Vodka

The establishment where I work has over 600 different bottles of spirits and liqueurs on our back bar. Keeping up with that kind of inventory and making sure we have backups of any bottles that are getting low is a weekly task. Those backup bottles are stored in our liquor room on a series of deep shelves, organized by spirit family. Bourbons are on the bourbon shelf, gins on the gin shelf, etc. They're all labeled pretty conventionally, with the exception of the vodka shelf, that shelf is labeled "boring".

In craft settings, we generally like the flavor of the spirit to influence the overall flavor of any drinks we're using it in, so, for a while, it was considered en vogue within the industry to have a general disdain for vodka (this trend is beginning to reverse). But there is no questioning vodka's supremacy in terms of sales. It is, by far, the most popular liquor in the world. In the US, vodka outsells gin, rum, tequila, scotch, and Irish whiskey, combined.

So why does such a popular spirt get such a bad rap from booze snobs the world over? And how is vodka different from other grain-based, high-ABV beverages like moonshine? And what's the deal with all these crazy flavored vodkas, like those made by Pinnacle? Everything you ever wanted to know about vodka, and some stuff maybe you didn't, below.

A Definition, of Sorts

Vodka is an unaged, distilled spirit comprised primarily of ethanol and water. In most countries, including the US, vodka is defined as having a "neutral" quality arising either from precise distillation or post distillation filtration resulting in a beverage without "distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." Of course, if you have ever tasted several vodkas together, you know that "neutral" is pretty loosely defined. Nearly all vodkas exhibit a subtle yet distinct flavor profile.

This is where vodka differs from other high proof grain-based liquors. Moonshine, for instance, distilled from corn (like most vodka in the US) to around 190 proof, differs from it's Slavic cousin in that the goal of the distillation isn't to create a neutral spirit, but to retain the flavor of the grain and the terroir. Moonshine isn't filtered, like vodka, or aged in oak, like other whiskeys, for the same reasons.

Vodka is traditionally made from grain or potatoes but it can be made from literally any fermentable sugar, and many vodkas in production today use fruits, beets, sugarcane, or even wood pulp as a base. The US and many other countries set a minimum threshold of 80 proof for any vodkas sold in bottles (in the EU, it must be bottled at a minimum of 75 proof). Unlike scotch or pisco, vodka can be distilled anywhere in the world. As long as it meets the legal requirements for a given country, it can be sold there as vodka regardless of where it originated.

That said, some European countries, specifically those in the vodka belt, are lobbying the EU to define vodka as a distilled alcoholic beverage made only from a base of fermented potatoes, grain, or beets. Although those lobbying efforts haven't yet resulted in any statutory changes, if they eventually succeed, vodka distilled from sugarcane or fruit could not be sold legally in the EU under the name "vodka".

The word vodka like so many other spirits (including whiskey, aquavit, eau de vie, etc.) is a derivation of the word water. In this case, it's etymological roots trace back to a diminutive form of the Slavic word for water, voda. So, vodka, translated, means little water.

Some History (Mythology)

Although there is very little in the way of a written historical record, vodka production started in the part of the world now known as the vodka belt (Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe and Russia) in what is now Poland during the early middle ages. It was originally distilled as medicine, and it's antiseptic properties are well known.

Early distillations were much cruder and lower proof than the refined spirit we drink today. With primitive still technology, three successive distillations were normally required to bring the spirit to only 80 proof, and then it was usually diluted down to around 30 proof for drinking. These distillations were not nearly as precise as those obtainable today, so the neutral quality of vodka we've come to expect wasn't there. Instead, like moonshine, those first vodkas were maltier and sweeter than today's versions.

Production, the Good

Modern vodka production couldn't be more different. For those producers who actually distill their own product (increasingly rare) the process usually takes place in a column still. Some column stills have enough chambers to bring the spirit to final proof in a single distillation but often several successive distillations are still used.

Vodka is usually distilled to around 190 proof (95% ABV). By the time the ethanol content gets that high, nearly all the congeners and flavoring compounds are gone from the spirit, but most producers in the US still filter their distillate through a variety of substances to make the final product even more neutral. Cotten, activated charcoal, paper, even diamond dust, are commonly used filtering mediums for vodka. Many traditional producers, especially those in the vodka belt nations, choose not to filter the end product, relying on multiple distillations and the skill of the distiller cutting out the heads and tails to make the spirit as neutral as possible.

