Every now and then, a particular beverage (or brand) stood out for reasons beyond mere ossification. Mead is known for its honeyed sweetness. Champagne is known for its effervescent luxury and prestigious birthplace. Cognacis is known for its smooth, velvety darkness.
Then there’s absinthe. Mysterious Absinthe, the Green Fairy, the Devil in a Bottle, the Green Muse of creativity, are some of the nicknames for the famous, historical liquor Absinthe. Absinthe has a fascinating history, not so much for its flavor, cost, or even its origins. Instead, absinthe unwittingly claimed its stake in spirit history because of its purported effects on the brain. It was believed to cause hallucinations, epileptic seizures, and “madness.” It served as muse to many artists and writers from the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Wilde, Poe, Hemingway, Degas, and Picasso. Eventually, it became the focal point for prohibitionists worldwide.
Absinthe derives its name from the Greek word apsinthion, which ironically, means undrinkable. This reference clearly describes the distinctive, bitter taste of absinthe. As such, absinthe is usually drunk in the traditional method with water and sugar. When diluted with water, absinthe turns an opaque milky white in a process called louching. Louching occurs because the essential herbal oils present in absinthe do not mix with water.
The attraction to this emerald- green colored liquid is its wormwood. Wormwood is a plant. The addictive and hallucinatory power that wormwood has on the human mind is due to a substance known as thujone, which makes up 40 to 90 percent, by weight of wormwood. Thujone is somewhat similar to the active stuff in marijuana. The difference between the two drugs is their functional side groups. The absinthe drinkers of the 19th century must experienced similar effects to what we now know about THC addiction. They were at times in a delirium, experienced a sharpened sense of perception and had a psychological dependence or addiction. Currently the available versions of absinthe contain more than ten times less thujone then before.
Stories of it causing hallucinations, tales of murderous absinthe drinkers and countless homemade substitutes made from who knows what have contributed to its demise and subsequent, almost worldwide ban. However, the good news for those of us curious about the mysterious absinthe, for those interested in a taste of the past, and for those who found hope in its many substitutes but are aching for a taste of the real thing is that it’s making a comeback legally. In the United States two brands are now available on the shelves (or will be soon depending on where you’re at), Lucid and Kubler.
Absinthe definitely has its own history, its unique contents and its unforgettable bitter taste.