Revenge of the ‘Sinthe
I sometimes think of the Land of Forgotten Cocktails as an actual place, a halfway house of sorts where old cocktails, like old warriors, gather to sing of their past glories and rail against a world that no longer fits them, a world of unnecessarily sweet drinks, ersatz ingredients and flavored vodkas as far as the eye can see. It’s a place where these old barflies can bide their time and rehabilitate themselves for their eventual return to the pretty people along the bar.
There is one political refugee among the group, the only cocktail banished here not by the vagaries of fashion or the fickleness of public affection, but by legislative fiat. For the 100 years or so he’s been here, he’s hardly been forgotten; his legend and myth have grown with every passing decade; his name is spoken in hushed and anxious tones, as if he were the Keyser Söze of the spirits underworld. There’s a gleam in his eyes these days. He’s been trimming his beard and brushing up on his English in preparation for a triumphant reemergence.
Yes, my children, Absinthe is back. And like the refugees and exiles before him, it seems the state of Maine is ready to receive him with wary, yet open, arms. Perhaps absinthe makes the heart grow fonder. The Byzantine and inscrutable apparatus that is the Maine Liquor-Industrial Complex has already approved three brands for purchase. But before you rush out and drop the equivalent of your cable bill on a bottle, you should know what you’re getting (and not getting) from a bottle of the Green Fairy.
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is the essence of absinthe, from whence it gets its name and most of its mythos and allure. It’s a bitter plant, used for centuries in various medicinal and religious contexts, and belongs to a family of herbs that includes sage, mugwort and tarragon. Vermouth gets its name from its Germanic derivative, Wermut, and make of it what you will, but the Russian word for wormwood is chernobyl. In the Book of Revelation, a star named Wormwood, or Apsinthion (“undrinkable” in Greek), is cast into the waters, making them too bitter to drink.
If wormwood is the heart of absinthe, then licorice is the motor. There’s simply no getting around it: if you don’t like licorice, you won’t like absinthe. Anise brings the kick-in-the-balls licorice flavors, while fennel provides softer, sweeter nuances. Rounding out the herbal lineup, many absinthes include varying amounts of lemon balm, hyssop, coriander, chamomile, and sweet flag, among others.
Fueling the absinthe engine is good old ethanol. Absinthe packs an alcoholic wallop that at first glance looks as daunting as the price tag. The brands available here in Maine run the gamut from 124 to 138 proof. But consider this: you’ll likely be diluting your absinthe by two-thirds with water, bringing the weaker bottling to the more familiar 80 proof. Perform the same mathematics on the price tag and $60 begins to look more like $20.
Your first absinthe
First, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: if you’re expecting to trip or hallucinate, you’ll be sorely disappointed. I don’t care what you’ve heard about wormwood or thujone or Van Gogh’s ear. It just ain’t gonna happen. That being said, absinthe (to me, at least) does provide a different kind of intoxication than run-of-the-mill drinking. Perhaps it’s the synergy of the herbal mix, or my frame of mind, or the way the louche (the characteristic clouds created when water meets absinthe) hypnotizes like fire, but there is something calming and introspective about an absinthe buzz. As The American Journal of Pharmacy noted in 1898, “You seem to lose your feet, and you mount a boundless realm without horizon. You probably imagine that you are going in the direction of the infinite, whereas you are simply drifting into the incoherent.”
Most of the allure of absinthe drinking is in the preparation: equal parts ritual and procedure that puts the drinker in a reflective mood even before the first sip. It’s a deliberate act, completely different from the unconscious cracking of a beer or pouring of a shot.
And then there are the tools and accessories! While not required, I have to admit they’re kinda cool. There are purveyors of absinthe paraphernalia scattered across the Internet that can provide you with everything you could ever need or want, from the spoons to hand-blown water fountains and glasses — even the sugar cubes.
The most basic method of preparation is the French-style absinthe drip.
Pour an ounce or two of absinthe into a glass. Balance the perforated spoon over the mouth of the glass and put two sugar cubes on it. Slowly (!) pour a little ice water on the cubes, just enough to dampen them and hasten their demise. Then slowly trickle or drip more water onto the cubes so they dissolve into the absinthe. (This is where absinthe fountains come in handy; their faucet can be set to drip water at any speed desired.) Observe the absinthe as the water trickles into it. You are witnessing the formation of the louche, the opalescent creaminess that marks a quality absinthe. This is the Fée Verte, the Green Fairy from whence absinthe gets its nickname. When the louche is complete, stop adding the water, dump any un-dissolved sugar into the glass, stir with the spoon and consume.
The brouilleur method is similar to the drip, but a specially designed glass funnel is used instead of the spoon. The sugar cubes are placed in it, as well as some ice, and then the whole measure of water is added. The tiny hole at the center of the brouilleur allows the water to enter the absinthe in a fine, slow stream that turns the louche into a swirling dervish as it mounts. The effect is worth the $20 for the device.
The Czech-style absinthe drip is not only not recommended — it’s heretical. You see it often enough, particularly in New Orleans and among the Goth set, so I’ve included it here. If you’re gonna do it wrong, you might as well do it wrong correctly. The Czech is the same as the French style except the first dampening of the sugar cubes is done with absinthe and the sugar is then set aflame. Once the flame dies out and the cubes are caramelized, the water is added in the French style.
One of the weirder absinthe delivery systems is the absinthe bonque, which may or may not have been a Bohemian method of enjoying absinthe. It’s more likely a recent contrivance, but still worth mentioning. The bowl is filled with crushed ice, absinthe and sugar (I find simple syrup the simplest) and a splash of water. Sip through the glass “straw” while trying not to look silly.
How Absinthe Got His Groove Back
Although the U.S. had been in the throes of the Temperance Movement since the mid-1800s, Europe was slow to catch the bug (1890 or so), and their strain was a lot less virulent. Like the early American movement, the European dry movement wasn’t T-totally dry (wine and beer always had a place at the table). The Europeans focused on absinthe as the scapegoat for all of society’s ills.
By 1915, citing numerous (though generally spurious) studies that claimed thujone, a component of wormwood, caused epilepsy and madness, absinthe was banned across Europe. Spain, however, never banned it, which caused a bit of thorniness when it joined the European Union in 1986. Quietly, absinthe became legal once again on the Continent.
The U.S. banned absinthe and other products containing wormwood in 1912. In 1972, the law of the land was amended to restrict products containing thujone in amounts above 10 parts per million. This is a stringent level, and everyone assumed absinthe contained about 250 ppm of thujone — until someone tested it. Remarkably, vintage pre-ban absinthe formulas contain far less thujone than imagined, and with a little tweaking, they could easily slide under the government’s guidelines. Vive la Fée Verte!
Absinthe: A Maine Buyers’ Guide
Lucid (124 proof): $62
Pernod (136 proof): $75
Grand Absente (138 proof): $68