Absinthe

by Jim Winslett

If you're like me, you heard of absinthe through folklore, literature, or movies. Moulin Rouge (the Ewan McGregor/ Nicole Kidman movie) even had a character to represent absinthe called the Green Fairy (played by Kylie Minogue and voiced by Ozzy Osborne). You probably also heard wild stories about its effect on people and that it was illegal to sell or consume. You might have wondered what it tastes like or if the wild tales were true. 

You might also have heard that it's legal again, but that the stuff today isn't the same as the stuff that was drunk "back in the day." Well, you heard wrong.

Today's absinthe is made with the same recipes that have been around since the turn of the century. The only difference is the ability, via modern distilling methods, to generate consistent quality from one batch to the next. Does it cause people to go crazy, hallucinate, be ultra-creative, or do stupid things? If it does, those things are caused by the alcohol, not the wormwood. If you want more info on this, check out the Wikipedia entry or delve into the history on The Wormwood Society site. It's all there already, no need for me to re-type all of that. 

So what does it taste like? Well, that depends entirely on the brand you get. There are three ingredients ("the trinity") that must be present for it to be absinthe: anise, fennel, and wormwood. After that, each brand is free to add just about anything they want to - so the tastes are astoundingly different from one brand to the next. Think of it like a cookie recipe where the base cookie is the starting point, then each baker adds their own touches: raisins, walnuts, M&Ms, coconut, whatever. Same basic cookie, wildly different tastes.

Absinthe is divided into two main categories: Verte and Blanche

 

Vieux Carré is an American verte absinthe

Verte absinthe is greenish in color due to the re-introduction of botanicals during the distillation process.  

La Clandestine is a Swiss blanche absinthe

Blanche absinthes are absolutely clear to the point that they are almost invisible in the glass.  

Absinthe is not intended to be drunk neat. Not only will the high alcohol content keep you from tasting the subtleties of the flavors due to the alcohol burn, but you will literally not taste most of the flavor because the botanicals are suspended in the alcohol and need to be released in a process known the "absinthe ritual" which makes the absinthe "louche" (pronounced 'loosh'). For this you'll need some very cold water and a means of dripping the water into the absinthe glass very slowly. The easiest method is to get yourself an absinthe fountain. 

Absinthe fountain with pontarlier glasses, absinthe spoons, and miniature sugar cubes.

The picture above shows an absinthe fountain full of cold, filtered water (I usually fill it with ice well ahead of time, then let the ice melt down) plus two pontarlier glasses (glasses made for absinthe with decorative markings to indicate how much absinthe to pour as well as when to stop adding water) with slotted spoons and sugar cubes. The verte is on the left and the blanche on the right. 

A word about the sugar: wormwood is one of the most bitter-tasting plants in the world. A brand that is wormwood-heavy might be unpleasantly bitter without a touch of sugar to counter it. Other brands can be drunk without sugar and still taste terrific. The addition (or not) of sugar is simply a matter of preference. When I do use sugar, I use mini-cubes rather than full-sized ones. I find that it's enough to cut the bitterness without making the drink overly sweet.  

So now that you've got your absinthe poured, you've got your spoons set, your sugar cubes placed, and some sort of means to drip the water, it's time to get this party started! 

Two-thirds done and both the verte and the blanche are already louched fully. The rest of the water is added based on individual preferences. 

As the water drips onto the sugar, the sugar dissolves and the water drips into the glass. Watch closely and you can see the drops leave trails behind them in the absinthe, eventually becoming a rolling fog that swirls in the bottom of the glass. How much water to add? Most distillers suggest anywhere from 3:1 (three parts water to one part absinthe) to 5:1 with 4:1 being fairly common. A good rule of thumb is to watch the glass. The foggy   will build at the bottom leaving a layer of un-louched absinthe on top. When that layer becomes cloudy as well, that is the minimum amount of water you should use. It will likely still be very strong at this stage, but this is the absolute least amount of water you should use. I generally go for at least one more ounce of water beyond the fully-louched stage, or more depending on the brand. You can always sneak a sip from the glass and if there's still too much burn, put it back for more water. If you accidentally get too much water, you can add in a bit more absinthe. No harm done. 

During this whole time, it's fun to sit with friends and watch the process while chatting and discussing the events of the day. This became the social craze around the turn of the century in Paris, so much so that the hour after work became known as the "green hour."  

Vieux Carré louches to a golden green

La Clandestine louches to a milky pearl with hints of blue

So what do you look for in an absinthe if you want to try it?  

[1] Price. Absinthe (even bad ones) aren't cheap. The process of making the stuff is time-consuming and expensive. Generally speaking, a 750ml bottle of real absinthe should set you back at least fifty bucks, usually more. Smaller bottles can be cheaper than that, naturally, but 750ml is a pretty standard size.  I would suggest finding a local bar that carries absinthe and trying a few brands to see what you like, but the sad reality is that most bars - unless they specialize in the stuff - have no idea how to serve it. God forbid you should get a bartender who thinks he/she is supposed to light it on fire! Never, EVER let them set fire to it, as it will ruin the flavor, burn off a lot of the alcohol, and viola! You've just paid a boatload of money for a crap drink. If you do run across a bar that serves it, see if they have several brands on hand. If they don't, you should probably wait until you find another bar, as this one likely has super-cheap stuff to use in making sazaracs or other cocktails where the quality of the absinthe is unimportant... AND they won't know how to serve it. 

[2] Look for the word "liquer" on the bottle. If it's anywhere on the label, put it back and keep looking. Absinthe is a spirit, not a liquer. What you've just got is an absinthe-flavored bottle of crap with sugar added to it. Stay away.  

[3] It should be a color found in nature. If it's a blanche, it should be crystal clear with no "floaties" in it. If it's a verte, it should be greenish, golden-green, or a brownish-green like the color of dead leaves. It should not - repeat NOT - be neon green or the color of antifreeze. Now, I should point out that there are some brands that are blanche absinthe with green coloring added and a couple of them are not bad - but generally speaking, it's best to just avoid those. The likelihood that you'll get a nasty one is pretty high.

[4] Check reviews. I usually take my iPhone into the store with me and have the browser set to The Wormwood Society review page where I can look up what people have said about a particular brand. While I often disagree with their ratings, it does help provide a second line of defense in avoiding the fake absinthes and the artificially-colored ones.  

So there you have it: a primer to discovering absinthe. Be forewarned, though: when properly prepared, you won't get much of an alcohol burn when drinking it, which lends it to be easily consumed quickly and a second glass (or third or fourth) poured immediately after. Make yourself sip it and savor the nuances of the flavor. Not only will your enjoyment increase as you notice the slight changes in flavor as the drink warms to room temperature, but it will prevent you from slamming three or four glasses of 140 proof alcohol before the first one kicks in. If you've had three by the time the first one grabs hold, then you're going to be in the company of The Green Fairy for awhile, want to or not!