Not just an in­cred­i­bly po­tent drink, ab­sinthe is an enigma, draped in mys­tery and more than a hint of naugh­ti­ness


Not just an in­cred­i­bly po­tent drink, ab­sinthe is an enigma

Ab­sinthe isn’t just a liquor, and the Green Fairy isn’t just an­other name for it. The name ab­sinthe it­self is suf­fused with no­to­ri­ety, se­duc­tion and all that’s enig­matic, de­bauched, he­do­nis­tic and free-spir­ited of belle époque France. It was the drink of choice of Europe’s first hip­pies—the bo­hemi­ans of 19th cen­tury France—in­clud­ing the likes of Os­car Wilde, Ernest Hem­ing­way, Arthur Rim­baud, Charles Baude­laire, Vin­cent Van Gogh, who lived for a while in Paris for their art and turned to ab­sinthe for in­spi­ra­tion. Sip­ping at her “green dis­tort­ing pools”, as Baude­laire put it—some­times along with hashish or opium—po­ets and painters cre­ated art ded­i­cated to ab­sinthe. Visi­ta­tions by the Green Fairy had the power to trans­form their minds, turn their souls out, morph them into seers, be­stow them vi­sions, black­outs, and give their art not just life but alchemy. So pop­u­lar was ab­sinthe in Paris then that the magic hours be­tween five and seven o’clock be­came known as the Green Hour, when peo­ple slinked into cafes to im­bibe.

So what is this that moved a gen­er­a­tion and in­spired Cu­bism, Sur­re­al­ism, Im­pres­sion­ism and other great move­ments? It is a strong, anise-flavoured spirit, tra­di­tion­ally made with grand worm­wood and flavoured with other herbs such as anise, fen­nel and hys­sop. Its dis­tinc­tive green colour comes from chloro­phyll leached out from the herbs. Not sur­pris­ingly, it is also a mind-numb­ingly po­tent drink, with an al­co­holic con­tent rang­ing from 40 per cent for lower grade ab­sinthes to over 70 per cent for fine bot­tles. A lit­tle goes a very long way. Ab­sinthe is graded ac­cord­ing to its al­co­hol con­tent: the high­est grade is ab­sinthe suisse which con­tain 68 to 72 per cent al­co­hol; then comes demi-fine with 50 to 68 per cent al­co­hol; then or­di­naire with 45 to 50 per cent. It was first made as a medic­i­nal tonic in the Val-de-Travers re­gion of Switzer­land where worm­wood abound.

The cru­cial in­gre­di­ent of worm­wood is known to con­tain a some­what toxic chem­i­cal called thu­jone—known to in­duce hal­lu­ci­na­tions and con­vul­sions when con­sumed in large quan­ti­ties. While it is tan­ta­lis­ing to think it might be the root of all ab­sinthe’s naugh­ti­ness and psy­che­delic hal­lu­ci­na­tions, thu­jone oc­curs in such small quan­ti­ties as to cause lit­tle dis­tur­bance. In fact, what is more likely to have sparked the vi­sions and dream states is hav­ing con­sumed nu­mer­ous shots of the liquor.

But ab­sinthe was not made to be drunk neat in a pa­rade of shot glasses. In­stead, the way to en­joy ab­sinthe in its most ele­men­tal is to di­lute it in wa­ter at a ra­tio of one mea­sure of ab­sinthe to four or five mea­sures of wa­ter. The rit­ual of do­ing so is called la louche. At its most elab­o­rate, louch­ing is done us­ing an ab­sinthe foun­tain, usu­ally beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated and fit­ted with sev­eral taps drip­ping wa­ter to di­lute the ab­sinthe in glasses be­low. Sugar can be added for those who like to take the edge off the bit­ter herbal taste. To do so re­quires cer­e­mony too: bal­ance an ab­sinthe spoon across the mouth of the glass and place a sugar cube on the spoon. Let the wa­ter drip from the foun­tain onto the sugar, thus dis­solv­ing the crys­tals into the ab­sinthe be­low. All this rit­ual adds a touch of spec­ta­cle and sense of oc­ca­sion to what is re­ally a sim­ple act. But aes­thet­ics and cer­e­mony lie at the heart of the true ab­sinthe ex­pe­ri­ence, for there is yet an­other en­joy­ment to be had in the louch­ing rit­ual.

As wa­ter drips into the liquor, it releases the es­sen­tial oils of the herbs, pre­sent­ing

a spec­ta­cle as the emer­ald spirit turns slowly into a milky, light opales­cent green. This is not to be rushed. For aes­thetes among us, the trans­for­ma­tion also sym­bol­ises the re­lease of the ab­sinthe’s essences, where its power ap­par­ently re­sides. Then on to drink and savour. If one does not have a foun­tain, sim­ply pour wa­ter di­rectly over the sugar cube into the glass be­low—but do so very slowly. And if you pre­fer to go sug­ar­free, do so by all means. Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, flam­béing an ab­sinthe-soaked sugar cube over a shot of ab­sinthe is for ef­fect, and se­ri­ous con­nois­seurs es­chew this as noth­ing more than the­atrics.

Ab­sinthe’s pop­u­lar­ity in the 1800s was helped along by the phyl­lox­era that dec­i­mated the vine­yards of France. But it even­tu­ally fell vic­tim to its own suc­cess, for green-eyed el­e­ments re­belled against the green fairy. The anti-al­co­hol lobby that blamed ab­sinthe for a host of so­cial prob­lems even­tu­ally won, helped along by antsy wine mak­ers who saw ab­sinthe as a ri­val to their con­sumers. Ab­sinthe was banned in many Euro­pean coun­tries and in the US at the turn of the 20th cen­tury, and it wasn’t to be­come le­gal again un­til 1988. Th­ese days, ab­sinthe is made from mug­wort rather than worm­wood, though they are of the same fam­ily.

There may be few peo­ple drink­ing ab­sinthe in the tra­di­tional way now, but the green fairy is find­ing a re­vival in the craft cock­tail scene as a com­po­nent in the cock­tails. It is usu­ally in­cor­po­rated as a wash to give the cock­tail added com­plex­ity and depth. Find the spirit in pop­u­lar tip­ples like Corpse Re­viver #2, Ab­sinthe Saza­erac, Chrysan­the­mum (com­pris­ing two units ver­mouth, one unit Bene­dic­tine and a quar­ter ab­sinthe), Mon­key Gland and Hem­ing­way’s favourite Death in the Af­ter­noon. To make it at home, just fol­low his in­fa­mous in­struc­tions: “Pour one jig­ger ab­sinthe into a cham­pagne glass. Add iced cham­pagne un­til it at­tains the proper opales­cent milk­i­ness. Drink three to five of th­ese slowly.”

To this day, ab­sinthe oc­cu­pies a spe­cial place in the world of spir­its. Not just an in­cred­i­bly po­tent drink, it is an enigma, draped in mys­tery, a hint of naugh­ti­ness and sin­u­ous art nou­veau. And al­ways as­so­ci­ated with the lit­er­ary and artis­tic greats of the 19th cen­tury.

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