Absinthe

Absinthe is a spirit with a chequered history, surrounded by misconceptions and propaganda. Fortunately we are now seeing its popularity grow, which is helping to shine a light on the spirit.

What is absinthe?

Originally produced as a medicine in the latter half of the 18th century, it became a popular aperitif and eventually an icon of France’s Belle Epoque. Unfortunately bad press and the rise of temperance early in the 20th century led to its almost universal banning across the world. The bans have now been overturned and the spirit is legally available again – the resurgence of absinthe in the UK and further afield is gaining pace. 

Absinthe was both feted and feared for its hallucinogenic properties, and was consumed by poets and artists in search of inspiration, as depicted in Albert Maignan’s 1895 painting, Green Muse / A traditional absinthe fountain. Photo by Autopilot (own work) via Wikimedia Commons [Licence]

How absinthe is made

Absinthe is a distilled spirit flavoured with bitter wormwood and a variety of other botanicals, including sweet anis and fennel, as well as many others.

The two main types of absinthe are verte and blanche, green and clear. Immediately after distillation the spirit is clear and can be bottled as a blance; vertes are traditionally coloured green by infusing the spirit with more botanicals before bottling.

While there are many traditionally produced absinthes available, there are also a number of ‘compounded’ spirits on the market. These use artificial colour and flavourings to produce their spirits, and generally do not have the same depth of flavour.

Does absinthe make you hallucinate?

In theory, it could do, but in reality it is highly unlikely. The chemical in absinthe that can cause hallucinations is called thujone, a component in wormwood. However, the levels of thujone in absinthe are so low that it would take a huge quantity of absinthe to have any effect.

How to drink absinthe

Absinthe should not be drunk neat, and should always be diluted with chilled water – a ratio of one part absinthe to between three and five parts water is usual. Many traditions have arisen around the serving of absinthe, including the slow dripping of water on to a sugar cube sat on an absinthe spoon, which all add to the mystique of the spirit.

Purists prefer to use an absinthe fountain – an elaborate multi-tapped vessel that allows several absinthe drinkers to dilute their absinthe glass at the same time. There are also a number of popular absinthe cocktails, including the Sazerac, Death In The Afternoon and the Corpse Reviver.

Typical Character and Style of Absinthe

  • Anise (star) Anise (star)
  • Mixed Herb Mixed Herb
  • Grass Grass
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