Although filtration does strip out flavoring compounds, the choice of filtering agent will often impart a specific texture to the vodka. You may not notice it unless you drink it neat, but vodkas can have textures ranging from thin and crisp to oily to thick and almost creamy. This is often a product of the water chosen to bring the vodka down to final dilution as well. Even the hoses and pumps used to circulate the vodka around the distillery contribute to the texture in subtle ways. For imbibers drinking their vodka neat, the texture, or mouthfeel, is an important aspect of the taste.

Production, the Bad

For some principled producers, the description I gave above is still how it's done. But for most vodka made in the US today, and increasingly for vodkas produced in Europe as well, "distilleries" are buying bulk 190-proof ethanol from giant agribusinesses like Archer Daniels Midland. These huge conglomerates produce ethanol, usually distilled from corn, in massive quantities. All your local "craft distiller" is doing, in many cases, is diluting the ethanol down to final proof and bottling it. For this reason, I recommend that you never pay extra for a "premium" vodka if you are going to be using it in a mixed drink.

In addition, that "citrus" vodka you bought to make the best Cosmopolitan ever is likely not flavored with natural citrus but instead with chemical compounds produced in labs. You might have suspected this when you saw that perfectly clear bottle of cinnamon roll-flavored vodka on the shelf at the campus liquor store, but it's true for nearly all flavored vodkas. 

Some producers are legitimately using natural ingredients to impart flavor, and if flavored vodkas are your thing, the true examples of the form are worth checking out. Hanger 1 out of California makes an amazing mandarin orange blossom vodka that is a lot of fun to play with and Żubrówka, one of the oldest distilleries in the world, makes an incredible bison grass flavored vodka. Or, if you're truly ready to branch out, you could always opt for the original flavored vodkagin.

How to Drink Vodka

First off, other than excessively, there's no wrong way to drink vodka. It's neutral nature lends itself well for use in cocktails where you want the other flavors to dominate. And for all the flack I gave to artificially flavored vodkas above, if you're the type of person who doesn't mind putting lab chemicals into your body, there are lots of fun ways to use some of the more exotic flavored vodkas on the market.

But for me, my favorite way to drink high-quality vodkas is neat, well chilled, and undiluted. Sticking a bottle in the freezer for a few hours does a great job of bringing the spirit down to perfect sipping temperature. Drinking it in this manner allows you to savor the nuances in flavor and texture of this supposedly flavorless spirit. Try several great vodkas side by side and you'll be blown away by the liveliness and complexity of this "boring" drink.

Notes

The US definition of vodka and other spirits can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations or CFR. Specifically, Title 27, Chapter 1, Subchapter A, Part 5, Subpart C, Section 5.22. You can go here for the actual legal info.



 

Mezcal

If, Dear Reader, you are already involved in the hospitality industry, you may have been aware of a bit of a kerfuffle in the early spring of 2016 when Huffington Post published an interview with Jon Taffer (the moronic host of the ridiculous show, Bar Rescue) in which he claimed (among other imbecilic declarations) that tequila was hallucinogenic because it was derived from mescaline. As a great many important people within the industry gleefully pointed out, the two substances have nothing to do with each other.

As a supposed "expert" on all things alcohol, Taffer's gaffe is inexcusable, but for the average person who may not be as familiar with distilled spirits, the difference between mezcal, tequila, sotol, and the other distillations coming out of Mexico can be confusing. In this post we'll examine what makes these various spirits different and what makes them similar and hopefully open your tastes to a whole world of great booze beyond tequila. 

Although Mexico produces a variety of fermented beverages and spirits including rum, whiskey, and even fernet, the ones we're interested in for this post are those derived from plants in the family Asparagaceae. These include mezcal and it's various subclassifications such as mezcal, tequila, raicilla, bacanora, tuxca, and other non-mezcal spirits like sotol and comiteco. If you were reading carefully you may have noticed mezcal mentioned twice in the previous sentence, and although it may look like a typo, mezcal is actually a subcategory of mezcal, which is probably part of the reason that there is some confusion surrounding all these different spirits. To begin to clear things up, take a look at this flowchart of alcoholic products derived from plants in the family Asparagaceae.

