This Month's Vitamin D: Absinthe

by Dane Huckelbridge

Once a month, author Dane Huckelbridge gives us a nourishing dose of useful (for the most part) knowledge. In today's post, he dissolves the myths surrounding absinthe.

If you’re anything like me, you have a beard, wish Cheetos would make a salad dressing, and occasionally indulge in Old World herbal liqueurs. And as such, you’ve probably come across that mysterious green elixir known as absinthe. Likely with a mischievous chuckle, and a vague notion that the illicit drink will provoke all manner of wild hallucinations.

Well, here’s the bad news: Cheetos has no plans to make a salad dressing. But the good news is that absinthe is legal, after roughly a century of being off the market in most of America and Europe. And it doesn’t cause hallucinations, either. Apparently Van Gogh cut his ear off because he was just plain nuts, no absinthe was involved.

But what exactly is absinthe? And why was it banned internationally for such a long time? Those questions came up during a recent visit to New Orleans, a city with a long history of enjoying the green stuff. After all, the original Sazerac recipe calls for a dash of it, and the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street has served up doses to everyone from Mark Twain to Oscar Wilde. So what’s the scoop?

  Dissolving sugar in an absinthe glass

Dissolving sugar in an absinthe glass

Well, for starters, absinthe is essentially a high-proof herbal liqueur, but sans sugar. It began in the first half of the 19th century as a medicinal tonic in France and Switzerland. French soldiers stationed in warmer climes apparently thought it might help with malaria. It most certainly did not, but it did, they discovered, taste pretty darn good. In the mid-1800s, it switched from being a wellness drink to a recreational beverage—much like Coca-Cola did here in the States. But with considerably more punch than your average Coke. The French liked to add a little sugar to sweeten things up, but quickly realized that the high alcohol content made it difficult to dissolve the cubes. Thus the elaborate absinthe ritual was born. Typically, a slotted spoon was placed over the top of a glass of pure absinthe. A sugar cube was placed atop it, and ice water was dripped over the cube to dissolve the sugar and mix with the alcohol. Thanks to a natural chemical reaction of most anise-based drinks, what had been a yellowish hard alcohol would turn into a milky-green cocktail.­

And the popularity of the drink exploded, not just in France, but in the former French colony of New Orleans as well. It quickly became the drink for café society, preferred by the artists and writers of the Belle Époque, not to mention just about everyone else. In France, five o’clock was referred to as “the green hour,” because that was when the nation got off work and had its first—and seldom last—absinthe of the night. So ubiquitous did absinthe become, some started to raise concerns: especially the powerful French wine lobby, which was going broke because of its more potent rival. When those concerns began to align with the more general Temperance movement that was gaining currency in both America and Europe, laws were finally passed to ban its manufacture. Stories were cooked up about people becoming psychotic and ruining their lives because of the drink, but the fact of the matter is, people of that era simply had a drinking problem—not, specifically, an absinthe problem. Regardless of that fact, absinthe was banned in 1914. In France, “pastis” replaced absinthe as the favored herbal drink. It didn’t have the grand wormwood that had made absinthe unique, but it was similar in taste, and consumed in a similar fashion. In New Orleans, Herbsaint, also a type of pastis, became the usual absinthe substitute, and continued to be so for the century that followed.

  The Old Absinthe House in New Orleans

The Old Absinthe House in New Orleans

Which brings us up to the present. Today, absinthe is legal once again, and distilleries have dusted off the old recipes and given the green lady a new pair of wings. If you’re looking to give it a try, there are a number of brands, both European and American, to choose from. Good absinthe will generally be on the pricey side, so don’t be surprised to spend between $50 and $80 on a bottle. Pernod, Duplais, Vieux Pontarlier, and La Muse Verte are all decent European varieties. Marteau, Pacifique, and St. George are comparable U.S. brands. You can buy a reproduction absinthe glass, or, if you want to fork over some dough, search online for actual antique glasses salvaged from French bistros. Absinthe glasses will generally have a reservoir in the bottom, to measure the dose, or a line of some sort to gauge the pour. And lastly, you’ll need a good absinthe spoon. Again, you can find reproductions and originals, although in a pinch, a fork will do just fine.

Word to the wise, though. Don’t bother with the fire gimmick. Some bars and restaurants will light the absinthe aflame before you drink it. It’s a neat trick, but traditional absinthe was never consumed this way; it actually burns off the alcohol, which defeats the whole purpose.

But then again, you could just fly down to New Orleans and enjoy a pleasant “green hour” whilst perched upon the same barstool that Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde did all those years ago. Because when it comes to a drink like absinthe, sometimes a nice dose of history is the best chaser of all. Accompanied, of course, by a nutritious Cheeto salad.

If only they made the stuff.

Dane Huckelbridge is the author of Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit. For a daily dose of Vitamin D, follow him on Twitter.