On the Back Bar: Absinthe

By Gabi Porter  |  August 7, 2013

If you're a bit of a daredevil with your liquor, like we are, you've tried a bit of absinthe in your day. Maybe it was in the 1990s when the bans restricting its production began to be lifted in Europe. Or maybe you have just heard it referenced as the "Green Fairy" in historical literature or seen it pop up in Impressionist paintings where its presence quietly portended tales of hallucinations. Or maybe you had a bit at an underground Brooklyn party where a guy with a handle-bar moustache served the absinthe he made in his bathtub (by the way, no thanks!)? But, what on Earth is it?

Absinthe is historically a high-proof, green spirit with a distinct anise flavor, distilled primarily from grande wormwood (in Latin Artemesia absinthium), green anise and sweet fennel, in combination with a number of other herbal botanicals with medicinal properties. Grande wormwood contains the compound thujone, which is the compound blamed for the alleged hallucinogenic properties of absinthe, but it exists in trace amounts. It was first produced and marketed as a medical cure-all in France in the late-1700's when the recipe was acquired by Major Dubied and given over to a 21-year old distiller by the name of Henry-Louis Pernod to produce. Pernod married Dubied's daughter, and the two opened their distillery in 1805 and Pernod Fils became the first commercially produced brand of absinthe, and in its heyday also the most popular. In its day absinthe was the vodka of its time. 

France developed a taste for the green stuff when French legionnaires returning from foreign campaigns, who were given absinthe as a preventative remedy for malaria, started ordering it back home at cafes and bars. It didn't really cure or prevent malaria or make water potable, but that didn't seem to matter to all the happy drinkers. 

At some point around 1850, absinthe had made inroads Stateside in time to be included in the often touted "oldest" American cocktail recipe, the Sazerac, first served in New Orleans at the Sazerac House.

And then in the late 1900s, there was a phyloxera outbreak in France, which destroyed most of the vineyards in the country. Wine and brandy production were at a standstill, and the already popular absinthe filled the void for those seeking an alcoholic pick-me-up. It took nearly 20 years for the wine and brandy industry to recover and catch up, and when they did, they wanted their market share back.

The timeframe just about coincides with a giant propaganda campaign against absinthe, with proto-lab rat studies with guinea pigs (actual guinea pigs) and culminated with a horrible series of murders that were blamed solely on absinthe, in spite of the fact that the murderer, Jean Lanfray a farmer in Switzerland, wasn't picky about what he drank. He drank a lot of everything for lunch that day - seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee with brandy and two crème de menthes - before he took a rifle to his pregnant wife and two daughters and then tried to kill himself. But it was the two ounces of absinthe he drank that was blamed for his drunken, violent rampage. Lanfray was convicted of his crimes in 1906, and by 1915 absinthe was banned in most of the world.

It took almost a hundred years for absinthe to make a comeback. In 2007, Lucid Absinthe became the first absinthe to be legally imported to the United States, largely through the work of chemist, absinthe distiller and even bigger liqour nerd than us, Ted Breaux.  Breaux lobbied Congress to make the designation "absinthe" legal again, after presenting his extensive lab results proving that there was nothing harmful or hallucinogenic in historic bottles of absinthe in his collection.  Properly made, quality absinthe was deemed "safe" and opened the door for historic producers like Kubler in Switzerland to re-enter the market, and for craft distillers like St. George in San Francisco to start producing new product. We hate to disappoint you, folks, but absinthe does not in fact make you hallucinate, in spite of the thujone content. For the trace amounts of thujone to kick in with hallucinations, one would have to drink multiple bottles of absinthe in one sitting, and at the proof that most absinthes are produced, we guarantee hallucinations and hospitalization after that much hooch.

How to drink it:
Purists will tell you to drip ice water from a special fountain into a glass of absinthe to properly enjoy the louche. Historians will tell you that you can add a sugar cube to your drip, but that was mostly to disguise the flavor of unpalatably bitter absinthe.

Most cocktail bars in the world will be able to make you a Sazerac if you care to try absinthe that way. A Sazerac is made from either rye whiskey (more prevalent) or cognac (more traditional), a rinse of absinthe and Peychaud's bitters. Rye is more commonly used since the recipe for the Sazerac was also affected by that phyloxera outbreak when cognac became prohibitively expensive in the late 1800s.

Where to enjoy the Green Hour around the U.S:
Pernod Absinthe has happy hours in New York at Maison Premiere and the Dead Rabbit. Enjoy an absinthe julep at Maison or the Automobile at Dead Rabbit.

Pamplona, of Lafayette, Louisiana, which in addition to the classics, makes a practice of paying tribute to Hemingway in blending fresh fruit juices with absinthe, and serving Hemingway's famous Death in the Afternoon, which amounts to louching absinthe with champagne. Another good spot on these shores for an ever-changing menu of absinthe-laced cocktails with classic roots is the Gin Joint in Charleston, SC.

On the West Coast, Sunny Spot in Los Angeles serves Death In The D.R., which is rum, honey, St George absinthe and Champagne.

15 Romolo in San Francisco, try the Famous Fizz with egg whites, strawberry shrub and St. George Absinthe.