Absinthe. The name itself conjures up images of poets and artists, lounging around a Parisian speakeasy, chasing – and perhaps succumbing – to “the green fairy.” And there is the ritual surrounding this potent anise-flavored spirit; the louche, or slotted spoon, upon which the sugar cube sits, the slow-drip absinthe fountain, perhaps the introduction of fire to the mix…
For almost a century, absinthe was banned not only in the United States, but almost worldwide, a victim of a bizarre confluence of forces. In recent years, this emerald-green spirit has made a comeback, and for the first time since the 1910s, American spirit connoisseurs can taste this intoxicating liquid.
Recent entries into the absinthe market have been syrupy, sickly concoctions that bordered on the undrinkable, more of a novelty, almost a dare, rather than what it should be, a bold but not overpowering spirit, primarily anise-flavored, but also with hints of the other myriad botanicals that compose this unique blend.
Why, you may ask, was absinthe banned? Why do so many of them taste like cough syrup? That, it turns out, is an interesting story, and there are few spirits that have such a truly, shall we say, “colorful” history as absinthe.
Absinthe’s story in the modern world begins with the French army. Overseas, French soldiers were frequently prescribed this wormwood-infused spirit as an anti-malarial and anti-parasitic agent. Much as British soldiers would bring the gin and tonic back from India, the French brought their taste for absinthe back to France, where cheap knockoffs rapidly became popular among the lower classes.
Absinthe might have remained an afterthought in wine-loving France, but in the 1890s, a bacterium brought from the New World decimated the French wineries. With wine supplies at an unheard of low, absinthe filled the void. Soon, absinthe makers were creating truly quality spirits, which caught the fancy of the artisans and French upper class, so much so that when the wineries came back, the market did not, so great was the French’s new love for absinthe.
To recapture their lost market share, French winemakers partnered with an unusual ally, the growing worldwide temperance movement. Soon, the public was bombarded with messages of how this wormwood-infused spirit was responsible for all manner of public ills, and left unchecked, would doubtless lead to the fall of the civilized world. Over the next fifteen years, almost every country in the world would end up banning the production of absinthe, and save for a few small European countries, the secrets of its manufacture would vanish.
Was the temperance movement correct? After all, wormwood, one of the primary ingredients of absinthe, contains the chemical thujone, a cannabinoid related to the same ingredients that gives marijuana its kick.
The short answer is no. There is no proof that you can get any kind of chemical high from thujone, and even if you could, the amount of absinthe you would have to consume would kill you long before the thujone kicked in.
Of course, the temperance movement would end up taking down the French wine industry as well. When that movement ran its course, the wines came back, but not absinthe…until recently.
As the craft distilling began gaining a foothold worldwide, and discerning tipplers were looking for the next new thing, countries where absinthe had never been banned, notably England and the Czech Republic, began to crank out early absinthes that, charitably, could be called awful. Trying to play to absinthe’s dark history, these spirits were very heavy, far too heavy, on the forbidden wormwood. But while wormwood is a traditional component of absinthe, it is a supporting player, not the lead. As a result, these early absinthes might attract an interested first try…but not a second.
Also, absinthe is not something that can be consumed straight. An average absinthe is 90 proof – far too “hot” to be drunk unless diluted first, hence, the traditional absinthe fountain. Consumed straight, absinthe will burn your taste buds clean off. Cold water should be slowly dripped into a flute or glass containing absinthe until oil-based compounds come out of suspension, producing the milky cloud that the likes of Oscar Wilde or Honore de Balzac would lose themselves in for hours.
Sometimes, to add a touch of sweetness to absinthe, a slotted spoon, or louche, would be placed over the top of the glass with a sugar cube, to slowly be dissolved as the water dripped into the glass. Sometimes, the cube is lit aflame, which adds a touch of caramelization to the concoction.
So why is all this history important? Oregon Spirit Distillers has jumped into the fray with their take on absinthe, one that is reminiscent of another time, with a pleasant taste that lies lightly upon the tongue and mixes well with other spirits. It should be hitting stores soon, and I strongly suggest you give it a try.