Absinthe - Madness, Murder and Misinformation

Drinks, like most other things in life, have a cycle of fashions. Cocktails have come and gone several times since their 1920s heyday. When I started buying wines, riesling was the white wine of choice for most drinkers. That was replaced by chardonnay, then pinot grigio, and now it's sauvignon blanc, with a suggestion that riesling might be the next big thing. Some drinks become so fashionable that their popularity can be described as a craze. Think of the current wealth of gins available and the almost insatiable appetite for new gin experiences, new flavours, new mixers. Between the 1860s and 1914, that same crazed appetite was seen in much of Europe in relation to absinthe.

Absinthe is a high-alcohol, herb-flavoured spirit (anywhere between 55% and 74% ABV). It is usually green in colour, due to it being subject to a second maceration of herbs after distillation. Three herbs in particular are used to give it its characteristic look and taste: green anis, fennel and wormwood. Anis and fennel are sweet, and wormwood is bitter. The overall flavour is usually of aniseed. As well as this "holy Trinity" of botanicals, other herbs will be added, varying from producer to producer. These might include hyssop, angelica, peppermint or lemon balm. The high alcohol content helps the drink to absorb and retain more of the flavour of these aromatic plants. Absinthe is usually diluted with water before drinking, which causes some of the flavouring compounds to come out of solution and cloud the drink. This is known as the louche (French for shady or opaque).

Watch this beautiful film of the louche in a traditional 'bubble' glass. It's no wonder they call it the green fairy!


Although absinthe had been distilled since the late 18th century, it became popular from the 1860s onwards because industrial production made it cheaper to buy. At a similar time, the French wine industry was experiencing the terrible effects of phylloxera infestation, and wine prices were therefore rising. It has been suggested that the tales of hallucination and destructive lifestyles often associated with absinthe were put about by winemakers who feared for their livelihoods if absinthe's popularity continued to rise. I'm not sure they had much to worry about. Their industry was rescued by importing phylloxera-resistant vine roots from American vines and grafting on the French varieties. Even at the height of the craze, wine consumption in France outstripped that of absinthe by about 145 litres to 1.

Just as we see with the modern gin craze, absinthe drinking became a lifestyle statement. Although there were absinthe drinkers in every class and country in Europe, the craze centred on Paris, a magnet at the time for poets, writers and artists, designers and couturiers, political thinkers and agitators, musicians, dancers and composers, as well as the wealthy industrialists and minor royalty who kept all of this creativity afloat through their patronage and custom. Absinthe culture produced specialist glassware, bar equipment, rituals of presentation and consumption. (Sounds familiar?) These things communicated that its habitués were the "in-crowd," and everyone else was most definitely "out." Those rumours of hallucinatory effects only added to absinthe's appeal to thrill-seekers and rule-breakers. We need hardly be surprised that it was the favoured drink of Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh and Arthur Rimbaud.


The bad press absinthe has had is largely down to temperance and prohibition movements. Whether they were abetted by winemakers or not, they seized on stories of dangerous effects and magnified them. In 1905 a Swiss farmer killed his wife and family and tried to kill himself. Much was made of the fact that he'd drunk two glasses of absinthe. The publicity led directly to a referendum to amend the Swiss constitution, and absinthe was banned. Bans followed in many European countries and further afield. What the anti-absinthe publicity overlooked was that the accused farmer had also drunk a bottle or two of wine and several glasses of brandy. No peer-reviewed scientific study has ever established a link between absinthe and hallucination, other than the alcohol. Maybe the copper salts and other additives used in the cheaper absinthes were the cause of most of these problems.

The bans instituted just before the First World War largely held until this century. The UK, however, had never banned absinthe, since it wasn't popular enough here to raise concerns. By the 1990s, British travellers to the former Eastern Bloc counties started to bring back Bohemian absinthe. Many were young adventurers, and I imagine the rumours of altered states of mind and creativity, coupled with the imagined transgression of bringing a supposedly banned drink home, exerted quite a pull. Once they got it home and opened it, most would have been rather disappointed to find it's only wickedness was its high alcohol content. However, these first modern absinthe drinkers did pave the way for renewed interest in the drink. Serious scientists started to study its composition and reputed effects. Curious drinkers wondered how different old French absinthe tasted from modern Bohemian. The modern cocktail trend is based strongly on rediscovery of old recipes, and that was just taking off in the 1990s, too. Mixologists experimented with old cocktails like the Sazerac and the Blackthorn, both flavoured with absinthe, but without the full flavour of the French Holy Trinity of absinthe herbs, their attempts lacked life. 

Finally, by the turn of the millennium, there was sufficient scientific evidence to undermine the arguments for the ban. La Fée was granted a licence to distil and became the first French producer of legal absinthe since 1914. There are now over seventy producers around the world, and the drink is becoming popular for its taste, it's rituals and the zing it brings to cocktails. The best absinthes continue to be high in alcohol, because that carries the herbal flavours best. You are advised to follow the traditional practice of diluting it with 4-5 parts water to every one of absinthe and to sweeten it to taste. Whatever your teenage son might suggest, never try to burn absinthe unless you want to set your house on fire.


Sazerac (Created by the bar of the same name in New Orleans, sometime around 1870-80)

Chill a brandy glass with crushed ice, adding a teaspoon or so of absinthe and a splash of cold water.

In a mixing glass, muddle a sugar cube with a dash of Peychaud's Bitters and 2 dashes of Angostura. Add a teaspoon of water and mix to a syrup. Add a shot of Cognac, a shot of Bourbon or rye whiskey and several ice cubes. Stir well.

Give the contents of the brandy glass a stir, then empty it, leaving the inside of the glass coated with a hint of the dilute absinthe. Strain the spirit mixture into the glass and twist a slice of lemon zest over it. Serve with the lemon zest in the glass.


Blackthorn (from Harry Craddock's Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930)

Fill a shaker with ice and add:
  • 3 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • 3 dashes of absinthe
  • ½ glass of Irish whiskey
  • ½ glass of French vermouth
Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass.

Comments

  1. Absolutely fascinating. Such an interesting history.

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    1. Thank you for commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.

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  2. Good to find another blog that gets the facts right about absinthe. There is still some "Fake news" around about absinthe, but you corrected them here. Santé!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and commenting. I'm sure some of those myths helped sell absinthe in its heyday (and still do today in certain circles), but they're a distraction from the real value of the drink, which it its taste.

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