Alcohol From Agave (5).png

All these different spirits are classified based on the type of plant used in their production, the production process, and the area of Mexico in which they are produced. Except for sotol, the principle plant used to create them is the Agave, a genus of flowering succulents with over two hundred different species and natural hybrids. The other plant of interest to us is Dasylirion wheeleri, common name Desert Spoon, which was once thought to be part of the Agave genus but has been reclassified in recent years due to DNA testing. Desert Spoon is a spiky evergreen shrub from which sotol is distilled. Since sotol is made from Desert Spoon and not an agave varietal, it is technically not mezcal (mezcal is any distillation of fermented agave piñas), however, because it was once thought to be an agave distillate, most references (and most of the people of Mexico) still consider it mezcal.

There are two ways of using the agave plant to produce alcoholic fermentations. One method is to ferment the sap of the agave (called aguamiel) and the other is to ferment the heart of the plant (called the piña). These distinct processes produce fermentations with very different tastes and the subsequent distillations are dramatically different as well.

Pulque and Comiteco

The native people of Mexico have been making pulque—sometimes referred to as Mexican mead—for over a thousand years. The milky-white drink is a viscous and slightly sour beverage made when aguamiel is fermented. If pulque is then distilled, the resulting spirit can be called comiteco. Pulque can be produced from several varietals of agave but the most common is Agave americana, or maguey. Aguamiel can only be drawn from large plants, which usually take around twelve years to mature. Once mature, the aguamiel is drawn off using taps similar to those placed into maple trees to draw off the sap that eventually becomes maple syrup. A single maguey plant will produce up to six liters of aguamiel per day and can survive for up to a year after being tapped. On average, each maguey plant produces around 600 liters of aguamiel before it dies.

Traditionally, the extracted aguamiel is taken from the field to a fermentation house called a tinacal and placed into large vats called tinas to begin the fermentation process. Unlike beer production which uses various species of yeast as the fermentation agents, pulque is fermented when a bacterium, called Zymomonas mobilis, digests the agave sugars and excretes ethanol. The fermentation is a delicate process and temperature and humidity must be carefully controlled to prevent the pulque from souring. At the height of the fermentation process, the pulque is transferred to barrels and shipped to market. It continues to ferment until consumed so it must be imbibed within a short window of time before it goes bad. The short shelf life is part of the reason it is essentially unavailable outside of Mexico. Pulque is not the only fermented agave beverage consumed in Mexico, the intermediate fermentation of the agave piñas during mezcal production, called tepache is apparently delicious as well but not usually available commercially.

Comiteco is the distillation of fermented agave sap (pulque). Beyond that, information on comiteco is hard to find. So if any of my readers have insights, please comment below and I'll incorporate any info into an updated post. From what I've been able to glean from the few Spanish-language sites that have some information on it, there doesn't seem to be a legal definition for the spirit. However, some historical norms apparently exist. To be called comiteco, the spirit must be distilled in the Mexican state of Chiapas and is traditionally derived from pulque made from Agave americana (although it appears other agave species can technically be used). Comiteco has a very different taste than mezcal but like other agave spirits, it has various aging classifications including blanco, añejo, and reserva especial. It is frequently flavored by infusing fruits such as peach, blackberry, and jobo into the final distillate. I've never tried comiteco but I would love to; my research has not turned up a single American distributor so I may just have to take a trip down to Chiapas to get the real deal.

Mezcal, the Category, Definition and Production

As I mentioned before, mezcal is both a broad category of spirits and a narrow, legally defined product. Broadly, mezcal is classified as any spirit distilled in Mexico from the heart of any species of agave. Mezcal is produced, importantly, not from the agave sap used to make pulque, but from the agave piñas themselves, it is NOT distilled pulque. By this definition, mezcal encompasses the legally defined spirits of tequila, raicilla, bacanora, tuxca, the legal subcategory mezcal, and historically speaking, sotol, as well as those agave distillations without a legal definition, usually labeled simply, "agave distillate". Because the process for making sotol is so similar to the process for making mezcal, I'm going to talk about them as if they were in the same category, even though they technically aren't.

