The Myth of the Green Fairy
Absinthe. The word conjures up the image of 19th century French bohemians in Paris, painting masterpieces and partying at the Moulin Rouge while under the influence of a mysterious bright green liquor—”La Fée Verte”, the Green Fairy.
It is said to make people hallucinate and go insane. It is said to be illegal. Are these statements true? What were those French people thinking consuming such a dangerous drink???
so what is absinthe?
But let’s start at the beginning, shall we? What exactly is absinthe?
To put it simply, absinthe is a neutral spirit flavored with botanicals (much like gin). To be a little more specific, it’s flavored with grand wormwood (artemisia absinthium), green anise, and sweet fennel—”the holy trinity” to absinthe enthusiasts. It can also have other botanicals (like peppermint and hyssop) added to enhance the taste, depending on the producer.
It tastes a lot like black licorice due to the anise, but it should be botanical, well-balanced, and have many dimensions to the flavor. It also doesn’t have to be green; it can be clear, yellowish-brown, or even close to turquoise!
is absinthe legal?
In a word, yes. In most countries, absinthe is totally legal. It was banned for a long time, though, and just became available in the U.S. in 2007.
You see, grand wormwood (a perennial plant that has nothing to do with worms) contains a chemical called thujone. This is what was said to make people hallucinate and do crazy, criminal things… and it might, if you consumed tons of it. It is actually found in several of the herbs we use on a daily basis, like oregano and sage. More than likely, people in the 19th century claiming to have a reaction like that were adding other things (like laudanum) to their absinthe or drinking “homemade” absinthe—which was notorious for having extra things added and was the equivalent to illicit moonshine or bathtub gin. Some were just exaggerating… they were drunk!
You could never drink enough absinthe to hallucinate from it, because you would die of alcohol poisoning first. Most absinthes fall right around 6 mg/kg of thujone—which is a very tiny amount.
It’s also interesting to note that absinthe with a thujone content over 10 mg/kg was banned; anything under that was considered thujone-free. No one realized that, according to this rule, most absinthes were already legal to consume! However, wording in the U.S. ban said that no absinthe could be sold at all, as long as it was made with grand wormwood.
Even the absinthe made from the original French and Swiss recipes had legal thujone content; this became widely known in the 1990s. The absinthe makers in other countries pointed out that the ban in the U.S. was completely pointless. Almost all absinthe had lower levels of thujone than what was banned… so the U.S. lifted it in 2007.
(There was a company selling “absinthe” before then—Absente had a version made with southern wormwood, which was different than grand wormwood, didn’t contain any thujone, and wasn’t banned. Since the ban was lifted, Absente has also released a version with grand wormwood.)
will it make me crazy?
Well, probably not, unless you can’t handle your alcohol. Absinthe has a high alcohol content, but because of the way it’s served, it’s no worse than any other hard liquor.
i heard there is a special way to serve it?
There is a traditional “absinthe ritual” that is used to dilute the spirit and open up the botanical flavors of the drink (and it’s not as scary as it sounds).
First, get a glass. There are traditional absinthe glasses, like the one on the right. The bulb in the bottom of the glass is to help measure how much absinthe to add. If you don’t have an absinthe glass, no worries. Get a regular clear one (the fancier, the better).
Next, pour 1 oz. (up to 1 ½ oz.) of absinthe into the glass.
Here’s where a traditional tool comes in handy: get a slotted spoon that fits over the glass. Absinthe spoons, besides being very pretty, are specially designed to sit on top of a glass. You can pick one up online for under 10 dollars.
Put a regular sugar cube on top of the spoon. Then drip ice-cold water slowly over the cube, so it dissolves into the absinthe. You can also use a traditional absinthe fountain to drip the water, if you want to be extra fancy.
The drink will turn cloudy—that’s a good thing! This is called the louche. It is caused by water colliding with the botanical oils in the absinthe. Water and oil don’t mix, so the oils come out of the liquor and are suspended between the water molecules. High quality absinthe will have a cloudier appearance than lower end absinthe when the water is added.
Once the sugar is dissolved, use the spoon to stir the absinthe. Then drink it!
but someone said there was fire involved??
That probably came from the 1990’s, when only absinthe made without grand wormwood was available. Dipping the sugar cube in the absinthe and lighting it on fire before dissolving it was a bartender’s trick to disguise the fact that lower-end absinthes didn’t have a nice louche.
DO NOT SET YOUR ABSINTHE OR SUGAR CUBE ON FIRE.
It is at best, pointless, and at worst, detrimental to the drink (and kind of dangerous). When you set an alcoholic drink on fire, most of the alcohol is burned away. You don’t want that!
where can i find it?
I’m glad you asked! We serve absinthe at Rembrandt’s, and we’ll be having a tasting of different brands very soon. We even have an absinthe fountain to use on special occasions!
Come in and try it for yourself… who knows, you may dream of green fairies that night!