I bet you’ve heard of the ‘Green Fairy’. La Fée Verte. And I’m certain you’ve heard the stories. Banned in Europe. Banned in the US. Hallucinogenic. You’re told you have to light it. A drink for the risk-takers, the caution flouters, the rebels, the insane. Some of these are tall tales. Green fairy tales. Absinthe legends spawned by the legendary, the Wildes, the Hemingways, the van Goghs. Some of it is even true.
Where does it come from?
To reveal the truth behind the myths, we need to investigate the background. Like all good (and some truly bad) alcohol, absinthe started out as a medicinal tincture. The exact story is somewhat disputed. In Switzerland, around 1792, a doctor called Pierre Ordinaire (Ordinary Pete! How very benign), in the village of Couvet, threw together a herbal concoction and offered it up as a general panacea for his patients. It contained a variety of locally grown ingredients, such as anise, wormwood, chamomile, and supposedly even spinach. Popeye’s enthusiasm for that leafy vegetable now begins to make sense.
The story blurs a bit from here as some accounts claim that he then sold the recipe to two ladies in the village, the Henriod sisters, while others say that the sisters made it first. Both could be true as other people in the Neuchâtel region were brewing up tisanes from the same herbs anyway. It boils down, pun excepted, to who nailed their marketing first. An enterprising Frenchman, Major Daniel-Henri Dubied, who wanted to sell it as both medicine and as an aperitif, bought the recipe and eventually gave it to his son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod. Pernod started the very first absinthe distillery. And that’s when the fun began.
In 1840 The French army issued it to its soldiers fighting in North Africa, to help ward off malaria and other ailments, and those soldiers came home parched, craving their familiar elixir. Around the same time, the vineyards in France were struck by a blight, making wine scarce and expensive. The market was primed and thirsty.
It was an era known as la Belle Époque, wedged between two wars, where the creative and culinary arts and the economy in France was thriving. Little distilleries and bootleggers for absinthe mushroomed all over the country, chasing profit, and producing sub-to-cave-dwelling-below-par versions of the drink. To replicate the green colour, they used toxic chemicals like copper sulphate, and in some cases methanol was also used. Demand increased as cheaper absinthe descended into the reach of the bourgeois.
Why was it banned?
The temperance movement, similar to that of the prohibition in the US, emerged in reaction to this national binge, as the French consumed absinthe by the millions of litres a year. At the height of its consumption, a staggering record of 36 million litres was produced and sold in France a single year. The conservative pearl-clutchers were confusing alcoholism and alcohol poisoning with a malady they invented: absinthism. And the poisonous bootlegged versions were not helping the case. When a Swiss farmer killed his family in a drunken rage in 1905, the media jumped on the hysteria bandwagon and the tragedy was attributed to absinthe-induced madness. It was irrelevant that he was known to drink everything, and on the day of the shooting, had been doing just that, but because he had two glasses of absinthe among the pool of booze that he had thrown back, the horror of his actions was irrevocably linked to the drink. Scandal is always more salacious than science, evidence or testimony. Along with falsified research funded by those with an interest in removing absinthe from the market, this was the final validation needed for the temperance, and an absinthe prohibition rolled across Europe, followed by the US. Interestingly pastis, the anise-based apéritif emerged from this, as it still had a similar flavour to absinthe, but without the prohibited wormwood.
Does it make you hallucinate?
The key ingredient in absinthe is wormwood. Thujone, a component of wormwood, is purported to have psychotropic properties. In extreme toxic quantities there is research to suggest that thujone could theoretically cause delirium, but in order to consume that much of it, you would be long dead from alcohol poisoning. And very little thujone survives the distillation process. Despite consumers wanting it to be so, there really are no hallucinogenic properties in absinthe. The hallucination claims more likely arose from the fact that absinthe has an alcohol content of between 55 – 70%, 110 – 140 proof, and during the late 19th and early 20th century, was occasionally chased with a puff of opium.
What’s with the green?
