Enjoy absinthe, but don’t expect a visit from a green fairy
Absinthe is one of the most well-known spirits; yet, it is often only known for the misbelief that it makes you hallucinate. Queue EuroTrip scene. However, there is so much more to this incredible spirit, and we’re here to break it down for you. So make yourself a cocktail utilizing absinthe and find your hallucinations elsewhere.
Absinthe is named after its primary-botantical, Artemisia absinthium (aka grande wormwood). The earliest recorded used of Artemisia absinthiumm is found in the Ebers Papyrus, which is an Egyptian medical text dated about 1550 BC. The ancient Greeks used the herb for medicinal purposes as well as wormwood-flavored wine.
In 1792, Dr. Pierre Ordinaire developed the first commercial formula. His formula included wormwood bark, star anise, liquorice, fennel, hyssop, parsley, chamomile, spinach, and coriander. He called the drink Extrait d’Absinthe.
In 1805, Henri-Louis Perrenoud established the Pernod Fils absinthe manufacturing company in the French town of Pontarlier, which is on the border of France and Switzerland. To this day, Pontarlier is known as the historic “Capital of Absinthe."
Absinthe’s popularity in France and Switzerland grew exponentially from this point on, especially with phylloxera’s onslaught on European vineyards.
Phylloxera is a small yellow root-feeding aphid that destroyed two-thirds of European vineyards. In France, phylloxera deveated the wine and grape brandy industries from the 1860 to 1900s. This void opened the door for drinks like absinthe to flourish.
Absinthe became the #1 alcoholic beverage in France during phylloxera’s terror. By the turn of the twentieth century, the French were drinking thirty-six billion liters of absinthe compared to only five billion liters of wine. There’s a fun fact that I bet will impress your friends on your next Zoom happy hour.
Yet, absinthe’s reign didn’t last long due to a horrific murder in Switzerland.
In 1905, Jean Lanfray (a French national living in Switzerland) was arrested and later convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and children. At trial, his attorney argued that his consumption of two glasses of absinthe was to blame for his actions.
Yet, we now know that on the day of the murder, he consumed seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, a brandy coffee, two crème de menthes, and two glasses of absinthe. Still, the temperance movement was gaining traction at this time in Europe and absinthe became a scapegoat for the murders.
In 1907, the Swiss national legislature voted to ban the sale of absinthe and its imitators. In 1908, Switzerland banned the production of absinthe. These prohibitions would have a negative effect on absinthe in the US in the years to come.
In 1912, the US government banned absinthe. The USDA stated that the Food and Drugs Act of June 30, 1906, made absinthe illegal.
The Food and Drugs Act forbade the importation of any food or drug that is “of a kind . . . forbidden to be sold or restricted in sale in the country in which it is made, or from which it is exported.” Since the sale of absinthe was forbidden in Switzerland, as well as other countries, the US could not import absinthe from Switzerland. Still, it was other language in the Food and Drugs Act that dealt the death blow to absinthe in the US.
Section 11 of the Foods and Drugs Act stated that it was illegal to import any food or drug that is “otherwise dangerous to the health of the people of the United States.” Section 7 of the Act further stated that an article was considered adulterated “if it contains any added poisonous or other added deleterious ingredient which may render such article injurious to health.” It was the USDA’s opinion that wormwood was an “added deleterious ingredient,” and thus absinthe was banned from the US. The active ingredient deleterious in absinthe is wormwood, which contains a chemical called thujone.
Thujone is a naturally occurring substance in wormwood. Thujone is a neuro-toxin that can cause hallucinations or death in very large doses. But to be clear, thujone is also found in sage, and you don’t hear of people hallucinating on that, well, depending on who you hang out with. It’s also found in vermouth, which actually takes its name from the German word vermut, which is translated to wormwood in English.
For years, absinthe wasn’t allowed in the US because it was believed that absinthe always contained dangerous levels of thujone. US law prohibited any food or beverage that contains ten parts per million of thujone. Yet, no one ever checked the chemistry of absinthes. That is, until the late 2000s.
