The liqueur known as absinthe gained it’s notoriety in the latter part of the 19th century when it became the drink of choice among bohemian intellectuals, writers, poets and artists such as Van Gogh, Monet, Hemingway and Oscar Wilde, to name a few. The artists’ “muse” appeared in art and poems often referred to as “The Green Fairy” (“La Fee Verte”), creating a culture of admirers and would-be connoisseurs. Happy hour at the time became known as the “green hour,” where it was served with chilled water to be dripped over a sugar cube placed on top of a slotted spoon over the liqueur.
The cold water was said to “liberate the power of the essential herbs and wormwood oil,” creating what is known as the “louche.” This liberation transforms the green liquid into a milky fog with an emerald hue. The release of these oils was said to invoke “enlightenment” and “an exploration of a freer state of mind.” Tales of madness, and even murder, caused it to be banned in the US and much of Europe, including France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Austria-Hungary by 1915. Since 1988 however, absinthe became legal across member states of the European Union, although it was never illegal in Canada, Spain, Portugal or the UK.
Absinthe is a distilled white spirit that has a unique licorice-type flavour and intense aromatics, made by steeping the spirit (similar to making quality gin) with a range of herbs like fennel, anise, melissa, hyssop, and wormwood. Wormwood is nature’s richest source of the controversial “thrujone,” and in higher doses, it is toxic and may cause hyperactivity, excitability, delirium, seizures – or worse. Absinthe is produced mainly in France, Switzerland, Spain and the Czech Republic, and can be spelled with or without the “e,” though certain spellings are more particular to certain regions. Since 2007, it has even been produced in Canada at the Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery.
Though recent studies showing that the psychoactive properties (apart from that of the alcohol) have been exaggerated, the story of absinthe remains one of polarized opinions: romanticized by many, and damned by a few. Absinthe drinkers needn’t fear, however, as only a small amount of thujone actually survives the absinthe distillation process. No matter how much absinthe you might drink, the chances of a thujone-induced delirium remain nil – you would suffer fatal alcohol poisoning long before that.
Care to give it a try?
I discovered that one of my favourite mixologists, Fern Zevnik, serves absinthe at the Bourbon Room (10 Avenue S.W.). For the cocktail lover, I asked how one would use it and we discovered that you can add very little to a recipe, but it definitely shows up as the star!
Corpse reviver #2 (classic)
¾ oz gin
¾ oz Cointreau
¾ oz Lillet
¾ oz lemon juice
Rinse the cocktail glass with absinthe then discard any leftover liquid. In a martini shaker, add all ingredients with ice. Shake vigorously and then strain into a martini coupe. Garnish with a brandied cherry.