Absinthe is a green alcoholic beverage that takes its name from Artemisia absinthium, the botanical name for the bitter herb wormwood, known in French as ‘Grande absinthe’. The essential oils in wormwood contain the chemical Thujone, which is a toxin when taken in large amounts. [Wondering how to pronounce Thujone? A video on the pronunciation is here.] Thujone is said to be responsible for Absinthe’s alleged mind-damaging properties. (Another factor might be the high-level of alcohol contained in Absinthe, typically between 53 and 74%.)
To be considered “Absinthe,” the spirit must contain not only wormwood, but also green anise and sweet fennel. But absinthe may contain other plants, including coriander, hyssop, gentian, licorice root, lemon balm, and star anise, inter alia. Absinthe is most often described as having the flavor of licorice, with a bitter aftertaste. The drink was created at the end of the 18th Century, and a distillery was opened in 1797 by Henry-Louis Pernod. Colloquially, the drink is also known as Queen of Poisons, The Green Fairy, The Green Goddess, and The Emerald Muse.
Originally, absinthe gained its popularity from its use in North Africa during the French military campaigns of the 1840s as a disease treatment and water purifier. The French soldiers brought their taste for it back to the cafés of Paris. [The French also brought syphilis to Italy in the 16th Century but I digress.] From the mid 19th century onwards absinthe became associated with bohemian Paris and was featured frequently in the paintings of such artists as Manet, Van Gogh and Picasso. When they were not painting it, they were drinking it in large quantities.
As the BBC reports:
“During the Belle Époque, the Green Fairy . . . was the drink of choice for so many writers and artists in Paris that five o’clock was known as the Green Hour, a happy hour when cafes filled with drinkers sitting with glasses of the verdant liquor. Absinthe solidified or destroyed friendships, and created visions and dream-like states that filtered into artistic work. It shaped Symbolism, Surrealism, Modernism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism. . . .
Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Émile Zola, Alfred Jarry and Oscar Wilde were among scores of writers who were notorious absinthe drinkers. . . . They wrote of its addictive appeal and effect on the creative process, and set their work in an absinthe-saturated milieu.
Contemporaries cited absinthe as shortening the lives of Baudelaire, Jarry and poets Verlaine and Alfred de Musset, among others. It may even have precipitated Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his ear.”
Absinthe supplanted wine as the French national beverage during the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, which destroyed most of France’s vineyards. By 1905, there were hundreds of distilleries in all corners of France producing absinthe. Its success inspired many imitators, who soon introduced cheaper, adulterated and even poisonous imitations onto the market. These adulterated versions were in turn partially responsible for the reputation that absinthe gained for causing delirium and madness in those who drank it. It has also been speculated that the bad effects of poorly-made absinthe were trumped up by French vintners in an effort to rid themselves of a dangerous economic rival.
Blamed for causing psychosis, even murder, by 1915 absinthe was banned in France, Switzerland, the US and most of Europe. “The green muse” was eventually banned in most countries beginning in 1908. The United States outlawed it in 1912. Pernod and other companies came out with new, lower alcohol content, wormwood-free, licorice-anise flavored liqueurs to replace Absinthe, with names such as Pernod, anis, anisette, pastis, ouzo and raki.
Absinthe is now legal again in the European Union. Cheaper varieties use a mix of herbal oils added to diluted alcohol. The better, more traditional and more expensive varieties are made by macerating wormwood, green anise and fennel together in 80-90% alcohol, infusing it with other herbs, then distilling the result.
Absinthe is usually served with a mixture of 3 to 5 parts water to one part liquor, added to the glass over a slotted spoon. The spoon holds a sugar cube over the glass while the water is dripped slowly into the absinthe. (Sugar will not dissolve in the 68% to 72% alcohol of neat absinthe so spoons are used to suspend the sugar over the glass while it dissolves in the water that poured over it.)
As of October 2007, the U.S. Department of the Treasury approved the use of the term “absinthe” on the label of a distilled spirits product and in related advertisements only if the product is “thujone-free” pursuant to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulations. Absinthe containing thujone levels greater than 10 ppm (parts per million) cannot be sold in the United States, nor is it permitted to be shipped into this country; it is a “prohibited” item and is subject to being seized by the United States Customs.
Happy National Absinthe Day!!