Absinthe: An Appreciation and History

I'm looking at you.

Before I even entered the bar, things had stopped making sense. I thought it was going on 10:00 when we left my stately manor, but as we walked up to the door, K informed me that it was actually only 6:30. An icy drizzle had started slicking the streets and the temperature was dropping rapidly. It was with no small relief that we tumbled through the door and made our way to our usual seats. I motioned to the bartender for two glasses of absinthe and she nodded knowingly. The excitement was welling up in me as I thought about how not that long ago, drinking absinthe was only done on my occasional forays north of the border, the rare bottle smuggled in at risk of life and limb, or my occasional international ColuMn-related business trips. But here I was, in Seattle, sitting down to a glass of authentic, honest-to-Megan Fox absinthe. Whatever the rest of the evening held, I knew it would at least be interesting.

I can’t pinpoint when I first became aware of the existence of absinthe. It wasn’t really on my radar until sometime around the dawn of the new millennium. I’d heard the same stories everybody hears. I recall stories about the artsy types that drank it, like Van Gogh (who supposedly cut off his ear in an absinthe-induced mania). We’ve all heard the rumors of madness and savagery and the alleged hallucinatory effects surrounding the drink. Were the stories true? Would but a small sip lead to a life of shamelessness, debauchery, and barbarism cut short by liver failure? I had to find out for myself.

Much like almost everything else having to do with absinthe, its origins are a mixture of myth and fact. Credit is generally given to Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a Frenchman living in Switzerland sometime around 1792. Ordinaire created absinthe as an all-purpose medicinal remedy. The recipe was passed around, and in 1797 a Major Dubied opened the first absinthe distillery.

Absinthe is traditionally distilled and highly alcoholic. (90 – 150 proof). It’s an anise-flavored liquor (not a liqueur) derived from herbs, including the flowers and leaves of the herb “Artemisia absinthium”, also known as wormwood. Often referred to as “the Green Fairy”, absinthe has a natural green color, but can also be colorless.

One absinthe recipe contains large dry and clean wormwood, dry hysope flower, melisse citonnee dry, crushed green anis, and lots of alcohol.   It is the wormwood that contains thujone, a monoterpenoid ketone consisting of two isomers, alpha and beta, that exist in varying ratios in different plants. Thujone is the substance said to cause the hallucinatory effects of absinthe, which we will discuss a bit later. While its content is strictly regulated in absinthe by the U.S. government (absinthe imported to the United States must contain less than 10 ppm of thujone), it is believed to be widely used in products such as Vicks Vap-o-rub.

The first time I experienced absinth* was as a birthday present from M and C They gave me a bottle of absinth, an absinthe spoon, and sugar cubes. The brand was the Czech Republic’s Hill’s Absinth, which is 70% alcohol (140 proof). The directions on the bottle state:

The Czech Method by Hill's Absinth

This, I later learned, is known as the Czech Method and generally frowned upon by absinthe aficionados, if for no other reason than pouring absinth around an open flame can be dangerous.

The first thing you notice, of course, is the color, which in Hill’s case was an almost ethereal greenish blue. Next, you get a sniff of the liquor. It has a very strong licorice taste, similar in some respects to Jägermeister.  As I drained one glass and filled another, the effects began to set in.  By the time the second glass was a memory, I was well under the spell of the Green Fairy.

I understand how the effect can be described as an hallucination.  But that’s not a precisely correct description.  It is, as has been described elsewhere, more of a clear-headedness; a clarity of not only vision, but thought. Perceptions seem to be sharpened.  While you might not be hallucinating images that aren’t there, the images that are there seem to be somehow enhanced — more vibrant.  It’s very much a hyper-aware altered state of inebriation.

Myths and misunderstandings have plagued absinthe since its initial banning in the early 20th century (1912 in the United States, 1915 in France). Absinthe had been nefariously associated with violent crime, perversion, and insanity by industries and politicians that had an interest in criminalizing it, and one by one countries began to ban its importation.

By the 1990s, absinthe had begun a resurgence when importer BBH Spirits realized that there was no law in the United Kingdom prohibiting the sale of absinthe and began to import Hill’s Absinth from the Czech Republic.  In March of 2007, two brands of absinthe, Lucid and Kübler, became the first genuine absinthes legally imported into the United States since 1912.

The Rendezvous, Seattle

I didn’t discover that the ban had essentially be lifted until late 2008, when I chanced upon something called Lucid Absinthe at the Seattle establishment, The Rendezvous.  I ordered a glass, thinking it would be a pale wormwood-free imitation, but was pleasantly surprised by its apparent authenticity.  On that first visit I’d failed to notice the method that they’d used to prepare the spirit, but on my next visit saw that they had a strange apparatus that I’d never seen before.

A Different Apparatus

When I returned some weeks later, I was saddened to hear that the apparatus had broken and I was denied my green elixir.  The next few weeks I was out of town on official ColuMn business, but the absinthe was never far from my mind.  When I returned, I made a beeline for the bar and ordered a glass.  I was elated when the bartender hauled out the old-fashioned, tried and true, absinthe spoon.

Spoon and glass

At first, I was confused, though.  Why weren’t they lighting the sugar cube on fire?  This was my first exposure to the French Method.

The French Method by Lucid

I was particularly pleased to learn the absinthe-specific verb, louche, which, as the label states, refers to the absinthe coalescing “into an opalescent cloud.”

So here I am again.  Friday night and it’s gotten even colder outside.  The frigid wind blasts into the bar whenever somebody enters or leaves.  The rain is starting to turn to snow, but I’m not overly concerned.  I planned ahead to cab it home tonight and Christ!  it’s only 7:30 anyway.  K hoists the special absinthe glass and offers a toast.

Our glasses clink together and then the Green Fairy is fluttering her way down my throat and warming me from the inside out.  Things are suddenly starting to make all sorts of sense and everything comes into focus. We know one thing for sure.  It’s definitely going to be an interesting night.  It has to be.  We’re drinking absinthe.


The Green Fairy


*Absinth (no “e”) is produced in the Czech Republic.  These absinths generally contain little to no anise, fennel, or other herbs normally found in traditional absinthe.  The do, however, share wormwood and high alcohol content with traditional absinthe.  I have attempted to draw a distinction between the two products by following the traditional methods of spelling each.


REFERENCES

Wikipedia

The Absinthe Buyer’s Guide

Lucid Absinthe Website

LINKS

The Wormwood Society

Seattle Times Article 2/27/08

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5 thoughts on “Absinthe: An Appreciation and History

  1. cmsof had to attend another of his lavish parties, but I know he put a lot of hard work into the article. If you’re of legal drinking age, you should definitely give the Green Fairy a shot.

  2. cmsof: A well written article. So much so that I could feel your descriptions, especially the warmth of the absinthe and the frigid blast of air when the door to the bar opened. And I’m not even tripping!

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