Absinthe: The Legendary Liquor
Absinthe is a unique liquor that became incredibly popular during France's Belle Époque era. Widely known for its psychoactive properties, many artists of the 19th and 20th centuries sought after the "Green Fairy" for its mind-altering effects. Picasso, Poe, Van Gogh, Wilde, and Hemingway are rumored to have been among those who chose absinthe as a muse.
According to popular folklore, a French doctor, Pierre Ordinaire, first developed absinthe in the late 18th century while he lived in Switzerland.
Originally, absinthe was distilled with wormwood and anise. By combining additional strong herbal flavors such as Florence fennel, star anise, coriander, nutmeg and juniper, as well as others, absinthe became one of the most uniquely flavored liquors in history.
Over time, distillers have created special blends and brands of absinthe, but the most famous brand is still the original, Pernod Fils.
How to Drink
To drink absinthe, one would traditionally pour one part absinthe into the glass. Next, one pours five parts cold water over a sugar cube, which is sitting on top of a slotted absinthe spoon. As the sugar cube dissolves, it dilutes the absinthe. The clear, emerald green liquid becomes cloudy: an effect called the louche (see above photo). The sugar and water temper the bitterness of the herbal essential oils, creating a more desirable beverage.
Grades of Absinthe
Throughout history, there have been five grades of commercially sold absinthe, ordered by increasing strength and quality: ordinaire, demi-fine, fine, superieure and Suisse. Hausgemacht (home-made) absinthe was also quite popular amongst hobbyists.
Many who began producing absinthe for personal consumption saw business boom when absinthe was banned throughout Europe. Underground distillers, especially those in Switzerland, sold large quantities of clear absinthe, or La Bleue, because it was easier to hide from the authorities. Bohemian-style absinthe, which contains no anise and is produced primarily in the Czech Republic, is very bitter to taste.
The Mystical Legend
A great deal of confusion surrounds the mystical and mythical properties of absinthe, largely as a result of mass media and film exposure. However, it is a known fact that wormwood extract contains a chemical called thujone, but the small amounts present in absinthe do not cause the rumored hallucinations or seizures.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Prohibition and temperance movements were raging, a number of countries banned the sale and distribution of absinthe. Absinthe was still legal in Spain at this time, so Pernod Fils relocated his French distillery.
By the late 1950s, absinthe production in Spain came to a close. Shortly thereafter, Pernod began producing pastis, a wormwood-free liquor similar to absinthe. The newly formed Pernod-Ricard company returned to France, where it is still exists today.
Absinthe's Prohibition Repealed
In March 2007, absinthe returned to the American marketplace with Lucid Absinthe Superieure - a wormwood-enhanced liquor developed by New Orleans microbiologist Ted Breaux. He called Lucid "the first genuine absinthe to be approved for distribution in the United States since 1912."
Absinthe's unique flavor and history have attracted connoisseurs and amateurs alike for over two centuries. Despite the controversy surrounding the legendary "Green Fairy," curiosity and adventurous desire continues to spark interest in the history and enjoyment of absinthe worldwide.