Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve heard a thing or two about absinthe. And chances are, if you’re reading this, almost everything you’ve heard about absinthe is wrong.
The Green Fairy – as it’s famously called – has been romanticized as the muse of la belle époque, giving inspiration to everyone from Oscar Wilde to Arthur Rimbaud. It’s been villainized as the spirit that drove Van Gogh insane. And, above all, it’s notorious for being the liquor that caused people to run around the streets of Paris hallucinating like Alice down the rabbit hole.
Absinthe is one of my favorite drinks, and not because it gives me otherworldly visions, but because it’s refreshing, herbaceous and light. Yet, every time I offer some to a friend, I always have to explain that “Yes, it’s real absinthe,” and “No, real absinthe isn’t illegal,” and finally, “Trust me, you’re not going to start tripping.”
And after having this conversation many dozens of times, I’ve decided to set the record straight in writing. So here’s everything you think you know about absinthe, spun upside down:
Real absinthe is illegal
There is no such thing as ‘real’ absinthe. Absinthe is essentially just brandy – a base spirit distilled from any fruit – macerated with herbs, the most common of which are wormwood, fennel and star anise (at least those are the main three that give absinthe its signature taste). Recipes for absinthe can also include any number of other herbs like hyssop, mint and stinging nettles, just to name a few.
However, while many countries have legal definitions for various spirits (i.e. bourbon must be produced in the U.S.; made of at least 51% corn; aged in a new, charred oak barrel; cannot enter the barrel at higher than 125 proof or enter the bottle at less than 80 proof; and nothing can be added but water) absinthe is generally unregulated.
In Switzerland, however – the exception to the rule – you can only label your product absinthe if it’s distilled, uses no natural coloring and is absent of certain additives.
They just don’t make it like they used to
You can buy absinthe today that is ingredient for ingredient identical to the absinthe they used to make back when Van Gogh sliced his ear off. That said, you can also buy absinthe that Edgar Allen Poe probably would have considered a sacriligeous bastardization of the drink he knew and loved. One giveaway is often the color, but more on that later.
Does today’s absinthe make you hallucinate?
No. Absinthe’s hallucinogenic properties are, and always were mostly just an urban legend. Wormwood – or artemisia absinthium, the plant that gives absinthe its name – does contain a chemical compound called thujone that allegedly has hallucinogenic properties. But the thujone content of absinthe is, and always was, so low you’d pass out or die of alcohol poisoning long before you felt those affects.
But didn’t the ‘original’ absinthe used to make people hallucinate?
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The short answer is no, not really. Back when absinthe was at peak popularity, there were plenty of people making homemade batches (bathtub gin or moonshine, if you will) and the quality varied greatly. There were people who experienced some pretty nasty side effects thanks to either additives that shouldn’t have been used or simply the type of shoddy distilling that still causes moonshine drinkers around the world to go blind if they’re not careful.
Probably more importantly, absinthe is strong. Most old-school recipes are in the neighborhood of 68% to 72% alcohol (your average gin, by comparison is about 40%), which meant people who sat around in Parisian cafes with an absinthe fountain all day long were getting completely wasted.
Add to that the liquor’s popularity among all those tortured artists of the era – many of whom were also smoking opium – and you’ve got a perfect recipe for an urban legend.
So why was it made illegal?
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Well, a couple reasons. First of all, the rise of absinthe coincided with The Great French Wine Blight, when Phylloxera destroyed vineyards across the country, making wine far too rare and expensive a commodity for the vast majority of the population.
The conspiracy theory goes that once the vineyards recovered and wine was poised to make a comeback, the powerful wine industry ran a smear campaign against what had become the country’s most popular drink, highlighting a couple murders for which absinthe was allegedly responsible.
There’s probably also the fact that a bunch of wine drinkers having glasses of 10%-14% alcohol wine were now instead drinking glasses of a spirit that runs around 70%, so there were a lot of belligerently drunk people running around town.
But now you can only get real absinthe in Europe, right?
Wrong. Again, the definition of ‘real absinthe’ is non-existent, but in the U.S., absinthe was never even technically illegal. While you couldn’t call is absinthe, most of it could have been sold under a different name (only no producers realized that). What was actually banned was any alcohol containing anything but a tiny amount of thujone (more than 10 mg/kg to be precise). Virtually every absinthe would pass that test. Still, the absinthe ban was officially lifted in 2007 – 95 years after it went into effect.
Real absinthe is green
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In most cases you shouldn’t just the spirit by its color, but color may provide some clues as to what you’re drinking. Most artisanally made absinthes range in color from chartreuse yellow to chartreuse green, but they can also be clear.
The thing to look for is that the absinthe is naturally dyed, getting any color it does have from the chlorophyll from its macerated herbs. The nuclear green bottles you’ll find in the Czech Republic and other parts of Europe are colored with additives. And often, the additives don’t stop at coloring agents, but often make their way into the spirit itself, often resulting in a lower-quality (if cheaper) product.
You’re supposed to drink absinthe with a flaming sugar cube, right?
The traditional way to drink absinthe is placing a slotted spoon with a sugar cube on top over a glass of absinthe, then slowly dripping ice cold water from an absinthe fountain that slowly dissolves the sugar into the glass. Some people (myself included) prefer the slowly dripping ice water without any sugar.
It’s the Czech Republic that popularized the whole flaming sugar cube thing, which you’ve probably seen in a movie somewhere. While it certainly has a cinematic effect, and is exciting particularly for those who feel they’re doing something illicit by drinking absinthe, it’s by no means traditional.