What is Absinthe and how is it made?
Generally people use the word “Absinthe” to refer to a strongly flavored and potent liquor made from, with, or flavored by wormwood. Absinthe is actually literally the French word for wormwood. It was originally a herbal elixir, a form of natural medicine, and became quite popular as an aperitif, or spirit to open the stomach before a meal. It is also known as “the Green Fairy”.
Unlinke many other types of spirits, most countries have no legal definition for absinthe. As a result, producers and purveyors can label a product as “absinthe” or “absinth” without meeting any defining standards. This has been the cause of many of the spirits issues and stumbling blocks, even leading to it’s nearly worldwide ban. It is believed by many that reports of it’s toxic and hallucinogenic effects were due to the inexpensive but toxic substances being used. In the 19th century, various herbal extracts such as oil of wormwood, impure alcohol, and even poisonous chemical colorants, like copper, were being added to produce more profitable versions of the drink.
Popularized in modern culture through various books including several of Ernest Hemingway’s writings and movies, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula, From Hell, and Moulin Rouge (which includes a psychedelic scene involving “the green fairy”), the legend of Absinthe has been carried on throughout, and perhaps partially because of, its ban.
Absinthe is made by mixing a cocktail of herbs and botanicals (traditionally a maceration of wormwood with the likes of anise, hyssop, licorice, fennel, peppermint, coriander, and lemon balm) in alcohol, using one of two basic methods. Distillation sees the herbs being mashed and mixed with the bases before and during. Cold mixing adds herbs and allows them to infuse the spirit after the distillation process is complete. Very few modern distilleries produce absinthe equal to pre-ban spirits. this is simply due to the fact that the recipes and techniques have been lost to time and the true craft of creating absinthe is still being re-learned.
Is Absinthe legal?
Disclaimer: Our focus is on the legality of Absinthe in the United States because thats where we are based, if you are living in another country please check your laws locally because we didn’t. If you drink illegally and get busted, it’s not our fault.
Absinthe was banned throughout most of Europe and the Americas for several decades – it was never banned in the United Kingdom, Czech Republic or Spain.
The French brand “Lucid” became the first genuine absinthe since 1912 to be approved for import into the United States. A few years later in December 2007, St. George Absinthe Verte, produced by St. George Spirits, became the first American absinthe brand since the ban was placed.
On March 5th 2007 (a day now known as “National Absinthe Day”), the United States lifted their 95 year ban on absinthe, with some very important limitations. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (The TTB for the sake of expediency) stated in the new law that:
The product must be thujone-free. (Thujone is a naturally occurring chemical by product of wormwood distillation, and the compound in absinthe believed to cause hallucinations.)
The word “absinthe” can neither be the brand name nor stand alone on the label.
The packaging cannot “project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic, or mind-altering effects.”
American absinthe drinkers can also legally buy true, thujone containing, wormwood based absinthe online, and it is generally legal to import provided it is not intended to be sold.
What does Absinthe taste like?
Traditional absinthe is very strong. Wormwood is quite bitter, and additional herbs are used to improve and mask the bitter taste of absinthe, sometimes resulting in a sinus clearing astringent quality that derives from the many herbs used in its creation. Generally high quality absinthe has a slighty bitter taste, with herbal and sometimes floral notes. Though generally heavily scented and flavored with anise and the licorice like flavors, there are several brands of absinthe that are made without the herbs that create the licorice flavor.
What’s the “right way” to drink Absinthe?
Those who know us know we are suckers for a good ritual, especially if that ritual involves booze. Absinthe drinking has become one of the most well know ritualized beverage creation and consumption process ever.
The traditional French preparation involves placing a sugar cube on top of a specially designed spoon or palate with holes in the bottom, and placing that spoon on a glass partially filled with absinthe. Iced water is slowly poured or dripped over the sugar cube to mix into the absinthe. The mix causes the absinthe to “bloom” releasing the aromas and flavors in the spirit, and becoming cloudy and milky (this is known as louching). The resulting mix (I hesitate to use the work cocktail) is usually about 1 part absinthe and 3-5 parts water.
This process was so popular that “absinthe fountains” were created, generally a vessel of water on a stand with adjustable flow spouts around it. This allowed several drinkers to louche their absinthe glasses at once in an early form of bottle service.
The more recently developed “Bohemian method” involves lighting the drink on fire! A small amount of high proof alcohol is added to the sugar cube before placing it on the spoon and lighting it. Water is then dripped onto it until the flames die, or the cube is dropped directly into the glass, resulting in a flaming shot. Many connoisseurs of absinthe suggest that this is completely improper as it doesn’t allow the sprit to open, can negatively affect the flavor of the absinthe.
In addition to being prepared with sugar and water, absinthe is sometimes used as in ingredient in cocktails most famously the “Death in the afternoon” one of Hemingways favorite’s that is a simple but elegant mix of absinthe and champagne. There are also many drinks, such as the “corpse reviver” and “sazerac”, that use trace amounts of absinthe in the form of rinses or finishing sprays.
Is Absinthe a hallucinogen?
In short, no, absinthe does not cause hallucinations, at least not with any more frequency than any other high proof alcohol.
The “absinthe effect” is sometimes described as an hallucination. This is not actually the case, the effect on the absinthe drinker has been defined as follows: “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.” However, there is debate that the push and pull effect of the cocktail may simply be the result of a mixture of depressant and stimulant herbs.
The chemical thujone in true absinthe can, in large doses, alter the GABA brain receptors that control the muscles and nervous system. In 2000 a University of California study showed a connection between alpha-thujone and nervous system excitation, causing muscles spasms, convulsions and seizures. It seems that thujone has an opposite effect to alcohol and may account for the effects described above. Though thujone can be derived from wormwood, other herbs, such as sage, contain much higher, potentially toxic, concentrations.
Is Absinthe an Aphrodisiac?
Absinthe is claimed to have an impact on the drinker’s senses, increasing their sensitivity. “[After drinking absinthe] all sensations are perceived by all senses at once,” wrote a French doctor in the late nineteenth century. More recently, Paula Manners, an English holistic health practitioner, said “Imagine living your life in black and white, in a world where you don’t even have any concept of colour. You just don’t know what colour is, all you know is shades of grey. Then, imagine your whole world suddenly brightened up with greens and reds and yellows and blues — how would that feel? This is what absinthe does to your senses, all five of them. Now imagine how this translates into the bedroom.”
So, maybe not an aphrodisiac in the purest sense because it likely would not heighten the desire for sex, but if these claims are true, then it could be assumed that intimacy would be enhanced by consuming absinthe.