Absinthe is a powerful clear or green liquor redolent of a complex mix of botanicals, primarily anise. More on varieties and production later. First, let's appreciate the very rough century this spirit endured.
Absinthe's Wild Ride:
Medical uses of Absinthe's defining ingredient, wormwood, date back to ancient Egypt. Wormwood extracts were also used by the ancient Greeks.
French doctor Pierre Ordinaire made a green anise and fennel spirit while living in Switzerland in the late 18th century. Henri-Louis Pernod acquired the recipe and opened the first recorded absinthe distillery.
The spirit's popularity grew in 19th century. In the 1840s French troops drank absinthe to prevent malaria. They returned home with a craving for the stuff. Five o'clock became known as l'heure verte (the green hour). Absinthe quickly became the favorite tonic for rich and poor alike.
Soon it was exported from France and Switzerland to Spain, Great Britain, USA and beyond. Famous artists and authors such as Arthur Rimbaud, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso became synonymous with "the green fairy.
As the creative world embraced absinthe, the Temperance Movement was tiring of it. Films and literature portrayed the spirit as a mind-altering hallucinogen. Modern science has found no truth to these accusations, but the public believed them.
In 1906 Belgium and Brazil banned absinthe. Next the Netherlands, Switzerland, USA and France followed along. The rest of the world either distrusted it or outlawed it as well.
Emerging from Prohibition:
In the 1990s, realizing absinthe had been falsely accused, nations lifted their bans and remembered it's awesome. Czech, Spanish and Portuguese brands enjoyed greater popularity. French, Swiss and US distilleries popped up. Brands such as Pernod flourished once again.
The French and Czech Methods:
How do you drink the stuff the old school way? You'll need a perforated absinthe spoon, a sugar cube and a goblet. Pour a shot of absinthe into the glass. Place the spoon across the rim of the glass and the cube upon the spoon.
When you add water to absinthe, the louche effect occurs. Oils in the liquor form an emulsion, creating a cloudy appearance and fully releasing the flavor. The French Method capitalizes on this.
Very slowly, pour ice cold water over the sugar cube. The sugar will melt, balancing the bitter flavor of the spirit. The drink will become cloudy. Remove the spoon and enjoy.
The Czech Method is more dramatic. Pour a little absinthe on the cube and light it. The sugar will caramelize, also softening the bite of absinthe.
Types and Styles:
Absinthe is known as the "green fairy" from its vibrant color. Classic absinthe production is similar to gin. A grain or grape spirit is mixed with macerated botanicals then redistilled. The traditional green style is made by steeping additional fresh botanicals in the distillate.
When absinthe went underground, the secondary maceration was skipped. The clear "white absinthe" was easier to smuggle. Cheap absinthe, like cheap gin, begins with a neutral spirit. Herbal extracts are added, resulting in a harsher and less authentic product.
Has any other spirit ever received such rude treatment? Prohibition in the US was non-discriminatory. All alcohol was banned. Yet absinthe somehow made most of the world fear and exclude it. Today it's finally on the rebound.