is still prohibited by the FDA, it is successfully ordered online by many absintheurs from several reputable and reliable distributors. Of course there is always a risk of seizure by customs, but this is fairly uncommon. Absinthe is not scheduled by the DEA as a controlled substance, but is merely “prohibited merchandise,” similar to a turtle shell brought back from the Virgin Islands. State laws vary about possession of spirits upon which taxes or duty have not been paid and the shipping of spirits in general. Seizure from luggage at airports is not uncommon, but appears to be subject to the caprice and knowledge of the individual agent.
Four distributors stand well out from the rest as carrying a superior line of products:
Absinthe Distribution, www.absinthe-distribution.com
Liqueurs de France, www.absintheonline.com
The Frenchman, www.absinthefrenchmanspoon.com
Fine Spirits Corner, www.spiritscorner.com
The story of the Green Fairy—from her beginning as a country doctor’s tonic in Switzerland, through her rise to fame and fall to perdition, to her eventual resurrection—has always been one filled with mystery, glamour and intrigue. She has been idolized, imitated, counterfeited and slandered. Mistress to millions of unnamed factory workers, farmers, gentry and vagrants as well as to poets, musicians and painters; she has been an angel to those who treated her well and gently, and a demonic fury to those who did not. It’s a new fin de siècle, a new world, and there is a new green glow on the horizon that tells us: the Green Fairy has returned.
Epilogue, Part 2, July 2007
Since the writing of this article, several imortant changes have come about, most important being the discovery of the "margin of error" of thujone testing required by the federal laboratories. This brought the knowledge that several Eurpoean absinthes would easily meet US regulations and subsequently the introduction of authentic European absinthe into the US market commenced after a 95 year hiatus.
Originally printed in Mixologist: The Journal of the American Cocktail, Vol. 2, 2006
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Absinthism: a fictitious 19th century syndrome with present impact - Stephan A Padosch, Dirk W. Lachenmeier and Lars U Kröner - Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy 2006, 1:14
Behaviour of thujone during distillation and possible concentration ranges in pre-ban absinthe - Dirk W. Lachenmeier and Thomas Kuballa - Journal of Science, Food, and Agriculture, 0022-5142/2007
Chemical Composition of Vintage Preban Absinthe with Special Reference to Thujone, Fenchone, Pinocamphone, Methanol, Copper, and Antimony Concentrations - Dirk W. Lachenmeier, David Nathan-Maister, Theodore A. Breaux, Eva-Maria Sohnius, Kerstin Schoeberl, and Thomas Kuballa
Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Volume 3. – 21 CFR 172.510
Determination of α-/β-Thujone and Related Terpenes in Absinthe using Solid Phase Extraction and Gas Chromatography - Joachim Emmert, GuÌnter Sartor, Frank Sporer and Joachim Gummersbach, Deutsche Lebensmittel-Rundschau Ä± 100. Jahrgang, Heft 9, 2004
Industry Circular Number: 2007-5, October 16, 2007 – Department of the Treasury, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau
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Systematic Misinformation about Thujone in Pre-ban Absinthe - Dirk W. Lachenmeier and David Nathan-Maister - Deutsche Lebensmittel-Rundschau Ä± 103. Jahrgang, Heft 6, 2007
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