“Absinthe is the only decent drink that suits an artist.” ~Paul Gauguin
“Let me be mad, then, by all means! mad with the madness of Absinthe, the wildest, most luxurious madness in the world!” ~Marie Corelli
“Absinthe, on a winter evening, lights up in green the sooty soul.” ~Charles Cros
It was called “the green fairy,” “the green muse,” and “elixir of the imagination.” During the belle époque absinthe was universally popular. It was particularly associated with writers, poets, and artists who credited the herbal spirit with the power to liberate their imaginations and inspire free thought. We now know that what they called the “absinthe affect” is attributed to the alcohol acting a depressant combined with the herbal masceration acting as a stimulant. The result is lowered artistic inhibitions and a sense of inner focus and clarity less susceptible to external distraction or criticism. It’s similar to Irish coffee’s blend of alcohol with caffeine.
To be called absinthe, the liquor’s herbal blend must include grand wormwood. The grand wormwood is the signature ingredient. Chlorophyl from the macerated herbs gives absinthe its green color. The aromatic oils of these plants are completely dissolved in the alcohol, but they precipitate out when cold water is added. To release the aromatic oils, the drinker trickles cold water slowly into a small amount of absinthe. The essential oils gently cloud the drink in a hypnotic performance of swirling green and opal as they are released. For a proper glass, keep adding water until all of the green fluid succumbs to the opal cloud. You can continue to add more water to taste (and to reduce the alcohol percentage) if you like. Because wormwood, like coffee, is mildly bitter, the water is usually drizzled over a lump of sugar through a slotted spoon to add sweetness. Sometimes a lump of sugar is sucked lightly after a sip of absinthe to balance the bitter finish, kind of like sucking a lemon wedge after a shot of tequila.
Contrary to legend and myth, the thujone in absinthe never caused hallucinations or gave the drinker a “high”. To be sure, there were dangers associated with turn-of-the-century absinthe but it was the kind of danger caused by poor consumer protection and the failure of regulatory standards. Unscrupulous distillers would skip the time-consuming maceration process and simply dyed the beverage green instead– using cheep (but poisonous) coper salts. Some distillers would speed production along even further by skipping the second distillation. To achieve the expected concentration, they added grain alcohol to the half-finished product. It was this deadly concoction of poison and grain alcohol that proved hazardous. When France’s rebounding wine industry needed to shift public taste away from the popular absinthe back toward wine, it capitalized on a few highly publicized incidents of absinthe poisining and sponsored biased faux-scientific research on the dangers of absinthe to have have it banned. But the artists would not be denied! Even while it was illegal, writers and artists like Picasso, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Stein still enjoyed clandestine meetings with the green fairy on the down low.
The 100 year old ban on absinthe was quietly lifted in the USA almost 9 years ago. Though perfectly legal now, this most bohemian of beverages maintains its mystique. In all fairness, it is startling strong. Absinthe is usually anywhere from 60% – 70% alcohol and some absinthes reach 89% or more. Do not underestimate this liquor! But as an ingredient in cocktails or traditionally diluted with sweet, cold water in the absinthe ritual, the alcohol content is reduced to about the same as any other cocktail or a glass of wine.
What do you think? Are you curious? I sure am! I’ve been collecting all the proper service pieces for the traditional absinthe ritual and will soon be ready for a bohemian new year absinthe party and you are invited! Join me in the next post and let’s see if the green fairy will be our muse for the New Year.
Read ~ Write ~ Wander