Absinthe has a mysterious air surrounding it. Many countries banned it for decades, and it got blamed for the cutting-off of van Gogh's ear. The latter is wrong as van Gogh suffered from depression and cut off his ear after a confrontation with Paul Gauguin. No Absinthe involved.
Also, many people have no clue on how to drink it or even what it actually is. Reason enough for me to put this unique spirit and its story into the spotlight and to set things straight. And who knows, maybe you will soon be chasing the green fairy, too.
What is Absinthe?
Absinthe is a spirit made of numerous herbs. Depending on the brand, you will find an extensive range of ingredients, the most common amongst those are green anise, Grande Wormwood, and Florence Fennel.
The origin of Absinthe is in Switzerland. It was invented in the late 1700s and quickly won the love of enthusiastic drinkers in France in the early 19th century. That is why most of the herbs used in Absinthe are from Switzerland or France.
Types of Absinthe
Traditionally there is only one type of Absinthe, the distilled version. But today, there is also another type of Absinthe available on the market. This so-called "Bohemian Absinthe" uses a specific method during production. So let's take a closer look and see how the two types are different.
The classic type of Absinthe is distilled. The herbal ingredients get macerated before or during the distillation process. Then, after distillation, the final product is ready to be bottled. Distilled Absinthes have herbal notes dominated by anise.
Right after distillation, the spirit is as clear as other spirits like Gin or Vodka. This clear version is also referred to as Swiss-style, Blanche, or Bleue. To get the famous green color, the distillers infuse the final product with herbs or artificial coloring. The result is called French-style or Verte.
The new type of macerated Absinthes originates in the Czech Republic. For this, grande Wormwood is infused in alcohol to release aroma and the typical green color of Absinthe. The most intriguing part is that classic Absinthes are usually colored artificially or by additional maceration after distillation.
Macerated Absinthe doesn't need that. The green color is coming naturally through the wormwood infusion in alcohol. While the end product is still full of herbal notes, it has less of an overpowering anise taste. If you're not a fan of anise, that's a big plus.
Thujone in Absinthe
Thujone is the main reason why Absinthe has a bad reputation. People accused Thujone of making consumers of Absinthe going mad and hallucinating. In fact, Thujone is neither a hallucinogen nor a psychedelic. It is a chemical compound found in Artemisia absinthium, better known as grande Wormwood. And the main reason for drinkers going mad was probably the amount of alcohol they drank and not the amount of Thujone in Absinthe.
To be fair, Thujone is indeed toxic. But if you try to get intoxicated by Thujone in Absinthe, you die of alcohol poisoning way before. Even sage contains more Thujone than Wormwood.
Ironically, despite all that, Absinthe legalization still depends on Thujone levels. In the US, only Absinthes with less than 10mg/L are legal. In the EU, you can purchase Absinthe with a Thujone level of up to 35mg/L.
A Quick Glance at History
The very roots of Absinthe are in ancient Egypt. Back then, people used it for medical purposes. As said already, Absinthe, as we know it today, got invented in the late 1700s in Switzerland. It quickly got famous in France and reached its peak in popularity in the 1800s.
During the Belle Époque from 1871 to 1880, it was the favorite drink of many prominent figures. For instance, world-renowned artists like Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few. During this time, Absinthe was available and served almost everywhere. From cozy little Cafés to Bistros and Cabarets.
Then, in the early 1900s, Absinthe suddenly got banned in almost every country. The governments banned it because of Thujone. Back then people still thought it causes hallucinations. It all started in the US in 1912. France followed suit shortly after world war I began, and most other countries did the same. Only Spain and the Czech Republic continued production and consumption. That might be the main reason why these days, the Czech are leaders in Absinthe consumption.
The Different Rituals
The traditional Absinthe ritual includes a serving of Absinthe in a glass, an Absinthe spoon with a sugar cube on top, and a water fountain. The water slowly drops on the sugar cube until it's completely dissolved. The water to Absinthe ratio is then around 3:1. The Absinthe will also turn milky and cloudy during the process due to the anise in the spirit.
There's a second, more modern version to enjoy Absinthe. But it is only used for the macerated "Bohemian Absinthe": You dip a sugar cube into the Absinthe and place it on top of an Absinthe Spoon. Then you put the spoon on your glass filled with Absinthe. When igniting the soaked sugar cube, it will start to caramelize and slowly drip into your glass. After about 3 to 5 drops, you can dip the spoon into your glass and give the mix a good stir.
With this ritual, you get warm Absinthe with a very different flavor profile than the classic preparation. But keep in mind that Absinthe, even if not toxic, still contains a high alcohol level. Drink slowly, sip by sip, and always drink water in-between.
The Meaning of Chasing the Green Fairy
The Green Fairy is a well-known synonym for Absinthe. There even is a brand of Absinthe that's running under the name "Green Fairy". Initially, it was just the translation of the french nickname "La Fée Verte", but it quickly became more than just that.
In the late 1800s, the fairy was a common symbol in France for transformation and innovation. When someone was chasing the green fairy, they aimed for artistic enlightenment and inspiration. And a green fairy drink was said to create a free mind where new and unorthodox ideas could arise. A state every artist strives for to get new inspiration.
Best Place to Learn More About Absinthe
The best way to step into the world of Absinthe is at a place that knows what it's doing. And there are not many of those I'm aware of. But there is one I can recommend without hesitation, and that's the Absintherie in Prague. I've been there multiple times, and it's always fun to sit in front of those huge Absinthe fountains waiting for your drink to be ready.
And they have an enormous selection of Absinthe from various countries. You can try macerated as well as distilled Absinthes while talking to the bartenders. They will happily answer any questions you may have. And in case you're looking for more places to visit once you're in Prague, here's my list of the best cocktail bars in Prague.
Cocktails with Absinthe
It's not the most common of cocktail ingredients, but still, there are some superb classics that include a bit of the Green Fairy's magic. For one, there is the quite boozy Sazerac, created in the 1850s by Dr. Peychaud, who also invented the famous Peychaud's bitters. Or you can go for the Corpse Reviver No. 2. Even though the name suggests otherwise, it's a little lighter than the Sazerac. And if you prefer something more fruity, the Monkey Gland would be a brilliant choice.