Despite sampling nearly every brand of absinthe available for sale in the United States, I have yet to see any green fairies outside of the LGBT contingent at the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. This much maligned spirit has many unique qualities, but the rumored instant dementia is just not one of them.
In the late 1800’s in Europe when absinthe was extremely popular, people were largely not running around in circles screaming either. The absinthe serving ritual was and is a way to relax over a slow drink with a long preparation. Cold water drips from a table-top fountain onto a sugar cube resting atop a slotted spoon above a glass of absinthe, slowly sweetening and diluting the spirit. Eventually the liquid turns cloudy as oils in the alcohol come out of solution. It is more like a teatime ritual than a thirty second run to Starbucks for an espresso shot.
Absinthe’s hallucinogenic hype is based on one of its ingredients- the grand wormwood plant that contains the chemical thujone. Thujone quantity in absinthe is now regulated, but probably it wasn’t the problem in the first place.
Most absinthe is nearly two-thirds stronger than vodka and other spirits on the market- and the high alcohol content is likely the cause of the erratic behavior associated with it. Absinthe was thought to be addictive and it was certainly being abused by alcoholics in a time when people drank a lot of everything, so a social backlash and temperance movement formed with absinthe as the main target.
The catalyst required for its outright banning came in the form of a sensational court case involving a Swiss man who murdered his family after drinking two glasses of absinthe in 1905. His lawyers argued that the man suffered from absinthe madness, but he had also consumed nearly twenty other glasses of alcohol that day. Regardless, soon thereafter many countries around the world banned the production and sale of absinthe.
Fast-forward about ninety years and absinthe is back on shelves as the US government allowed bottles with a legally negligible and safe amount of thujone from grand wormwood to be sold as absinthe again. Interestingly, new chemical analysis of old absinthes suggest there wasn’t that much more thujone in absinthe of the 1800’s than is allowed by law now. It’s the real thing, baby.
As absinthe has been illegal for most of the past hundred years, most of us don’t know how it is supposed to taste. The short answer is: like black jelly beans. Most absinthe is flavored with the trinity of bitter grand wormwood and soothing fennel and anise. It can be herbaceous, creamy-sweet, spicy, or bitter, but most brands of absinthe have a dominant anise quality. If you like ouzo or pastis, chances are you’ll like absinthe.
If not, please do not force feed it to yourself with the expectation that you will hallucinate. You won’t, and that’s not classy. If you want to see a green fairy, just pour yourself your usual drink, dress appropriately, and look in the mirror.
Camper English is a cocktails and spirits writer and publisher of Alcademics.com.