5@5 - All about absinthe
June 27th, 2011
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world.”

This is what Oscar Wilde wrote of absinthe, the high-proof spirit tasting of anise, fennel and exotic aromatics.

Absinthe upholds quite the evocative reputation - it was banned in the early 1900s in most of Europe and the United States after drinkers often experienced visits from la fée verte, or the green fairy. Other legends took it further, claiming imbibers could succumb to insanity, suicide or even murder.

The American ban on the spirit has since been lifted in 2007, and modern varieties contain severely regulated amounts of wormwood, the ingredient linked to its supposed hallucinogenic effects.

Maxwell Britten, head bartender of Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, New York, thinks we may have judged the green fairy too quickly - and that her reputation isn't quite what it used to be.

Five Misunderstandings or Misgivings about Absinthe: Maxwell Britten

1. Only Switzerland has a law that actually defines what makes Absinthe, Absinthe.
"There are no other countries that have defined or regulated its legitimacy since its conception."

2. It is said the thujone content in wormwood is what causes hallucination.
"These days thujone content is regulated. It is hard to say what was put in absinthe in the pre-ban era or what actually caused hallucination, in short: Inferior absinthe production companies would sell inferior absinthe using tampered or defective ingredients and methods of bottling which most certainly lead to many cases of hysteria, madness and hallucination."

3. Most absinthe is traditionally made anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent in alcohol, that is 100 to 160 proof.
"I always tell people, if you drink a large amount of any kind of overproof alcohol, you are likely to freak out a little bit - I guarantee you it doesn't have to be absinthe."

4. By the early 1900s, the French nation drank two times more absinthe than wine.
"This was partially due to phylloxera—this is a parasite to grapevines which decimated the wine industry in the mid to late 1800s. The wine industry in France was one of the first to begin launching slander campaigns against absinthe."

5. Absinthe is not from the Czech Republic, never was or has been (legitimately).
"Also, absinthe is not a shot or should be set on fire, the concentrated flavor is overpowering and a burning sensation will really overwhelm you. Most people suggest serving it with about 4 to 6 parts cold water and a dissolved sugar cube."

Five Fast Facts About Absinthe

1. For absinthe to be acknowledged as legitimate absinthe, it must contain: Grande Wormwood, Roman Wormwood, anise seed, sweet fennel, melissa (lemon balm), hyssop. It is traditionally made with all natural herbs and flavors and should contain, no additives, sugar or coloring.

2. Absinthe was invented by an eccentric doctor in Couvet, Switzerland in the mid-1700s and went commercial in the early 19th century. When the doctor first invented it, it was known by patients as an herbal medicine, more of a tincture or elixir at the time meant to help internal ailments and digestive problems.

3. In the 1840s absinthe grew in national popularity in France, and the French government issued rations of it to soldiers when they were in Algeria to prevent malaria. It soon became a patriotic libation by troops and in turn also a favorite by the bourgeoisie.

4. By the 1860s absinthe had become so popular among all social classes, 5 p.m. was the cocktail hour or known as l’heure verte - the green hour.

5. Absinthe was banned from production and commercialization in all exporting and importing countries of it by 1914 (excluding Spain). The absinthe ban was lifted in the United States on March 5, 2007 and currently there are several domestic and imported absinthes sold commercially.

Five Absinthes Domestically Made, The Real Deal from the United States

1. Pacifique, an Absinthe Verte from Washington
"A great absinthe specially for those just coming around to it. For a verte it is nice and light, there are some citrus and vegetal notes I think people would dig."

2. Germain-Robin, a blanche from California
"It has a neutral grape base — this makes it pretty interesting on its own. This is definitely an excellent beginner’s absinthe. It has some very feminine qualities, very sweet and heavy on the mint notes — easy going and light in body."

3. Delaware Phoenix “Meadow of Love”
"This is an Absinthe Verte from upstate New York. I have never heard the word 'funky' associated with an absinthe more than this one. O

One of the herbs used in the recipe is violets. In here, there is a different ratio of its base ingredients compared the other expression 'Walton Waters.'

'Meadow of Love' is known for its slightly more floral and bitter - or should I just say funk - quality."

4. North Shore “La Sirene” Absinthe Verte
"This is straight out of Illinois and believe me, compared to Malörts, these guys got something much more palatable happening.

This is pretty traditional as far as its recipe goes, it is kind of light and a tad spicy which I think makes it an absinthe that anyone can enjoy."

5. St. George Absinthe Verte
"These guys are from California also. One of the first back on the map for US absinthe, they also use a brandy base and produce a beautiful dark verte.

Its louche (opaqueness when the water hits) is very dark, almost a deep yellow. Personally, I find this absinthe to be bitter, oily and a bit citrusy. This is definitely one considered by the absintheurs as a really solid choice for Absinthe from the US."

Ever tried absinthe? If not, will you? Spill your opinions in the comment section.

