Long the stuff of myth and legend, absinthe is enjoying a resurgence in popularity across the globe. Join the ranks of great absinthe drinkers like Hemingway and Van Gogh in search of the Green Fairy and find out if there is any truth to the lore.
By RK Gella
She was the muse of a generation. Charged with captivating the minds of geniuses and enslaving the souls of poets, lore brands her an accomplice to van Gogh's affliction, an influence upon Wilde's ardor and an enchantress over 19th century Bohemian Paris.
Absinthe. Hemingway curled his lips around glasses of it before he made his run with the bulls, and poet Arthur Rimbaud characterized it as “The most delicate, the most precarious adornment, to be drunk on the magic of that herb from the glaciers, absinthe! But only to lie down afterward in shit!”
And now, after nearly a century in exile, Rimbaud's sentiments are easily tested, as the Green Fairy, banished by governments and pursued by intellectuals, has made a return to bar menus and retail shops around the world, regaining prominence as the queen of the forbidden spirits.
The Young Pixie
To understand absinthe and the hysteria that surrounds it, one must first peel away the layers of myth to find the truth. Once promoted as a medical elixir, deemed a cure all by its practitioners, modern absinthe, or the substance we have come to recognize as such, originated in Couvet, Switzerland in the late 18th century. Although the complete origins are disputed, Dr. Pierre Ordinaire is attributed perhaps the oldest patented recipe, labeled la Fee Verte (the green fairy).
The core make-up of absinthe involves grand wormwood, green anis and florence fennel, sometimes denoted as the “holy trinity.” The use of such ingredients constitutes the spirit's prevalent anise (black licorice) and herbal qualities, of which many find unappealing. However, it isn't the spirits unique flavor that imbibers find most curious, but the effect.
Will I hallucinate? Will I become an addict? Will I lose my mind?
The vilification of absinthe not only fortified the legend but resulted in its eventual demise come the early 20th century. By 1915 the United States and most European countries had banned the substance, denoting it a social ill and a harmfully addictive psychoactive drug.
The Resurrection of The Green Fairy
The blame was put onto the base component, grand wormwood. Critics and detractors alleged that the presence of thujone (a chemical found in the wormwood plant) had the equivalent affect on human receptors as that of a psychedelic drug. Recent tests have proven this inconclusive, and many reports have opposed previous theories, noting that the presence of thujone in absinthe is too nominal to cause any psychedelic reaction.
So are the anecdotes involving the potency of the mysterious liquid a complete canard, exaggerations built upon a ruse?
Possibly, but hardly, the alcohol itself is quite potent rendered usually around 120 to 140 proof and even if not psychedelic or hallucinogenic (and realize the mass consumption of any high proof spirit will manifest some type of hallucination) there is something quite curious about the buzz.
Absinthe appreciators often refer to it as a “clear minded drunk.” As alcohol is a depressant, the numerous herbs used in absinthe often work as a stimulant, leaving the imbiber the feeling of being lucid minded although physically inebriated. This sensation is often misdiagnosed as being high, when in fact it's just another form of drunkenness.
Interest in the spirit reemerged in the 90's, and a cult market was born via the Internet. That was until late 2007, when the Unites States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau lifted stringent restrictions allowing the substance to be sold within state borders.
Although the tight bans were relaxed, the regulations on what brands could and would be sold were closely observed. The first to be distributed with state boarders was Lucid, a French product, followed by Kubler, then St. George. Today, there are more than a dozen brands on the market with plenty more to be launched in the next few years.
The Modern Woman
In less than a year, the market has been saturated with absinthe, with consumers able to choose from several different styles including verte, blanche, absenta, and bohemian.
Lucid, ALC 65% by Vol., France, classified as an Absinthe Superieure, it was the first to hit the US market. Although slightly more astringent than its competitors it has a good blend of green anise and sweet fennel.
St. George, ALC 60% by Vol., US, it is the first legally made U.S. absinthe since 1912, and is a product of superior craftsmanship. The woody aromas mixed with delicate vanilla and coriander makes this a wonderful sipper.
Pernod Fils, ALC 65% by Vol. France, before 1915 this was the most popular brand of absinthe using Dr. Ordinaire's secret recipe.
Mansinthe, ALC. 66.6% by Vol. Switzerland, from anti-Christ superstar, Marylin Manson, this potent version is slowly entering the states. Its marketability is more a product of Manson's notoriety than quality.
Drinking with the Goddess
The spectacle of absinthe is also in the ritual of its consumption. A slotted spoon, or “absinthe spoon” is placed over the glass containing the spirit. Then a sugar cube is placed onto the spoon as water is poured over the cube into the glass. The absinthe will then turn from a green (or clear) liquid into a milky, pearly white liquid referred to as the louche.
The addition of water is necessary to dilute the spirit and to activate botanical aromas that might have been lost with the high degree of alcohol. It should be left to the drinker to decide how much water he or she takes.
Often, although not traditional, fire is added to the process. The burning of the sugar cube provides another nuance to the drink. In this case the absinthe is poured over the sugar cube into the glass. The cube is then ignited, after which the water is added.
Despite the influx of brands hitting the market and its popularity in mixology circles, most of the general public is still naïve to absinthe. Although freed from her bottle, time will tell if the Green Fairy has come in a resurrection of Bohemia or in a futile attempt to conjure a hedonistic fad passed its prime.