The production of mezcal starts with the harvesting of the agave piñas (or in the case of sotol, the Desert Spoon piñas). The piña is the heart of the plant and they can weigh up to two hundred pounds. Piña means pineapple in Spanish and the hearts, without the spines, do resemble the tropical fruit. Depending on the species and the region in which they are grown, the plants reach maturity after seven to thirty years, at which point they are dug up, the spines are cut off, and they are prepared for fermentation. Depending on the variety of mezcal being produced, this means either boiling the piñas, cooking them in an oven, or roasting them in earthen pits. The process of cooking the agave piñas breaks down the complex carbohydrates within the plants cellular walls, turning them into basic starches and simple sugars that are more readily fermented. Then the piñas are ground up. For the larger operations, industrial shredders are used for this step but many mezcals come from tiny batches and in these productions, the agave hearts are ground manually with traditional horse-drawn stone wheels called tahonas. 

The grinding process extracts the juice of the piña, which is (often) combined with water and poured into large fermentation tanks where it ferments for several days. The fermented product, called tepache, is then distilled twice in either column stills for large, industrial tequila production, copper pot stills, or even traditional clay pot stills for the super small batch, artisanal distillations. In some cases, the mezcal is then aged for a period of time in oak barrels. Water is then added to bring the mezcal to final proof and the spirit is bottled.

Mezcal, the Product

Although mezcal is a broad category that encompasses all distillates derived from fermented agave piñas, for a producer to label their product, "mezcal" it must be made under certain conditions. First and foremost, it must be made in one of the eight states that have received legal status from the mezcal regulating authority of Mexico (the CRM): Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas. Oaxaca is the largest Mezcal-producing state, with roughly 80% of distillations originating there. There are over two hundred subspecies of maguey or agave and Mexican law allows any of them to be used in the production of products labeled "mezcal" as long as the varietal is not used as the primary material in other government Denominations of Origin, which means that products labeled "mezcal" cannot be distilled from Blue Agave. In practice only about 30 agave varietals are used in the production of mezcal with espadín, arroqueño, cirial, barril, mexicano, cincoañero, and tobalá being the most important.

Tequila

When it comes to agave-based distillations, there is no doubt that tequila reigns supreme, especially in the US. The United States accounts for 52% of global sales and since 2002, US domestic sales of tequila have increased by an average of 5.6% per year, making it one of the fastest growing spirits in America. Tequila is distilled from fermented agave piñas and is therefore a mezcal. But it differs from mezcal, the legally defined spirit, in several subtle ways. First, unlike the wide range of agave species that can be used to make mezcal, tequila can only be made from the Blue Agave, latin designation Agave tequilana. Tequila can only be produced in the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, and Nayarit. Jalisco is historically the most important area for tequila production and where the town of Tequila is located. Three states—Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, and Michoacan—are legally allowed to produce both tequila and mezcal. 

While most mezcals are made in small batches using traditional methods, the majority of tequila production has become fairly industrialized. The agave piñas are harvested in much the same way as they are with mezcal but that's where the similarities stop. In tequila production, the agaves are baked not in earthen pits but in large industrial pressure cooking ovens known as autoclaves (in the lowest quality tequilas, the agaves are sometimes boiled instead of baked). Cooking the agave piñas in autoclaves instead of slow roasting them in earthen pits saves tequila producers a lot of time and money and, more importantly, gives tequila a much softer, less smokey character that many people prefer. Once cooked, the piñas are shredded using industrial shredders (instead of ground using traditional tahonas) and the resulting pulp and juice is fermented in huge fermentation tanks for several days. The fermented mash is then distilled using large stainless steel or copper column stills. Column distillation is a much cheaper and faster process than the pot distillation used in most mezcal production.

Unlike mezcal, which, since 2015, must be 100% agave, tequila needs to consist of only 51% agave. This creates two broad categories of tequila: tequila mixto, and 100% agave tequila. Those tequilas designated as 100% agave must be fermented from Blue Agave grown in one of the legally defined tequila regions in Mexico but for tequila mixto, it's a bit more complicated. In mixtos, the Blue Agave can be "enhanced" with other sugars in the fermentation process up to a proportion not exceeding 49% of total reduced sugars (expressed in units of mass). Cold mixing, that is, blending 100% agave distillate with neutral cane spirit prior to bottling, is not permitted. The portion of the mixto not made from Blue Agave may not be made with sugars from any species of agave; cane sugar is usually used. Mixtos are, in general, lower in quality than tequilas that are made from 100% agave. Tequila oro (gold tequila, also called joven) is usually a mixto that has had artifical coloring or flavoring added to make it look aged. However, there are some 100% agave oro tequilas that are a blend of blanco and reposado tequilas, so not all gold tequila is necessarily artificially colored. Although tequila mixto must be produced in Mexico, the undiluted distillate can be exported in bulk to a bottling facility outside of the country where it is diluted down to final proof and bottled.