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Sip • Spirits • Think


soundoff (114 Responses)
  1. Rickie Luke

    The only place I ever had absinthe was at the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans, frequented by Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. The place is a dive, but has a quaint historical and fun spirit to it. The city also has the Absinthe Museum, a great place to learn everything you want to know about this mis-understood drink.

    June 28, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Reply
    • malhomme

      Isn't this a daiquiri bar now? Drank HG in the corner where Aleister Crowley penned his essay on NOLA. Was a great place!

      June 29, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  2. Lushrimfire

    I have been facinated by the stories I've heard about this libation, hope I get to experience in my lifetime.

    June 28, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  3. WOBH

    Sounds like a hit of LSD and a shot of Jack would do as a substitute... not for me thanks

    June 28, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  4. Wayne

    Bought some absenthe at a drug store in Japan and lost five hours of my life. But I liked the flavor.

    June 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  5. driranek

    I purchased the real european stuff in Mexico. Between the powerful licorice taste and the extreme bitterness of the wormwood, very small quantities are a radical taste experience. While it might be me, I can't imagine how anyone could drink enough to hallucinate. The US stuff is just a pale imitation by comparison.

    June 28, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  6. Sid

    frankly, I'm astonished (pleasantly) that a decision was made in the US which was based on facts & science versus the usual bribery and/or "THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!" hysteria...

    there's a bar (/tapas place) outside my neighborhood that serves absinthe martinis that are actually pretty darn good! I only get them a couple times/yr but always enjoy them when I do!

    June 28, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  7. Matt

    Absinthe is great if you like licorice tasting drinks like Uozo (sp) or black licorice. I rather enjoy having a bartender attempt to make a nice glass of it with the sugar cube spoon and lighting it on fire (since its sort of newish to modern America, they tend to mess up sometimes... hilarious). Never did abuse the stuff though, after a few sips, you can tell it would annihilate you if you kept drinking it. No green fairy for me.

    June 28, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  8. aubrie

    I keep seeing the comparison to licorice flavor. Is it anything like Greek Ouzo?????

    June 28, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Reply
    • malhomme

      Ouzo and arak lack the subtelties of absinthe, since they are almost exclusively made from star anise. Good absinthe has many herbal notes that will not be found in ouzo or arak. Good absinthe may have some star anise in it (to assist with the louche), but will also have green anise, fennel, lemon balm, hyssop, and other herbs. It is a complex, sipping drink. However, they all have at least one thing in common: all three are great drinks to sip on a hot, lazy afternoon. HTH

      June 29, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  9. Bill

    I have had domestic and European, both are delicious, but I would go for the import any day.
    If you do it 'correctly' you are cutting it with water so the strength is not important.

    For my money it is good on a special occasion, but I can get 4-5 good bottles of Ouzo for the price of 1 premium Absinthe...Not the same taste, but close.

    June 28, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply
  10. Liz the First

    One thing the article doesn't tell you is that it's one of the nastiest tastes on the planet. my roommate got a bottle and made me the classic half water, half absinthe with the sugar cube. it smelled wonderful. but it tasted awful! three sips were all i could choke down. never again!

    June 28, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  11. Pacific Distillery

    Thank you Maxwell, a great article. Actually, the modern varieties of absinthe are not "severely regulated amounts of wormwood." Our Pacifique Absinthe fully contains the historic levels of wormwood as documented in many 19th Century distilling texts. What is regulated is the amount of thujone (10 ppm). Thujone content has zero bearing on the flavor and/or authenticity of absinthe. Many, if not most, absinthes from the 19th Century would easily conform to today's safety standards (read, thujone content) for alcoholic beverages. Absinthe, whether pre-ban or modern never caused hallucinations. The myth of hallucinations came about from a misunderstanding of 19th Century medical treatments of severe alcoholics who were in sanitariums and experiencing the DT's.

    June 28, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Reply
    • jlv

      Actually the flowery language that misleads people came from artists and bohemians some of which talked about flowers or whiskey in mind altering ways. Good luck trying to trip of a vase of daisys.

      June 28, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Reply
    • AJS

      I've seen some people refer to your brand here. They say it's good! Any chance of getting some free samples!!!!

      June 30, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  12. M3NTA7

    If you want hallucinations, eat a habanero! LOL

    June 28, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Reply
  13. Rusty Freedom

    I make absinthe at home once every few years. Knowing I was breaking the law make this hobby even more exciting, and now I find that it's legal !!!

    Darn Land of the Free... – 'With great freedom, comes greate boredom'.

    June 28, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  14. PointOfView

    Green Fairy, Pink Elephant, what the hell's the difference when the bed is spinning?

    June 28, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • jlv

      The turn ratio.

      June 28, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  15. JW

    Vieux Carre out of Philadelphia is another good one.

    June 28, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  16. Geoffrey Hamilton

    Amazing article, thank you

    June 28, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Reply
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