Let’s start with a few things that absinthe is not.
- Absinthe is not hallucinogenic.
- Absinthe won’t drive you crazy.
- Absinthe is not illegal.
If you’re like most people, these three statements have completely erased any knowledge you thought you had about absinthe. In this empty void, we now fill: What is absinthe?
At its base, wormwood is simply a high-quality brandy obtained by distillation, among other things, of the bitter flowers and leaves of the wormwood plant (artemisia absinthium), from which it takes its name. How this spirit would represent French national pride in the 1830s, become the liquid mascot of the Bohemians of Paris a few decades later, represent French moral decline, be accused of macabre murders in 1905 and banned for nearly 100 years across the world… it’s a little more complicated.
But first, wormwood, before modern medicine, has always been used to treat certain digestive disorders. It appears in Egypt and China as early as 1500 BC. A recipe for this wine appears in ancient Greece, 1000 years later, and is very popular in Germany, 2000 years later. The Italians were beginning, in the 1700s, to make their own wormwood infused wine and called it “vermouth”, after the German word for the plant, “wermut.” Absinthe, in short, is on the move.
Absinthe became a phenomenon in France in the middle of the 19th century. French soldiers fighting in North Africa used it for its antimicrobial properties and brought home a thirst for it. It was patriotic, like a War Bond getting you drunk. During the second half of the century, it was the Bohemians who carried absinthe, sang its praises, wrote poems about it and painted it. Van Gogh was, somewhat famous, a fan. Absinthe catalyzed one of the first precursors of what we call Happy Hour— “green hour”(The green hour) – during which across Paris, bars were full of young people with bright eyes talking about politics and art, and sipping this strong and mysterious liquid.
Towards the turn of the century, the temperance movement gradually gained power in the Western world, and wormwood was singled out as a particularly corrosive force for society. Alcoholism was hardly a concept in France – they did not consider drinking wine to be “drinkable” at all – but absinthism was. Wine producers didn’t like this upstart who stole their market share, and absinthe was completely demonized, responsible for everything from unraveling the fabric of society to extravagant sexual deviance.
Then in 1905, in Switzerland, a worker by the name of Jean Lanfray, delirious of alcohol abuse for life and furious that his boots had not been waxed, murdered his wife and children. Never mind, he drank a gallon and a half of wine every day, plus a few glasses of brandy and a few syrups – no, it was the two morning absinthes that drove him crazy. Her region of Switzerland banned wormwood that month, and the whole country followed suit in 1910. In America, it was banned in 1912, with a doctor from the first FDA declaring wormwood “one of the best.” worst enemies of man, and if we can stop the people of the United States from becoming slaves to this demon, we will. ”The wormwood was ready.
So how did it come back? Absinthe actually contains a harmful chemical called thujone. Absinthe was once believed to contain a ridiculously high amount of thujone, but modern science applied to vintage bottles shows that it hardly has any at all, as it is stripped away by the distillation process. Even at maximum levels you would have to drink something like 100 gallons of wormwood to get lethal levels of thujone, no living human being could reach 1% of that until they fell dead from alcohol poisoning.
As for its supposed hallucinogenic properties: I report with great disappointment that this is a long-standing myth. There might have been some toxic additives at the time (this would cause you to do things like, for example, cut your ear); or it could be delirium tremens, the hideous and often hallucinogenic withdrawal symptoms of chronic alcoholism; or it could just be the fervor stoked by hysterical prohibitionists crusading for moral confusion. Whatever the source, this is simply not true.
What is true, however, is that absinthe is back, and is essential in some cocktails. Above perhaps any other liquid, absinthe has the ability to transform a cocktail with just half a teaspoon. It’ll take its licorice-fennel flavor wherever it goes, but in fairly small amounts it behaves unpredictably; if the cocktail was a song, absinthe adds an instrument, but it can also change the key.
Sazerac is the most famous absinthe cocktail, but for the transformative effect, I love this 1939 brooding classic, a Manhattan with a bit of black cherry liqueur and just a hint of green fairy.
Mix in a mixing glass over ice. Strain into a stemmed cup or cocktail glass and garnish with a good cocktail cherry.
Notes on ingredients
Rye whiskey: Evidence is your best weapon for fighting sweetness here, so ideally you’re using something big and around 100 proofs, like the Rittenhouse Rye or the Wild Turkey 101 Rye.
Sweet vermouth: I love the Carpano Antica here – the vanilla complements the cherry liqueur and the body resists the great flavors of the drink. The Cocchi Vermouth di Torino is also good.
Cherry Heering: A Danish cherry liqueur made for 200 years, called by its name and more or less necessary for the drink. Forget the crisp red fruits: Cherry Heering is dark and dark, adding even more black fruit to an already black fruit cocktail.
Amer d’Angostura: decidedly unconventional here, and most recipes don’t include it. After trying them side by side blindly, I prefer the spice brought by the bitters, but it’s completely optional.
Absinthe: If you can buy a bottle of absinthe, I like something very durable and green like French Pernod or American St. George. But honestly, anything off-the-shelf will be fine as long as it’s not sweet and goes over about 53%. Buy a bottle. I know it’s expensive. The good news is, it’s all about drips and drops, and a single bottle will easily last a year, or even several, for the average cocktail lover.
Each week, bartender Jason O’Bryan prepares his favorite drinks for you. Discover his old cocktail recipes.