"But thou read’st black where I read white"
"It will free you first from the burning thirst
That is born of a night of the bowl
Like a sun ’twill rise through the inky skies
That so heavily hang o’er your soul.
At the first cool sip on your fevered lip
You determine to live through the day,
Life’s again worthwhile as with dawning smile
You imbibe your absinthe frappe."
Once again absinthe has returned to America’s shores. The American bartender now has a new addition to a broad and growing palette of alcoholic beverage choices to present to their guests.
Imbibers of spirits have always described their beverage of choice in glowing terms. Who waxed poetically better than Robert Burns writing about his whisky? Absinthe is an alcoholic beverage that tastes good. No more, no less. It’s special and unique place in history is due to a confluence of events or perhaps the stars aligning to malign a beverage no more dangerous than any other alcoholic beverage.
Part of the fascination with absinthe is the elaborate preparation which engaged the psyche’s love of the ritualistic.
Prohibition officially began in 1920 but absinthe was granted a prohibition all its own in 1912. Prohibition ended in 1933 but absinthe was banned until 2007.
Absinthe is named after Artemsia absinthum, the botanical name for the bitter herb ‘grand wormwood’. The German word for wormwood is ‘wermut’ or vermouth and there is indeed small amounts of wormwood oil in vermouth. The wormwood of vermouth is extracted in wine at a low proof. Wormwood is botanically related to our southwestern sagebrush.
Absinthe can consist of but is not limited to the dried flowers and leaves of grand wormwood, petite wormwood, anise, fennel, hyssop, melissa, angelica, star anise, coriander, dittany, sweet flag, parsley, veronica, chamomile, persil and spinach in varying amounts. 136 proof is the traditional alcoholic strength of absinthe. The finest absinthes balance the bitterness of grand wormwood with herbal essences.
Absinthe first gained its popularity in the 1840’s when French soldiers returning from North Africa, who used absinthe to purify water, brought their taste for it back to the cafes of Paris. Absinthe became so fashionable that the time between 5 pm and 7 pm became known as "l’heure verte" (the green hour) or the first cocktail hour, if you will.
Absinthe was banned for a number of reasons. The temperance movement, at the beginning of the 20th century in Europe, used absinthe as the scapegoat for all alcohol abuse. 19th century pseudo-scientific inquiry found thujone, a component of grand wormwood oil, to be a neurotoxin in extremely large quantities. The phylloxera louse which had destroyed French vineyards in the 1880’s brought a halt to wine and brandy supplies. The wine producers lobbied the French government for help in restoring sales because absinthes popularity was a threat. In Switzerland, circa 1905, Jean LaFray murdered his entire family after drinking a glass of absinthe. Absent from the deposition were the facts that LaFray had consumed six quarts of wine and an indeterminate quantity of brandy. After this sensation absinthe was banned in Switzerland in 1910 and in France during 1915.
In 1988 France re-legalized absinthe under a modified name. Reverse engineering of unopened vintage absinthe bottles has led to the development of absinthe virtually identical to the best distilleries of the past. Absinthe was then re-released into the commercial marketplace.
The essential oils from the diverse herbs are kept in solution by the high alcohol concentration. High alcohol is the best method to hold the intense aroma and flavors. The addition of cold water, drop by drop, causes the peridot green liquor to ‘louche’ into a cloudy opalescent green as the essential oils of anise crystallize and precipitate out of the alcoholic solution. Seeing the drink slowly change color is part of absinthes ritualistic attraction. When diluted absinthe is no stronger than a glass of wine. Absinthe is usually consumed from somewhere between 3:1 and 5:1 parts of water to absinthe.
The distillation process separates most of the bitter components from grand wormwood. Only the aromatic compounds are found in the final distillate. Aniseed contributes to absinthes sweetness. Sugar was usually added to disguise defects in poorly made absinthe and because our forebears had an enormous sweet tooth. Absinthe is clear after distillation. Absinthe’s green color is due to chlorophyll derived from the green leaves of petite wormwood (Artemsia pontica, a non-bitter species of wormwood), hyssop, melissa and other herbs. Perhaps spinach, parsley, nettles and veronica. The coloring herbs are actually used to impart additional flavor and aroma.
What about Thujone?
Thujone is a chemical and the principle active ingredient found in the wormwood oil. Thujone is related to menthol, known for its healing properties. Thujone is colorless, has a pleasant menthol-like smell and tastes very bitter. After distillation the thujone originally present in the macerate is not recovered in the distillate. Thujone concentrations of both pre-ban and modern absinthes have not been the cause of detrimental health effects other than those encountered in common alcoholism. The final concentration of thujone in well-made absinthe is from about 6 mg/l to 10 mg/l. Absinthe produced in the European Union is limited in its thujone content to 35 mg/l. Well-made absinthe falls well within the 10 ppm parameter authorized by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau here in the US.
One can assume that the effects of alcohol and not wormwood oil is responsible for its popularity. Also, thujone has no activity whatsoever at the cannabinoid receptor in the brain. Thujone is a compound found in tarragon, thyme, rosemary, sage and juniper amongst other commonly found herbs. In fact wormwood is high in anti-oxidants.
There is no evidence that well-made absinthe ever contained poisonous concentrations of thujone.
Absinthes popularity is due to the French love of aniseed drinks. It was inexpensive and artists are by and large poor. The reason folks wrote so well of absinthe seems to be simply because it tastes good.
Following are some cocktail recipes containing absinthe that you might enjoy:
1 oz. absinthe
1.5 oz. water
Shake vigorously with crushed ice and pour without straining into a saucer champagne glass. Serve with short straws.
Absinthe Frappe – California Style
1 oz. absinthe
Shake thoroughly with crushed ice and pour without straining into a highball glass, then slowly fill with seltzer water.
Jackie’s Absinthe Frappe
.5 oz. absinthe
Shake vigorously with crushed ice. Strain into a champagne flute filled 2/3 with dry champagne.
Absinthe No. 2
1.5 oz. gin
.25 oz. absinthe
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
1 oz. absinthe
1 oz. sweet vermouth
1 oz. kummel
dash of curacao
Stir with crushed ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
2 oz. dry vermouth
.25 oz Benedictine (contains trace amounts of wormwood oil)
3 dashes absinthe
Stir and strain into a cocktail glass, add orange twist as garnish.
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 oz. pineapple juice
1 oz. passion fruit syrup
1 oz. white rum
1 oz. gold rum
1 oz. 151 proof rum
1 tsp brown sugar
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash absinthe
Muddle the brown sugar in the citrus. Add the rest of the ingredients. Shake with crushed ice. Pour into a Collins glass. Garnish with a sprig of mint