This article originally appeared in (the now closed) Bitten Magazine in March 2016.
Call it ’La Fee Vert’, the Green Fairy, or the Green Lady – whatever the name you give it, Absinthe has a chequered past.
From its humble beginnings in the late 18th century as a medicinal elixir in Switzerland, to its current use in cocktails, and the most recent resurgence of interest in its creation as a craft spirit, alongside its sister spirit gin, absinthes reputation is marred by myth, mystery and inebriation.
Absinthe is a herbal spirit, a redistillation of botanicals (much akin to gin), which have been macerated in a base spirit – and sometimes this redistillation process is repeated with additional botanicals, or it is instead infused with additional herbs, creating a strong, layered herbal flavour.
Bottled at around 60-72% ABV, traditionally distilled absinthe was enjoyed gently diluted with chilled water, creating a delicate louching as the oils of the absinthe mingle with the water and release its distinctive aroma. It’s rich, sweet, full of aniseed and rich herbal notes that coat the palette and fill the senses.
And this is perhaps where we come across the perceived villain of the piece. Traditionally, these botanicals would include grand wormwood (aka Artemisia absinthium), and in the most traditional method, known as the Swiss method, green anise (Pimpinella anisum) and sweet fennel (Fennel vulgare). This method of production gave rise to the verte variety of absinthe, green in colour due to the high concentrations of chlorophyll in the herbs used in its creation.
By the 19th century absinthe was the drink of the artist, of the Parisian bohemian. Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire, Van Gogh, and Picasso were habitual imbibers, even our own wild child Oscar Wilde was a habitue, and as with gin, it was soon the drink of choice, buoyed by infamy, availability (assisted by a devastating Europe-wide vine infestation that decimated wine production).
And it was at this time that the shortcuts began to take their toll on the public. Again, like its sister liquor, gin, absinthe suffered from bastardisation. With no legal definition, or controls, or indeed skilled distillers, it was open to poor ingredients, processes and those looking to make a cheap buck (or Franc in this case). Shortcuts taken to cheapen and speed up production introduced potentially toxic elements to reproduce the colour and flavours acceptable to the least demanding of drinkers.
And the ingredient long thought to be behind absinthe’s bad reputation? Thujone, a compound found in wormwood that is toxic if ingested – touted as being behind absinthes psychedelic effects, and also behind violent seizures and kidney failure. As a result, drinkers would commonly suffer a range of systemic and nervous disorders, described as absinthism.
Cue, a generalised panic, aided by a recovering wine industry and what you have is a knee jerk reaction, and traditional absinthe being banned, and instead becoming a much more commercial, flavoured (rather than distilled or infused) and diluted spirit with a neon green tinge seen on back bars across the world.
So why are we revisiting it if it’s so bad? Simple. It’s not. Driven by Ted Breaux or as absinthe geeks know him the ‘Elite Absinthe Enforcer’, and ably assisted by modern lab techniques, it was subsequently discovered that well crafted absinthe distillations have such a small amount of thujon within them that it’s barely there – around 5 parts per million. Far below the amount thought to be contained within the spirit and certainly not enough to harm human health. Instead, it’s surmised that it was the poor methods used to make the cheaper distillations that were responsible for not only the increase in thujon, but also other elements, causing the mental disturbances, seizures and hallucinations associated with absinthe.
So, is absinthe safe to drink? My god yes.
It is nice? Yes, it’s intense, but justly so. Drink it traditionally with ice water dripped over a cube of sugar, in a cocktail, or use it to rinse your glass so you get a hint of its flavours.
It’s historically the drink of thinkers and artists, creatives and musicians, dancers and poets. And I’m none of these.
But maybe it’ll inspire me.
With thanks to the Elektrochemist for the imagery of Some Place bar, Liverpool.