The legend of absinthe

We do and and at the same time do not remember an evening where we drank absinthe in Spain. It was 2007, the year it was allowed once again for sale in the U.S., and after having sampled various other drinks already that evening, we foolishly opted to order the green drink with the bad reputation. There were no hallucinations, just the old-fashioned alcohol-induced blackout and the next day amazement of how we actually had managed to find the way home. Clearly, the absinthe on top of many other drinks was more than we could handle that evening and with alcohol-percentages between 45-70 percent, that may not come as a surprise (the drink is diluted with water before being served though). It is actually a shame that our encounter with absinthe was one that was not about judging and enjoying the taste of the drink, which is like anise or liquorice. Now, older and wiser, we do that differently, and find that a good quality absinthe can be delicate, gentle and refreshing. The anise taste perhaps vaguely reminds you of other spirits such as aguardiente or pastis, but absinthe is unique in containing wormwood, a wild plant rich in thujone.

A drink popular with all social classes

Absinthe was a very popular drink in the France of the 19th and early 20th century, where it was regularly consumed by Parisian artists and writers. Hemingway, Baudelaire, Modigliani, Picasso and Van Gogh, to name a few, are known to have regularly ordered the spirit. Some even blame Van Gogh’s psychotic episodes on absinthe. But not only the bohemian class appreciated it’s taste, absinthe was popular with most social classes in those days.

In 1915 absinthe was banned in the U.S. and many European countries, after the drink became publicly associated with violent crime and social disorder. Since the start of the 21st century, however, the drink has been on a revival, perhaps primarily as suggestions that absinthe can cause the consumer to create hallucinations have been de-bunked and the consensus is that the the spirit is no more dangerous than any other spirits. Therefore, bans have been lifted over the past 20 years in most countries and you will be able to find different brands of absinthe in your local liquor store.

How to drink absinthe

Perhaps a lot of the appeal of the drink comes from the way it has been served. In the time of La Belle Epoque, absinthe was served with water and a cube of sugar. The cube of sugar was placed on a perforated spoon on top of the glass, after which the customer could pour chilled water over the cube until it dissolved and the preferred level of dilution was reached. Later on, decorated containers that dispensed iced water were introduced in the finer drinking establishments and preparing the drink became a ritual that must have attracted a lot of attention from the other patrons (“I’ll have what he is having”, was a common phrase those days).

To serve it with water is still considered the best way to consume absinthe, as the cold water is said to release a lot of the flavours. Somewhat more spectacular though is to serve it by dipping the sugar cube in absinthe, placing it on the perforated spoon and then setting it on fire. Another way that is sometimes used is by setting the absinthe on fire directly.

Cocktails based on absinthe

Because of its distinctive taste, absinthe, or a substitute thereof such as Pernod, has been used as an ingredient in cocktails for many decades.

The most famous cocktail based on absinthe is the one created by Hemingway and called “Death in the Afternoon”. Hemingway contributed the name of the drink to a book of celebrity cocktail recipes in 1935. His instructions were to “pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.” Even though we are not sure about what your plans for the evening are, we suspect drinking five of them may not be wise and even three may be pushing it.

Should you prefer to start your day with a cocktail, then there is the New Orleans brunch-favourite Absinthe Suissesse. It combines absinthe with orgeat, egg white and cream to give the drink a milkshake-like appearance.

Because of its high-alcohol content there are also cocktails that merely call for rinsing the cocktail-glass with absinthe and then discarding it. Many more variations are out there, but very important is the quality of the absinthe. As more producers have entered the market, the general quality is on the rise. However, be on the lookout for those bottles that will make you think you are drinking radiator fluid and get yourself some advice before buying a bottle.