THE GREEN FAIRY
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.