It is considered the scariest thing sitting behind the bartender’s head. The legends surrounding absinthe have been swirling around for generations. The ‘green fairy’ that poisons the drinker’s mind with Wormwood and causes hallucinations, wooziness and even madness. It’s even illegal, right? No, not for years. The levels of neotoxins contained in the drink and thought to affect mental cognition are too small to cause any trouble. So it’s not as dangerous as some fear, but it is still strong… and delicious! If you prepare it correctly.
WHAT IS THIS STUFF ANYWAY?
Like Coca Cola, Cornflakes and Irn-Bru (probably) absinthe may have started life as a medicinal tonic, brewed by a French doctor living in Switzerland. Though Wormwood infused wine had been in the drinks cabinets of the Ancient Greeks. It’s a flavoured spirit, featuring an infusion of herbs and flowers including sweet fennel, green anise and grande wormwood, plus a possible selection of other herbs such as hyssop, peppermint and coriander. The base ingredients will create a clear spirit (which is sold as ‘Absinthe Blanche’) but the addition of these herbs turns the concoction green and adds more flavour to the over-riding liquorice flavour of the anise. The craziness is said to derive from thujone, which is present in trace amounts. But studies have shown these tiny amounts can’t affect you and the reason people got sick and slightly deranged from absinthe abuse is because it has an incredibly strong alcohol content. Like all over-proof spirits, always drink it in reasonable amounts (and diluted but more of that later).
There is a veritable cult surrounding absinthe, with many famed artists and writers commending the spirit and claiming it inspired their work. In the late 19th Century it rose massively in popularity, especially in France, where Bohemian types quaffed it by the boatload. With all this historic significance and slavish following, lots of lovely bits and bobs have been designed to accompany the preparation of the drink. These include absinthe spoons, onto which you place your sugar cube and drop water and absinthe fountains which provide the chilled water for dilution, plus glasses and other receptacles. Obviously any self-respecting absinthe fiend needs to have all the proper equipment, to try and encourage the Green Fairy to appear.
Just like gin, you can buy ‘distilled’ and ‘compound’ absinthe, one made from scratch and the other created by steeping the ingredients in another alcohol source. Purists always pick the distilled variety. The original and the best is Pernod Absinthe, first made in 1805 and the brand that all your crazed Boho types were drinking on the Parisian boulevards during the Belle Epoque. They recently tinkered with the recipe and relaunched with a crisper taste. If you are planning to crack open a very special absinthe for a christening or successful parole hearing, Professor Cornelius Ampleforth produces a cold-distilled variety (at a hot hot price) which contains lemon and orange peel for extra tang. And for a good starter absinthe, pick Le Fee, the one with the slightly disturbing eye on the label that you’ve seen staring at you from bartenders’ shelves.
There is a simple adage that you can apply to absinthe drinking. Don’t over-complicate it. But then again, don’t underthink it either. When absinthe was re-legalised in the States during the 1990’s, it was marketed as a Jager-style shot drink. Which it isn’t. In fact, that is a terrible idea, especially as most varieties have painfully high alcohol content. It needs to be diluted, with chilled water. And sweetened with sugar. That’s about it. Absinthe spoons have slots which the water sluices through as a sugar cube is held in place. But at a stretch, just use an ordinary spoon or a sieve or fish slice. Add 30ml of absinthe to a glass, place your spoon-like device across the rim of the glass, then very pure, very cold water is dripped over the sugar and into the glass. Usually three to four times more water than spirit is added. The absinthe will grow cloudy (or louche) as the sugar combines with it. Once all the water is added, use the spoon to dump in the rest of the sugar and stir the mixture to dissolve everything. No ice cubes, ever.
DON’T I SET FIRE TO SOMETHING?
Yeah, nobody really knows where that came from. Possibly. some old Bohos hopped up on Wormwood just started setting fire to things because they were wasted or wanted to see some pretty flames. But setting fire to the sugar before adding it to the absinthe just burns the alcohol and effects the taste. It’s known as the Czech method, but purists don’t appreciate it.
Despite blathering on about the purity and cultish devotion to absinthe, there are some cocktails that have been deemed acceptable by the aficionados. Perhaps the most famous is Sazerac, where a very small amount of absinthe is used to coat a glass to which rye whisky, sugar and bitters are added. The Green Beast adds a dash of lime juice to the usual water and sugar combo. For traditionalists the Death in the Afternoon was devised by Hemingway himself and combines absinthe and champagne while Absinthe Suissesse adds the almond flavoured syrup orgeat plus egg white and cream to make the most decadent milkshake ever created.