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Union and the United States for years, the only alcoholic beverage to be specifically outlawed after prohibition was repealed.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.
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!
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.
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.