It’s moniker, The Green Fairy (La Fée Verte), is attributed to its verdant colour and the bohemian fantasy associated with it. The colour comes from chlorophyll, the green plant pigment, in the herbs that make up the liquor. Absinthe, unadulterated by synthetic colourants, will have a gold-green hue, more chartreuse than emerald. Gradually, the chlorophyll will break down as light damages the pigment in the fluid, and it will start to turn a more amber colour. The French call it feuille morte, a rather poetic term that translates to fallen leaves.
How Do I drink it?
Part of the alluring appeal of absinthe is how you drink it. It has a ritualistic component that has been described as ‘sensual’. This classic method is known as louching. Pronounced looshing. This involves putting a small measure of the absinthe at the bottom of a reservoir glass, then placing a flat, slotted spoon over the rim, with a cube of sugar on top.
Iced water is then slowly poured over the sugar, crumbling it. As the water dilutes the alcohol solution, the essential oils from the herbs precipitate out and the emulsion turns opaque. The amount of turbidity can vary from slightly translucent to milky, depending on the quantity of anise in the absinthe, and other variables in the distillation process. Historical absinthe labels recommended a ratio of five ounces (about 150ml) of water to one ounce (around 30ml) of absinthe, making a tempered drink that has a reduced alcohol volume equivalent to a glass of wine.
Some stir the drink at this point, others use two sugar cubes, or none at all and just do a slow pour of the ice water directly into the glass. It’s up to you and your taste. Let your palate determine the water to absinthe ratio as well. Or, if you are feeling brave, you can try Ernest Hemingway’s version, a cocktail that replaces the water ounces with chilled champagne. It’s called Death in The Afternoon, and that might have something to do with his recommending three to five of these be consumed.
“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”
It has a potent licorice flavour from the anise, rendered stronger when the water is added, which releases the aromas. It’s a polarising flavour because with anise, you either love it or you don’t. Despite Oscar Wilde being famously associated with this drink, it’s amusing to note that the appearance of enjoying it held far more importance for his image than being enamoured with the taste, as is evidenced when he was quoted telling author Arthur Machen, “I could never quite accustom myself to absinthe, but it suits my style so well”. Wilde wasn’t that wild about it after all.
Where’s the fire?
The method of setting an absinthe-soaked sugar cube or just the straight absinthe alight was a trend introduced in the 1990s to perpetuate the illicit appeal of the drink and add fire purely for show, or to disguise a poor quality absinthe. It’s called the Bohemian style and is largely attributed to the Czech version. Interestingly, prior to this 90s innovation, there’s not much to indicate it was ever commonly consumed this way. Period films from the 90s onward mistakenly perpetuated the misconception that it was imbibed alight in centuries past. Not so much. Apparently, a bar in Prague started it after flaming sambucas were a hit. Czech absinth (note the lack of e) is better known as a wormwood bitters. It’s not distilled, it’s often just mixed with flavourants and colourants, and there’s often no actual anise in it. And sometimes there are versions of it that boast high contents of thujone. This also, er, fuels the misguided fire that real absinthe should be lit, because this method is not just to burn away the impurities of the poor substances in the drink, it’s also to disguise the fact that you cannot louche it. Due to lack of distillation, there are no herbal oils present to precipitate if you add water to it, so there would be no cloudy effect. Drink that version at the peril of your eyebrows and liver.
Where to get it
Most of the global bans have lifted, although some countries still prohibit it from containing any thujone. Fortunately, in South Africa it is legal, and better yet, there’s a local one available right on our doorstep!
Distillery 031, situated in what is rapidly becoming one of the city’s creative hubs, distill their own locally and globally unique absinthe. This limited artisinal version is made using three types of wormwood: the classic grand wormwood and Roman wormwood found in most traditional absinthes, plus the addition of a third one, indigenous to South Africa, the African wormwood (artmesia afra).
It’s a 65% 130 proof absinthe and they serve it three ways: la louche, neat, or in a cocktail (such as the Corpse Reviver, possibly an homage to Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon.) Have fun and go for all three, but be sure to book a cab.
For more info about Distillery 031’s Absinthe, give them a shout here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Have you tried it? Let us know!
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Advertising poster for Absinthe Beucler Source: Wikimedia Commons
Privat-Livemont – Absinthe Robette, 1896 Source: Wikimedia Commons