What is absinthe?
Illicit, mystical, hallucinatory. Absinthe has a colourful history of sex, violence, and artistic clarity. The spirit gets its name from Artemisia Abenthium, a perennial herb commonly known as wormwood, and is often flavoured with other botanicals including sweet anis and fennel. It’s been said to be hallucinogenic (although that may just be the incredibly high alcohol content, between 45 and 70%), increase sexual desire (not if you’re too drunk on absinthe we imagine), and to fight infection. During the 1800’s it was bestowed with medicinal properties by French doctors who prescribed absinthe as antimalarial to returning soldiers from Algeria and then popularity as a drink of the middle and upper classes grew as it became commercialised across Switzerland, France and the rest of Europe.
Who’s the Green Fairy then?
During La Belle Epoque of France, it became the beverage of choice for bohemian artists and poets of the time. Everyone from Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso to Toulouse-Lautrec and Ernest Hemingway would sip the vivid drink while discussing art, literature and politics in French cafes, bistros and music halls.
Artists claimed creative epiphanies after drinking absinthe, claiming they created some of their best work inspired by the visions seen while on a a night out with the green fairy. It’s most likely however this was due to the immensely high alcohol content and therefore a very severe hangover. The nickname La Fee Verte came from the intense colour and the supposed hallucinogenic properties of the drink which came from the chemical compound thujone. The myth was so widely accepted that absinthe makers began branding the bottles with the mischievous spirit which only added to the mystique of the drink.
Why is absinthe green?
When absinthe is distilled it is initially clear and is known as White Absinthe or “Blanche”. It’s only during a second round of distillation, when the chlorophyll-rich botanicals are added, that the iconic shade of green becomes apparent.
There are other versions on the market that add addictive flavourings and artificial colourings to achieve that green colour but traditionalists will argue these are poor imitations as they are unlikely to have the same depth of flavour.
Was absinthe actually banned?
It was actually not banned in the UK, it simply fell out of favour but as the First World War began it was outlawed in France, banned in the US in 1912 and then many other European countries followed. It was blamed for society’s problems of increased debauchery, a rise in admissions to mental asylums and even outright murder when Swiss labourer Jean Lanfray shot his pregnant wife and two children in a drunken rage on August 28th, 1905. Despite having also drunk copious amounts of wine, brandy, creme de menthes and cognac on that day, it was the two glasses of absinthe that he’d consumed that shouldered the blame. Within days a petition to ban absinthe in Switzerland gained over 80,000 signatures and moral panic escalated so much that that it was banned in Switzerland in 1908.
How to serve absinthe like you’re in a Parisian jazz cafe:
As mentioned, absinthe is bottled with an incredibly high alcohol content so is never intended to drink neat and definitely not as a shot. The purist technique is to balance a decorative absinthe spoon over a glass with a sugar cube on top, and slow drip iced water over the top. The correct ratio is anywhere from 3:1 to 5:1 water to absinthe but will vary depending on preference. Traditionally in Parisian cafes, a water fountain with four taps would have been set up at the centre of the table among four patrons. Each person could then control the flow and quantity of water to their liking.
The less traditional yet no doubt more dramatic technique was popularised by the Czechs whereby the drinker douses the sugar cube on the decorative spoon with absinthe. After the flame goes out, the sugar is stirred into the absinthe and ice water poured on top. As absinthe is highly flammable this can be incredibly dangerous, we certainly wouldn’t recommend it and prefer ours the traditional way. That way we can picture ourselves in a little cafe by the Seine with fellow artists.
Of course, there are also a number of elaborate cocktails that use absinthe, including the Sazerac, Death in the Afternoon and the Corpse Reviver!
Please Drink Responsibly and follow the instructions and serving guidelines on your bottle of absinthe.