All about absinthe, the most mysterious of spirits, and how best to drink it

The highly alcoholic drink was touted as a cure-all in the 18th century, became the bohemian’s favourite tipple, and was banned in 1914 before a rebirth in the 1990s. So what’s all the fuss about?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 April, 2016, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 April, 2016, 5:01pm

No other alcoholic drink is as mysterious as absinthe. It is named for Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood, a shrub whose flowers and leaves are included.

Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (936-950) mentions a drink containing wormwood, which was prescribed to children and served in a cup rimmed with honey to make it more palatable. It also names a wormwood-flavoured wine, absinthites oinos. There are records of medical wormwood from ancient Egypt, found in the Ebers Papyrus from 1550BC.

Today’s absinthe began in the 18th century as a distilled sprit using anise and fennel. It was created in the fertile valleys of Switzerland – a village called Couvet in Val-de-Travers – an ideal location as it was also home to many of the botanical plants used in the liqueur, especially its key ingredient, wormwood. An “extrait d’absinthe” was a popular local remedy made by a Madame Henriod; a bottle in the Neuchatel Museum reads “Extrait d’Absinthe Qualite Superieure, de l’unique recette de M’elle Henriod de Couvet”. Two people who visited Couvet during the late 1760s were fans of Madame Henriod’s absinthe – Major Dubied, who went on to create his own version under the name Dubied Pere et Fils in 1797 with his son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod, and who paid royalties to Madam Henriod, and a Doctor Ordinaire who was rather controversial as he tried to take Madame Henriod’s absinthe recipe as his own. Dubied Pere et Fils went on to become Maison Pernod Fils in France.

Absinthe became widely embraced by the French, and 5pm became known as “l’heure verte” – the green hour, which was the 1860s version of happy hour.

Absinthe was exported internationally, and in New Orleans the first absinthe cocktail was created – the Sazerac, made with absinthe, rye whiskey, sugar and Peychaud’s bitters.

Artists and writers from the late 1800s onwards who made it part of their bohemian culture include Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Edgar Allan Poe and Lord Byron.

Absinthe in the 1800s had an ingredient that was considered a hallucinogen – thujone, although was present in only trace amounts. It was this ingredient, a murder and the burgeoning temperance movement which led to it being banned by 1915 in much of Europe and of course in the US.

In 1905 Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer, murdered his family and tried to take his own life after drinking absinthe. The fact that he was an alcoholic who consumed a huge amount of wine and brandy prior to the absinthe was glossed over in the effort to ban the spirit in Switzerland, which came into effect in 1908.

The prohibition of absinthe led to the popularity of pastis and other anise-based spirits that do not contain wormwood. Pernod Fils revived itself after the first world war in Spain where absinthe was still legal but declining sales led to the closure of the distillery in the 1960s. In France, Pernod Fils became Pernod Ricard and made pastis.

The resurrection of absinthe began in the 1990s when a British importer realised that the UK had never officially banned the spirit and began importing it from the Czech Republic. In 2000 La Fee Absinthe became the first commercial French absinthe made since the 1914 ban – it was originally made only for export. Lucid, another French absinthe, received approval for import into the US in 2007. In the same year, St George Absinthe Verte became the first legal American-made absinthe.

Absinthe’s green colour comes from the chlorophyll extracted from the herbs during the secondary maceration. Botanicals can include grande and petite wormwood, hyssop, melissa, green anise, fennel, peppermint, star anise and coriander (ingredients vary).

There are many ways to enjoy absinthe. The classic French method is to place a sugar cube on a slotted spoon over a glass containing a measure of absinthe. Iced water is slowly poured over the sugar which dissolves, sweetening and diluting the drink to about one third to one fifth. The water turns the drink cloudy, which is called la louche – this occurs because some of the ingredients (anise, fennel and star anise) have poor water solubility. This releases the herbal essences and brings out the aromas.

The “bohemian” method follows the French set-up, but the sugar cube is lightly soaked with absinthe and set on fire. The flaming sugar cube is dropped into the glass, where it ignites the absinthe, then iced water douses the flames. Surprisingly, this makes the absinthe stronger.

I like using absinthe in place of vermouth in a martini. I have named this the “novocaine martini”. I do not recommend more than one, after making a dear friend drink two. By the time we were ready to eat dinner, she had fallen asleep at the table.