For #NationalAbsintheDay we unveil some cocktails and the history of this mysterious drink.
According to sciencehistory.org, the French name Absinthe derives from the Greek absinthion, which the Greeks used not as an intoxicant but as a medicine. Typically made by soaking wormwood leaves (Artemisia absinthium) in wine or spirits, this ancient absinthe supposedly aided childbirth. Hippocrates, often considered the first physician, prescribed it for menstrual pain, jaundice, anemia, and rheumatism. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder describes chariot-race champions drinking absinthium, its taste reminding them that glory has its bitter side—a sentiment wholeheartedly embraced by later enthusiasts.
For centuries, wormwood drinks remained primarily medicinal. (More recreational concoctions occasionally appeared, such as absinthe wine and absinthe cream). Armymen received wormwood to quell fevers, prevent dysentery, and ward off insects. They took to spiking their wine with it, which cut the bitterness and provided an alcoholic punch. Returning to France, they brought with them a taste for the drink, dubbing it “une verte” for its distinctive green color. And soon civilians, eager to align themselves with their newly victorious empire, began asking for “a green.”
At first absinthe remained a middle- and upper-class indulgence. But it had an exotic appeal; legends grew about its long history and supposedly hallucinogenic effects. As prosperity spread, more people partook of l’heure verte, the “green hour” of early evening when the unique smell of absinthe wafted through the air. Savvy customers realized that with its high proof, absinthe delivered more force for the franc. Diluted with water (virtually no one could drink it straight), it went even further. By 1849 the 26 French absinthe distilleries were producing some 10 million liters, a small fraction of the prodigious amount of alcohol consumed in France.
Absinthe faded into lore, maintained in stories of Parisian decadence. What remained were caricatures of mad geniuses going from cafe to cafe shouting “one see you!” as they chased the next great vision, the transcendent perspective that only comes with the grace of the Green Fairy. Of course, anyone who knows these kinds of stories-romantic, poetic-knows that the Green Fairy can never really die. Smugglers in Switzerland continued to produce absinthe. Spain never banned the drink, and a few small distilleries produced it throughout the 20th century. In 1994, a Czech distiller began marketing absinthe in the UK, where, thanks to its legendary reputation, it became a hit with bohemians. Dozens of copycat brands soon followed.
In response to pressure from their own distilleries – and perhaps noting the lack of modern “absinthe murders” – many European countries revised their absinthe bans. Most allowed only small amounts of thujone, the active ingredient in absinthe, in new concoctions (see box). But most aficionados knew that pre-ban absinthe always contained less than the 10 mg/liter of thujone now required. Restrictions, subsequently adopted by the European Union, effectively legalized absinthe. Switzerland lifted its ban on the production and sale of absinthe in March 2005.
France, however, only allows the label “absinthe” on products destined for export. Absinthe produced for local consumption is labeled “spiritueux à base de plantes d’absinthe,” or “absinthe-based liqueur.” The United States has complicated laws on “thujone-free” absinthe, making it illegal to import most European varieties. Even in this diminished form, it is now legal to produce and sell absinthe in the United States. After nearly 100 years, the Green Fairy lives again.
Types of absinthe
- Green absinthe (the mildest of absinthes) has an alcohol content of 60%,
- Blanche, which means “white” in French, may also be called “la bleue” in Switzerland. These are clear absinthes that are bottled directly after distillation. Has an alcohol content of 53%.
How to drink it?
It is best to drink it as it should be, following the traditional French method, dissolving sugar with water over the absinthe. Place a spoon of absinthe (perforated) on the glass with absinthe (30ml). Place an ice cube on the spoon and then pour ice water slowly to break up the sugar, so expect the water to be very cold. The absinthe will begin to take on a milky color as it comes into contact with the water and sugar. Finish by stirring the drink with the spoon. You can add ice at the end.
Absinthe, to rinse
2 ounces cognac
1/2 ounce simple syrup
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Garnish: lemon peel
Rinse a chilled Old Fashioned glass with the absinthe, fill with crushed ice and set aside.
Add the cognac, simple syrup and bitters into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled.
Discard the ice and any excess absinthe from the prepared glass, and strain the drink into the glass.
Express the lemon peel oils over the top of the drink, and garnish with the peel.
Death in the Afternoon
1 1/2 ounces absinthe
4 1/2 ounces chilled Champagne
Pour the absinthe into a coupe.
Top slowly with the Champagne.
Ne buvez pas au volant. Consommez avec modération.