Change in US law
There are two products whose parent companies deserve the credit for changing the law—Lucid Absinthe and Kubler Absinthe. There is a wonderful recount of the process on The Virtual Absinthe Museum's website. As you can imagine, it was a legal battle, which might be why I find it interesting.
In short, chemistry in the 2000s was finally good enough to prove that both historical and contemporary versions of absinthe did not contain more than ten parts per million of thujone. That means that there was nothing for the US government to fight about. Case closed. Woohoo, bring on the absinthe!
Well, not exactly.
According to first-hand accounts, the legal challenge focused more on the use of the term absinthe than it was about thujone. This makes sense since science doesn’t lie. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau did similar tests and came to the same conclusions as the absinthe producers that the level of thujone was safe. However, absinthe carried a negative moniker that lawmakers believed was code for drugs, regardless of what was actually inside the bottle.
Still, Lucid and Kubler were able to prevail and the law officially changed in 2007. Here’s a link to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau's announcement outlining the requirements for the licensing of a legal absinthe in the USA.
Flavors, aromas, and proof
In general, most absinthes showcase the following trinity in some form or fashion: anise, fennel, and wormwood. Those are three pungent flavors, and thus absinthe can be a bit much if drank straight.
Absinthe is also a powerful spirit. It is generally distilled to a high proof between 55% and 75% ABV.
One last note on aromas, quality absinthe does not smell of black licorice jelly beans. That usually means that star anise was overly used during distillation, which is often the case for inexpensive products. Quality absinthe, like the one we discuss below, should showcase a balance between anise and all of the other botanicals.
Vieux Pontarlier 65 Absinthe
After all of the talk about the history of absinthe, we want to switch gears and discuss a particular brand of absinthe that we highly recommend—Vieux Pontarlier 65. It is produced in the highest quality, which is important when most cocktail recipes involving absinthe only call for a small quantity of the spirit. It will likely take you a while to finish a bottle of absinthe so it’s worth investing in a quality product. This is the one that we think should grace your home bar.
Vieux Pontarlier is distilled in Pontarlier, France. Vieux Pontarlier uses only wormwood from Pontarlier, and the wormword and other botanicals are distilled in a chardonnay grape base spirit. The chardonnay grapes are grown in historic Burgundy.
Vieux Pontarlier is one of the two last remaining absinthe distilleries operating in Pontarlier, the Capital of Absinthe. Vieux Pontarlier still uses the distillery’s original, pre-ban notes and stills.
Vieux Pontarlier is chartreuse in color. The anise and fennel seeds are prominent but in balance with the other botanicals. Eucalyptus and cacao round out the mouthfeel. For being 130 proof, it is smooth.
Ok, time to get to the cocktails!
Corpse Reviver #2
3/4 oz gin
3/4 oz Cointreau
3/4 oz Lillet blanc
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
1/8 oz absinthe
Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake. Strain into a chilled coupe.
Next up . . .
1.5 oz Cognac
1.5 oz Dubonnet
1/8 oz absinthe
1 dash Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Fill with ice. Stir.
Strain the mixing glass contents into a chilled coupe.
After all that, let me cut to the chase. If you dislike the flavor of anise, then you won’t like drinking absinthe straight. Please, don’t even bother trying it that way. Instead, try it in a cocktail where it is only used in small amounts.
That’s the key to using absinthe in cocktails—small doses add extra dimensions to a cocktail. In the Corpse Reviver #2, the anise flavor blends perfectly with fresh lemon juice. In the Phoebe Snow, the anise flavor shines with the quinine rich Dubonnet. There are many other cocktails that utilize absinthe and we’ve already explored others on this blog: Chrysanthemum, Sazerac, and Bijou. Try those as well and you'll be glad you purchased a bottle of absinthe.
Sending non-hallucinogenic love to all,