Once distilled, the tequila is either bottled immediately or aged in oak casks for a certain period of time prior to bottling. There are several legally-defined stages of aging for 100% agave tequila: blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra añejo. Blanco tequila (also called plata) is either bottled directly after distillation or rested several weeks in neutral stainless steel or glass tanks prior to bottling. This brief resting period mellows the spirit slightly, softening the alcoholic intensity. Reposado tequilas are aged in oak casks for more than two months but less than one year, añejo tequilas are aged for more than one year but less than three years in oak casks not larger than 600 liters, and extra añejo tequilas are aged for more than three years in oak casks not larger than 600 liters. All aging must take place within one of the designated tequila producing regions of Mexico and, unlike tequila mixto, all 100% agave tequilas must be diluted to final ABV and bottled in Mexico.

Raicilla

Raicilla is an agave distillation produced in the western part of the state of Jalisco. The name means, "small root" and the two agave varietals used in raicilla production are smaller than those used in other mezcals. Raicilla can be made from the pata de mula (mules foot) agave, latin designation, Agave maximiliana and the lechuguilla agave, latin designation, Agave inaequidens. Although in the past, raicilla was illegally distilled as moonshine, in recent years raicilla producers have organized themselves into a cooperative and started forming rules for what makes Raicilla a distinct mezcal. There is no official recognition of the spirit within Mexico but that will likely change in the coming years as raicilla producers gain more say in their product. The flavor of raicilla varies depending on the area of Jalisco it is produced. Mountain regions produce a spirit that tastes a bit like Sotol, it's woody, earthy, a high degree of minerality and herbaciousness with just a touch of citrus. The maritime raicillas are much more citrus forward, with bright flavors, and a touch of smoke, much like an espadín mezcal. Production methods follow those of other traditional mezcals, with the slight difference that the agave piñas are cooked in wooden ovens and then pulverized with wooden clubs instead of ground with stone wheels prior to fermentation. Once distilled, the spirit has a similar aging system to that of tequila with slight variations. Blanco raicillas spend no time in oak barrels, jovens spend less than a year, reposados age for between one and two years in oak, and añejos are aged for over two years before bottling. 

Bacanora

Bacanora is produced in the Mexican state of Sonora from the wild agave plant Yaquiana, latin designation, Agave angustifolia. It is named after the town of Bacanora and has a very similar flavor and production process to the legally defined spirit, mezcal, in which the Yaquiana piñas are roasted in earthen pits prior to fermentation. Bacanora has been a legally recognized mezcal within Mexico since 2000 but it is not internationally recognized.

Tuxca

Tuxca is a distilled spirit derived from pit roasted agaves made exclusively in the southern part of the Mexican state of Jalisco in the area around Tux. The region is located in the midst of the Trans-Mexican Volcano Belt and the soil of the area is nearly all volcanic debris high in diverse mineral content. This unique soil lends tuxca a fascinating terroir rich in minerality. Coupled with the smokiness imparted by the pit roasting of the agaves, tuxca has one of the earthiest, almost dirty (in a good way) flavor profiles of any mezcal. The spirit is not legally defined within Mexico but it is traditionally a 100% agave product made from several different agave varietals including Lineño, Ixtero Amarillo, and Cimarrón.

Other Agave Distillations

There are many other agave distillations within Mexico that don't fall within these categories. Nearly every village has a mezcalero or two making mezcal just as his ancestors have for generations, each one slightly different from anything else being made in the country. The government of Mexico has passed a few regulations for these other agave distillations that must be met if a producer wants to bottle and sell his creation. For the most part, these regulations are similar to those for tequila, with the principal requirement that the spirit be labeled simply, "agave distillation" if it isn't otherwise legally defined.

