Absinthe has been a long passion of mine even before I moved to New Orleans and began drinking it. The mix of cult rumor and devotion, the accoutrements (I have a strange attraction to small spoons and apparatus in general), the bohemian history and visual depictions, even the feyrie personifications. When I did move to New Orleans I was active in the late 90’s goth scene and it was common to sit around drinking small glasses of Chartreuse, another green herbal french liquor which stood in for the illegal absinthe.
Being very difficult to import, I researched a pre-ban recipe and began making my own, distilling it with a cobbled still I made from parts at a science store. It took a while to adapt the 10,000L recipe down to a liter but eventually I got the balance correct and started producing a supply for me and my friends, at one point even selling a bit to a local speakeasy.
After the french revival at the turn of century, absinthe began becoming legally available in that states in 2007, and I’ve primarily purchased the spirit since then as it’s quite difficult to make (and a bit dangerous).
I’m still quite obsessed with absinthe paraphernalia (absinthiana) including fountains, glasses, and spoons, and always add to my collection when I can. I have a full absinthe setting for 10 people including matching goblets, spoons, fountains, a black table cloth with black cloth napkins, and a full silver serving set for decadent deserts and other treats. Every year or so we dress to the nines and sample the new varieties.
A bit of history
Absinthe comes from the Latin word for wormwood, absinthium, which comes from the Greek ἀψίνθιον apsínthion for wormwood, a very bitter herbal plant that was used by the greeks as a medicine, and especially grande wormwood, or artemisia absinthium, which is the main ingredient in the kind of absinthe that we drink today. The beverage that we’re familiar with is generally agreed (rumored) to have come from Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland, around 1792, who was responsible for adding the familiar anise and fennel notes. That recipe was sold to the Major Dubied in 1797 through which his son-in-law, Henry-Louis Pernod, opened a second French distillery in Pontarler under the new name Maison Pernod Fils which remained the most popular brand until it was banned in 1914
Parallel to this production, a plague was brought to European vineyards from the US, decimating the grape vines and driving the price of wine upwards. The increasingly popular absinthe replaced wine as a social beverage so much so that the hour of 5-6 was often called the green hour. When the plague was overcome, many bargoers had no interest in returning to wine. Seizing the religious fervor of the prohibition movement, the wine industry bankrolled a smear campaign against absinthe in the early 1900’s contributing to its specific ban in France in 1914, with many other countries following suit. When prohibition was overturned later, the bans on absinthe remained separately from other alcohol with no real scientific reason to do so. The active chemical thujone which can be isolated from wormwood, though touted as a madness inducing psychoactive drug, is nearly identical to other alpine herbs such as rosemary, and has little second effect outside of the alcohol itself. Only one known overdose of thujone is known resulting from a man drinking a vial of pure thujone extract mistakenly thinking it was absinthe.
One of the first distilleries to revive Parisian style absinthe was the La Fée distillery in Paris in 2000. I was an early fan of La Fée as I had been making my own for a while by then and began importing it even before the ban allowed it. Through their evangelizing the US ban was eventually lifted and absinthe production has continued to grow and flourish since.
How do you make absinthe?
Absinthe isn’t created like a beer or brandy. You start with a pure spirit, preferably a grape based spirit, 95-100%, I use Everclear because it’s easy to find and cheap. To the alcohol you add a variety of herbs to start an initial maceration, kind of like making a tea. You start with a major wormwood, fennel, coriander, star anise, licorice root, and other herbs and macerate for 2 weeks. The wormwood is so bitter the brew is undrinkable. So you need to distill the first maceration. The result is clear and flavorless and called a blanche or la bleue, which is good if you’re trying to smuggle it as vodka, but traditional Parisian absinthe requires a second maceration. The original distillate has the herbal oils dissolved in the alcohol already. If you add water so that the overall alcoholic volume starts to fall below 60% the oils will fall out of suspension and make the clear liquid cloudy. This is called louching and is a trait of real absinthe. For the second maceration a less bitter minor absinthe or roman absinthe is added along with hyssop, Melissa, lemon balm, mint, more fennel and licorice, and other herbs. This creates the characteristic green color (note: an earthy herbal green, not a bright fluorescent green. Bright green absinthes are artificially colored and I avoid them) and bright flavors. After two more weeks of maceration and a good filter, the liquor is ready to consume.
