Absinthe is an alcoholic drink made from grand wormwood (Artemisia absinthiumd) and a range of other herbs such as fennel, anise, melissa and hyssop. Actual recipes have always varied by country and manufacturer, as has the quality of each absinthe brand.
Absinthe traditionally has a natural green color but may also be colorless.
Traditionally, the drink was quality-classified as either absinthe suisse (the best grade; alcohol content of (68-72%), demi-fine (50-68%) or ordinaire (45-50%).
The first clear evidence of absinthe in the modern sense of a distilled spirit containing green anise and fennel, dates to the 18th century. According to popular legend, absinthe began as an all-purpose patent remedy created by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland, around 1792 (the exact date varies by account). Ordinaire’s recipe was passed on to the Henriod sisters of Couvet, who sold absinthe as a medicinal elixir.
By other accounts, the Henriod sisters may have been making the elixir before Ordinaire’s arrival. In either case, a certain Major Dubied acquired the formula from the sisters and in 1797, and with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, opened the first absinthe distillery, Dubied Père et Fils, in Couvet. In 1805, they built a second distillery in Pontarlier, France, under the new company name Maison Pernod Fils. Pernod Fils remained one of the most popular brands of absinthe up until the drink was banned.
Absent was banned in the early 20th century in many countries. In 1906, both Belgium and Brazil banned the sale and distribution of absinthe, although these were not the first countries to take such action. The Netherlands banned absinthe in 1909, Switzerland in 1910, the United States in 1912, and France in 1914. The prohibition of absinthe in France would eventually lead to the popularity of pastis, and to a lesser extent, ouzo, and other anise-flavoured spirits that do not contain wormwood.
Absinthe has a bad rap. The potent greenish spirit, was once thought to cause a whole host of side effects, including convulsions, hallucinations, mental deterioration and psychosis.
Certain absinthe marketers love to capitalize on their product’s illicit reputation, but the fact is that it’s no more likely to make you see things than vodka, whiskey or tequila. Recent scientific studies — some of them co-authored by Ted A. Breaux (one of the world’s leading absinthe experts) — “have demonstrated beyond doubt that pre-ban absinthes contained no hallucinogens, opiates or other psychoactive substances,” he says. “The most powerful ‘drug’ in absinthe is and has always been a high volume of neatly disguised, seductively perfumed alcohol.”
Absinthe’s illicit reputation actually has more to do with its association with the subversive, bohemian counter-culture of Paris in the late 19th century. Because those who favored the drink were perceived by the mainstream public as eccentric, brooding and unsavory, the drink itself acquired some some of that disrepute. It didn’t help that these artists and writers also documented many of their experiences with Absinthe in such a way as to reinforce the stereotypes, claiming it gave them clairvoyant abilities and depicting it (Manet is the best example) being consumed by tragic, dazed figures in sad, dim bars.
The chemical that’s taken all the blame for absinthe’s hallucinogenic reputation is called thujone, which is a component of wormwood. In very high doses, thujone can be toxic. It occurs naturally in many foods, but never in doses high enough to hurt you. And there’s not enough thujone in absinthe to hurt you, either.
The beverage underwent a revival in the 1990s and is now brewed by hundreds of different makers and sold worldwide.
Today, most countries have no legal definition for absinthe, whereas the method of production and content of spirits such as whisky, brandy, and gin are globally defined and regulated. As such, producers are at liberty to label a product as “absinthe” or “absinth” without regard to any specific legal definition or quality standards.
Absinthe is a drink that can be enjoyed in a surprising number of ways. Most absintheurs drink absinthe the traditional way: louched with water poured over a cube of white sugar. Some drink absinthe that was poured over sugar that is subsequently set alight (though absinthe purists decry this practice), and a few even like drinking absinthe neat (brave souls!).
Absinthe cocktails, too, have long been a favourite way to enjoy this special drink. More recently, absinthe even found its way into ice cream sundaes and Swiss chocolates.
The name “Absinthe” derives from “Artemisia absinthium”, the Latin name of wormwood and the spirit´s main ingredient.
Absinthe is commonly referred to in historical literature as “la fée verte” (the green fairy).
Absinthe’s popularity grew steadily through the 1840s, when absinthe was given to French troops as a malaria preventive. The custom of drinking absinthe gradually became so popular in bars, bistros, cafés, and cabarets that, by the 1860s, the hour of 5 p.m. was called l’heure verte (“the green hour”).
Absinthe was originally fairly expensive, and largely a drink of the upper-middle classes. However, by the second half of the nineteenth century it had fallen dramatically in price, both because of increasing economies of scale in its production, and because most producers had switched from grape alcohol to far cheaper grain and beet alcohols. At the same time the number of brands exploded, with many catering for the very cheapest end of the market.
Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Aleister Crowley, Erik Satie, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Byron and Alfred Jarry were all known absinthe drinkers.
One of the world’s most famous absinthe bars is the Old Absinthe House bar in New Orleans which was frequented by many famous people, including Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Franklin Roosevelt, Aleister Crowley and Frank Sinatra.
Death in the Afternoon is a cocktail made up of absinthe and Champagne invented by Ernest Hemingway.