Sotol

As previously mentioned, sotol is made from Dasylirion wheeleri, not an agave varietal, and is therefore technically not a mezcal. But the agave and Desert Spoon are so closely related and the production process is so similar, that most of the people of Mexico consider it a mezcal. Sotol is produced in the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango. Desert Spoon is a smaller plant than most of the agave varietals used to produce mezcal and, as a result, each plant produces an average of one bottle of sotol (compared with five to seven bottles of mezcal per agave plant). It has been a legally defined spirit within Mexico since 2004 but it doesn't have international legal recognition.

Wrap Up

I hope that you got something out of this whirlwind overview of spirits distilled from plants in the family Asparagaceae. I covered a lot but even so, I've barely scratched the surface of this complex category. Just to help you make some sense out of all this info, I created this chart that highlights a few of the differences between all these spirits. The category reminds me a lot of rum in that, even though each distillation starts with the same essential base ingredients, they can still be so wildly different. It's fascinating to taste different mezcals side by side to see how unique each one truly is. I highly recommend you try a new one next time you're at a bar with a nice selection.

 
 

Notes

Under pressure from Taffer's people, I'm sure, Huffington Post has since removed the offensive quote from the article, so I'm posting it here for posterity. When he was asked if different kinds of alcohol affect people differently, Taffer responded, "I’m not sure if there’s a definition of one gets you angry or not, but tequila is inherently made from mezcal, which mescaline, the hallucinogenic drug is made from. So tequila can have a hallucinogenic component, you might be talking to someone who’s not there. (Laughs)"

Absinthe

There is perhaps no other spirit that has as much mystique, exaggeration, distortion, and misinformation surrounding it as absinthe. Long maligned as a hallucinogenic elixir, it was banned in the European Union and the United States for years, the only alcoholic beverage to be specifically outlawed after prohibition was repealed. As we'll learn in this post, absinthe doesn't deserve its bad rap. It's a delicious, highly complex spirit which is once again rising to prominence as a viable option for the imbibing public.

Definition and Production

Although there is no legal definition of absinthe in the United States, it is traditionally described as a high-proof (45-74% ABV) spirit distilled from a mixture of different botanicals. Historically, absinthe must include three primary botanicals: anise (star anise for lower quality absinthes and aniseed for the higher quality ones), fennel, and grand wormwood. It is this third ingredient, grand wormwood, latin designation, Artemisia absinthium, from which absinthe derives its name and it's undeserved reputation as a hallucinogenic drug. In addition to the trinity, most absinthes contain ten to twenty other herbs and botanicals that vary by brand and are typically closely guarded trade secrets.

Because it lacks a legal definition in most countries, the idea of what makes a botanical spirit a "true" absinthe is more of a question of convention and historicity than a set of laws. The production of true absinthe starts with column-distilled neutral grain or neutral grape spirit. The high-proof spirit is placed into a pot still with anise, fennel, wormwood, and lots of other macerated botanicals and allowed to steep for up to three days. Once the botanicals have infused into the spirit, the heat is turned up and the alcohol is redistilled, carrying with it many of the congeners that give absinthe its nuanced flavor.

Distillation is a key step for absinthe because of the long infusion time the herbs endure. During the infusion step, many of the botanicals impart very bitter compounds into the spirit, but because they typically have higher boiling points than some of the more desirable compounds, they do not transfer to the distilled hearts of the final product. Some producers will add a second infusion step after the primary distillation. The upshot is that absinthe is not only an infusion but a distillation. It can't be produced by simply macerating botanicals and steeping them in high proof spirit. If you've ever had a very bitter "absinthe", it probably wasn't distilled.

Unlike cognac or mezcal, absinthe doesn't have to be produced in a specific local, it can be distilled anywhere in the world. As long as it uses the botanical trinity and is bottled at a high enough proof, it can be considered a "true" absinthe. Also, true absinthe is not a liqueur but a spirit, meaning that it is not bottled with added sugar.

(Non)hallucinogenic Properties

Just to get the main point of misinformation out of the way first, absinthe does not contain, nor has it ever contained, any hallucinogenic compounds. Although thujone, a volatile organic oil imparted in low quantities by the grand wormwood in the distillate, is a neurotoxin, it is not hallucinogenic and at the levels found in a typical glass of absinthe, you would need to quickly drink around 73.7 gallons of absinthe to die of thujone poisoning. Not that it matters because you would have been dead of alcohol poisoning long before (by around the seventh, 1½ oz shot). And, if you somehow managed to survive the alcohol poisoning, since it only takes 5 liters (1.32 gallons) of water to die of hyponatremia (too little sodium in the blood) you would die of water poisoning before you died of thujone poisoning as well. In short, at the levels found in absinthe, water and ethanol are much more potent poisons than thujone 1.