There are a lot of ingredients in my personal absinthe recipe and the balance is quite subtle. The distillation entails vaporizing pure alcohol over a burner so there’s a risk element as well if done indoors. And finishing with just the right color while maintaining a good louche can also be tricky. I tend to go a bit heavier on the mint than traditional recipes but I prefer my recipe over the classic.
Absinthe is generally not consumed straight. It’s usually over 70% alcohol and many of the flavors won’t be present at bottle strength. I use the traditional method of a single shot of absinthe in a goblet. Ice water is chilled in a pitcher or even better in a special fountain with slow dripping taps. A slotted spoon is placed over the drink and one or two sugar cubes are added (depending on your preference, I use one). If the cubes are dipped in the alcohol they won’t dissolve so the water is dripped over the cubes resting on the spoon and into the glass. At a slow rate, the water will fill the goblet right as the sugar is dissolved. I dilute 1:5 with ice water. Which creates a light and refreshing cocktail that’s about as strong as a regular double. As the liquor dilutes the oils fall out of suspension and release their fragrance. The absinthe should be a solid cloudy white.
Traditionally absinthe comes with a pitcher of ice water or better yet a fountain. An absinthe fountain (there are a few varieties) generally consist of a tank into which ice water is poured, and a small tap high enough to fit over a glass that can be adjusted to a slow drip or trickle. Pre-ban fountains can be quite ornate and beautiful. Mine is a replica bought for me as a birthday present by a friend and I treasure it! Included below is also a picture of a dripper. This device was clipped onto the glass over the spoon and dripped water pouring into the funnel slowly over the sugar.
I love absinthe spoons and I’ve collected them from all over the world. The cheapest ones are mass produced by Absente, a brand of “absinthe” produced without wormwood in the ban era. They have since released a regular version. But their spoons are nice and affordable. I have a set of ten when I’m feeling like matching but have many other spoons and contraptions of various styles. They’re great keepsakes when you can find them.
Notable absinthes in my collection
I have large a number of absinthes in my collection, not all I’m proud of. Mostly fairly common.
La Fée Absinthe – I don’t drink much La Fée absinthe these days but I respect them a great deal. They did a lot of work in socializing absinthe and opening up the import market through tastings and ambassadorship. I bought some of their first bottles including an unopened bottle of their first run blue Suisse. Compared to traditional Parisian absinthe La Fée artificially colors their liquor which I dislike and it’s a bit sweeter, aligning with tastes originally unfamiliar with traditional absinthe. But it’s still quite nice and their marketing is awesome. (though their website is looking kind of abandoned)
Lucid – Lucid is an excellent example of traditional Parisian absinthe. It’s straighforward, balanced, drinkable, and pretty easy to find. I would call this my day to day absinthe. Their old packaging (shown) was a bit … I don’t know, a little cheesy, but their new brand and packaging is much better suited to the high quality product inside.
Žufánek – Historically Czech absinthe has been total garbage having very little in common with Parisian absinthe. It looked and tasted like mouthwash, did not louche, and did not contain wormwood. I’m not sure why they call it absinthe. I have a few bottles in my collection just for comparison sake. However, the last time I was in Prague I was drinking at the Hemingway Bar and the bartender introduced me to a new Parisian style absinthe called St. Antoine from Žufánek. And it was fantastic. I drank quite a bit while I was in town. When I got home I ordered a bottle of St. Antoine online along with a few other varieties they were experimenting with (some already discontinued). I highly recommend this new high mark in Czech absinthe.
Pernod – After the ban, Pernod continued to make anisette style liquor without the wormwood. Though recently they have reintroduced a classic recipe that is quite good. A solid Parisian absinthe though sadly artificially colored.
Pacific northwest absinthe – Now absinthe makers have cropped up everywhere, even here. Here’s a bottle of Trillium (discontinued), a locally produced version. It’s ok. I find the recipe not very traditional and I don’t drink it much. But I keep it for tasting parties. It’s very mild and generally a crowd pleaser. Others include Pacifique, Wild Card, Haint, Columbia, and Vilya.
Red absinthe – In addition to clear and green, there are other shades of absinthe, and not just modern inventions. Pink absinthe from roses, red absinthe from hibiscus, also yellow and brown from various methods. This is an example of a red absinthe.
I have photos of all of my other absinthes but I think this article is long enough already.