In my time spent in academia I learned that a discourse often starts by defining terms. So, this blog should start by defining what in the world we are talking about. Since absinthe is so full of myth and rumor, it is best that we clear things up right now.
Absinthe was once a very popular drink. I could fill the rest of this post with artists who drank it, quotes from them, and other cliché and lame name-dropping silliness. The fact is that absinthe was once the drink of choice in France during an era known as the Belle Epoque. It wasn’t something crazy artists drank to the horror of everyone else. On the contrary, it is so easy to find artists drank it simply because so many people in general were drinking it during that time. All over French cafes, people of every social class were enjoying absinthe. In a sense, absinthe was popular.
Then it was banned, becoming the first victim of the Temperance movement. The history of the ban and the circumstances the led up to it could fill quite a hefty book, so I’ll skim past it. But a few important things are to be noted. Whenever something is banned a black market will appear, and such is the case with absinthe. Swiss La Blue became the surviving and clandestine absinthe. Often taking the uncolored ‘blanche’ form to avoid easy detection. This is a very important fact. Absinthe never vanished completely, and it is partially because of these underground distillers and farmers that we know what absinthe really is. The historic line was never broken thanks to these folks, and they deserve lots of credit for keeping real absinthe in production.
The problem is that not many people would talk about it. La Blue distillers were not the ego driven gangsters of the prohibition era, nor the market hungry drug-dealers we see today. Rather, they were descendents of plain people who just didn’t want to give up their hooch. So they kept their mouths shut. Unfortunately, this was leaving almost a century of misinformation, myth, and rumor to build up in the meantime. This is where absinthe becomes murky—or should I say, louche. Absinthe spent a lot of time shrouded in pop culture myth and fantasy; Green Fairy tales if you will.
When absinthe began to come back in the past few decades, and the bans were overturned the most prominent ideas were the myths, drummed up. Marketers caught on quick and used the myths to drive interest to their drinks. This is why, to this day, people still believe nonsense about this drink so often. Even in the light of many scientific articles, published for free on the internet, that have proven the myths to be just that. Not to mention the Swiss distillers who knew the truth in their own stills and history, despite what and random alcohol the Czechs dyed green and started selling under the name absinthe.
So to answer the first question, what is absinthe? We look to history for our answer. Pre-ban absinthe shared certain characteristics.
- It was a distilled product, not an infusion, vodka-maceration or any other type. You cannot legally make your own absinthe at home in the U.S. because distilling without a license is illegal. So those online ‘kits’… forget them, you’ll never really make absinthe by soaking herbs in vodka.
- Absinthe was bottled at a high proof in order to preserve the botanical content—minimum 90 proof—but often much higher. You know that day-glo stuff at the club that went down easy, not really absinthe either.
- All recipes included Anise, Fennel, and Grande Wormwood. Absinthe gets it’s name from the Latin term for Grande Wormwood, Artemisia Absinthium. Other types of wormwood can be used but Absinthium makes it an absinthe. Wormwood alone doesn’t make the absinthe, there are multiple herbs used and each distiller will use different blends but will always include the trinity. Those dyed wormwood bitters claiming all sorts of nonsense, not absinthe.
- No sugar was added. This is the difference between liquor like absinthe and a sugary liqueur like St. Germain. Many absinthe drinkers prefer not to use sugar, myself included. It’s a personal taste much like using sugar in coffee or tea, and too much sugar is disgusting to my palate.
The best brands of absinthe all had other characteristics in common, although lower-quality absinthe was historically made that violated the following principles:
- They were all clear or naturally colored with herbs.
- No artificial chemical was used to replace the ‘louche effect’ that anise gives to it’s distillate.
- Full herbs were used, not oil mixes or other methods of obtaining the taste.
So there is the historical information. I personally define absinthe in the following manner.
- Must include Anise, Fennel, and Grande Wormwood.
- Must be a fully distilled product, that is high (90+) proof.
- Must not contain artificial coloration or louching agents. Because as La Clandestine brand ambassador Alan Moss pointed out; “CALLING “ARTIFICIALLY COLOURED ABSINTHES” GREEN ABSINTHES IS LIKE SAYING IT’S OK TO ADD RED COLOURING TO WHITE WINE AND THEN CALLING THAT RED WINE!”.
So there you have it, absinthe defined.
Most of the above is recalled from memory, however if you would like to fact check the sources that I learned from, the following websites contain lots of information—both historical and scientific—regarding absinthe.