The Tumultuous History of Absinthe

Although written evidence of wormwood-based medicines dates back to the Egyptians 2, the spirit we know today as absinthe can be traced back to a Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a french doctor who settled in Switzerland after the French Revolution and who started selling a wormwood-and-anise-based cure-all circa 1792. It became quite popular and in response, Henri-Louis Pernod (founder of the now mega-conglomerate distiller and beverage distributor Pernod-Ricard) started distilling his own recipe for absinthe as well.

Absinthe became popular among Bohemians and artists in France but several historical events, including the use of absinthe as an anti-malarial for French soldiers abroad and the obliteration of the French wine industry by the grape phylloxera aphid, brought absinthe into mainstream consumption. 

It stayed popular until the mid-1800's when a complex array of forces contributed to its demise. First, several medical studies (now known to have been flawed) demonstrated that absinthe was a more dangerous spirit than others being consumed at the time. Second, the Pernod distillery in which absinthe was produced caught fire and was destroyed in 1901, severely limiting worldwide availability of the spirt. In addition, the temperance movement in France (the same movement that led to the misguided Eighteenth Amendment in the United States) sought to ban hard liquor outright. And finally, as the wine industry recovered from phylloxera and tried to regain its lost market share, it funded marketing campaigns that exploited the reports of absinthe's harmful effects and partnered with the temperance movement to encourage a ban on absinthe. Once hailed as a cure-all, absinthe was vilified as a toxic substance responsible for a wide range of ailments. Public opinion gradually began to sway and on August 28th, 1905 an event occurred that would seal absinthe's fate for nearly a hundred years.

On that afternoon, Jean Lanfray, a French laborer living in Switzerland, flew into a drunken rage after his wife refused to shine his shoes. After a heated argument, Lanfray grabbed a shotgun and murdered his wife, who was pregnant, and their two children. Despite the fact that in addition to 2 ounces of absinthe, Lanfray had also consumed seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee with brandy, and two crème de menthes during lunch, his drunken madness was blamed solely on absinthe. The subsequent trial, conviction, and suicide of Lanfray received international attention and within three years of the incident Switzerland had banned the production and sale of absinthe. By 1914, nearly every European country and the United States had followed suit.

In the United States, the ban on absinthe was followed proximately by the ban on all alcohol. During the drought that was prohibition, the knowledge of the production process for absinthe was nearly lost forever but after prohibition was repealed in 1933, regulations were nonetheless left in place requiring spirits to be free of thujone derived from Artemesia 3. However, because the tests used to determine the presence of thujone in the 1930's had a margin of error of 10 parts per million (ppm), "thujone free", as defined by US law, did not (and still does not) mean "zero thujone". So, in the US, any spirit containing thujone derived from Artemesia is considered thujone free as long as it contains less than 10 ppm thujone.

In 2007, it was demonstrated to the relevant US agencies (primarily the FDA) that absinthe production naturally results in very low levels of thujone and that most pre-ban absinthes and contemporary absinthes being produced abroad, were in compliance with the < 10 ppm regulations. No laws changed, it was simply shown that absinthe was legal under current law, and the production, sale, and importation of absinthe resumed in the US.

How To Drink Absinthe

Many people's idea of the proper way to drink absinthe, encouraged by pop culture, is the so-called "Czech method" of lighting an absinthe-soaked sugar cube on fire. Although dramatic, it is in no way a traditional method of taking absinthe. It was popularized in the Czech republic in the late 90's as a marketing ploy to sell a horrible-tasting, vodka-based herb infusion they were erroneously calling absinthe. In most circumstances in which you may have seen a bartender light absinthe on fire, it probably wasn't a true absinthe. When drinking a high quality absinthe, the only thing lighting it on fire will contribute to the flavor is a burnt caramel taste that overpowers the exquisite flavors of the botanicals present.

