Revealing the Secrets of Absinthe

Categories: Last Call

JK Grence
Before adding water to absinthe, and after. Pretty cool, huh?
One of my favorite parts of tending bar is clearing up misconceptions about alcohol. The biggest one has to be the old saw about beer before liquor or vice versa. (Answer: It doesn't matter, except you tend to drink faster and, therefore, drink more when you start with beer.) Right behind it is that most misunderstood spirit, absinthe. Any time someone spies our bottle of absinthe, I go through an almost ritualistic Q&A session. Yes, it's legal again, duh. Yes, it has wormwood. No, it doesn't make you hallucinate.

The history of absinthe is quite storied. It started in the late 18th century as a medicinal tonic. By the middle of the 19th century, it was prescribed to French soldiers as a malaria treatment. When the soldiers came home, they brought their taste for absinthe. For decades, it was all the rage, especially among artists and writers in the trés chic Bohemian culture.

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The absinthe craze ended at the turn of the 20th century thanks to two strange bedfellows. The temperance movement saw absinthe as an especially evil spirit, and French wine makers saw absinthe as a genuine threat to their profits. All manner of sensational rumors were spread about the dangers of the Green Fairy. The breaking point came when a Swiss farmer reportedly drank absinthe, then killed his family and tried to kill himself. Never mind the copious amounts of wine and brandy he already had that day; it was the two glasses of absinthe that did it.

Now that cooler heads prevail, the bans worldwide have been lifted, and the product today is similar to the pre-ban ones. The questionable compound in wormwood, thujone, never was as big a part of absinthe as it was made out to be. Moreover, it won't cause hallucinations; it will induce muscle spasms, but you'd have to drink so much absinthe that you'd be literally dead of alcohol poisoning before it happened.

Now that you know the history, let's drink. If you've seen the movie Moulin Rouge!, your first instinct with absinthe will likely be to have shots like they do at the start of the movie. Don't. The very high proof of absinthe (most are around 120 to 130 proof) means absinthe served neat is firewater. The most basic (many would argue best) way to prepare absinthe is a traditional Absinthe Drip.

To prepare an Absinthe Drip, all you do is slowly pour water over a sugar cube into a glass that holds a shot of absinthe. There are all manner of gorgeous Art Nouveau accessories to make this easier. While absinthe enthusiasts covet these fabulously expensive tools (yours truly definitely included), I have a couple of simple hacks that will produce an excellent Absinthe Drip without having to blow major coin.

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Have you ever had the absinthe over in Europe before it was legal here in the US? That stuff is ten times better than anything you can get out in the US. Most of it tastes so generic. Also, what about the old trick of lighting the sugar cube on fire after you pour the absinthe on it and it will help burn of some of the alcohol taste? You can enjoy the flavors more without having to drink fire water and not having to dilute the product. 

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