The traditional way of drinking absinthe is the classic Absinthe Cocktail. To make it, simply pour an ounce of absinthe into a glass. Place a sugar cube on a fork or a slotted spoon across the rim of the glass and slowly pour three to five ounces4 of very cold water over the cube, letting it dissolve into the glass. Although it's certainly not necessary, many people will use an absinthe fountain or absinthe balancier to allow the ice water to drip into the absinthe slowly.

As the water drips into the absinthe, you will start to notice swirls of opalescent clouds forming in the clear spirit. What you're seeing is a chemical reaction occurring between the anethol, an ester derived from anise and fennel, and the cold water. The effect is called the louche (pronounced loosh), a French word that roughly translates as "turbidity". As water is added to the absinthe, the anethol, which acts as an oil not highly soluble in water, comes out of suspension and forms tiny droplets within the absinthe, scattering light and giving the beverage a milky white, cloudy appearance. The reaction between the anethol and the water is more than an interesting visual phenomenon though, in addition, the louche heightens the flavors and aromas in the drink. For this reason, I never recommend that people take absinthe as an undiluted shot. Dilution improves absinthe. Drink it fast if you want but always dilute it! Despite some marketing claims, the intensity of the louche is not necessarily a measure of a good absinthe. In fact, a thick, completely opaque louche probably indicates an overabundance of anise in the distillate which may contribute to an unbalanced flavor.

Once your drink is properly diluted, remove the spoon and enjoy. The anise will be present but it should be complemented by the other botanicals present, especially the wormwood. Because there are so many herbs and roots and other stuff in absinthe, the flavor is much more complex and nuanced than other anise-based distillates like ouzo or sambuca. I've had many people come into the bar where I work who aren't fans of the black licorice flavor of anise who still love absinthe. So, if you're interested, find a good, high quality bottle and give it a try. Santé!

Further Exploration

Although I covered a lot in this post. I only scratched the surface on the history, science and politics of this fascinating spirit. If you're interested in learning more, I recommend visiting the website of the Wormwood Society Absinthe Association and reading the blog of one of their principle contributors, Evan Camomile, a world renowned absinthe expert.

And, if you would like to try absinthe in a drink besides the classic Absinthe Cocktail. Check out the recipes page for a few great classics that use absinthe.

Notes

1 If you're interested in the technicalities, these figures assume an average human body weight of 62 kg (136.7 pounds) and an average thujone presence of 10 mg thujone per liter of absinthe (10 ppm). Lethal doses of all poisons are affected by body weight. People heavier than 62 kg would need to consume more of a specific poison to die of it than an average-weight person would. Toxicology figures are based on median lethal dose (LD50 ). LD50 is the dosage required to kill 50% of test subjects. Since it's generally considered bad form within the scientific community to test lethal dosage on human subjects, lethal dosages for humans are usually determined by testing on other animals and extrapolating.

The figures on the toxicity of absinthe referenced here come from a study carried out in 2000 by Hold, et al. The study found that the dosage required to kill 50% of test subjects (mice) was 45mg of thujone per kg of body weight. Extrapolating, we find that a 62 kg human would need to consume 2790 mg of thujone to reach LD50 . At 10 ppm, a person would need to ingest 279 liters (73.7 gallons) of absinthe to reach LD50 .

The baseline figures on the toxicity of ethanol and water come from this source and are reformatted to fit our assumptions of a 62 kg average human weight and an ABV of 60%.

2 Earliest known mention of wormwood as a medicinal herb is referenced in the Ebers Papyrus, c. 1550 BCE.

3 Interestingly, other thujone sources, such as sage, oregano, and juniper, are free from regulation. Only thujone derived from wormwood is regulated.

4 Many absinthe experts will toss around the 1 part absinthe to 3-5 parts water figure as a good starting point for optimal dilution but if you want, you can get much more precise. Obviously, personal tastes differ but most experts agree that absinthe should be consumed at 11-12% ABV. So the proper amount of dilution is dependent on the absinthe's ABV. To determine proper dilution use the equation:

Where β is the absinthe's bottled ABV expressed as a percentage, Δ is the desired dilution ABV expressed as a percentage, α is the amount of absinthe you will be diluting in ounces, and ω is the amount of water you should add in ounces. For example, if you want to dilute 1.5 ounces of absinthe that is bottled at 68% ABV to 11.5% ABV you would need 7.4 ounces of water, a ratio of 1 : 4.9.

Math! Probably not necessary, but interesting if you like to geek out about this stuff as much as I do.