I keep writing articles and halfway through I reference some piece of knowledge I have about absinthe that not everyone would immediately know. For example, I was writing a post about the near-mythical red or rouge absinthe. For this I would need to first write about green “vertes” and white “blanches” to give some background info, as not every reader of my blog may be aware of such material.
Since I do wish for this blog to be a standalone resource I feel the need to write a crash course in absinthe. Nothing fancy or any deep secretive knowledge will be presented in this course, just the basics. All I will cover is what you need to know so that when you talk about absinthe, an absintheur won’t facepalm in front of you.
I reason that the best way to introduce someone to absinthe, is to walk them through a glass. I’ll explain as we take each step, what is optional, what not to do, and why.
Step 1: Find a real absinthe.
I’m writing this guide for newbies (mostly) and as such I have another obstacle to clear. What on earth is absinthe and how do I know I’ve had the real stuff? To assess whether or not an absinthe is real, we look to what people were drinking before it was banned. This absinthe is often referred to as “pre-ban” and some of it was stored or forgotten about to this day. This means that if you have the money and/or connections that you can actually still taste some of this stuff. Not all of it is stellar, but the good stuff only got better after a century or so of resting in a bottle. But this is a digression, the point is that we use historical absinthe as a set of guidelines.
As I have described before, pre-ban absinthe shared certain characteristics:
- It was distilled. I will address this with more detail in part three, but for now beware the do-it-yourself kits sold online, they are a scam.
- It contained Grande Wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium which gives absinthe it’s name), Anise, and Fennel. Producers are not required to list ingredients on alcohol so it can be hard at first to assess this characteristic.
- It was bottled at a high proof to preserve the botanical content. You are looking for an ABV of 50 to 80 degrees (100-160 proof).
- No added sugar. This would change it from a liquor to a liqueur. In America liqueurs must be labeled as such so this is an easy one to spot.
Like I said though, not all pre-ban was stellar. The good stuff shared a few other qualities:
- If it was colored, the color was achieved through the use of coloration herbs leaving a natural green. No dyes were used in the good stuff. Fortunately, any artificial dyes used today have to be declared on the label in the United States.
- There was no additive to replace the “louche” or clouding effect that anise gives to a distilled drink when it is cut with water. I have not seen this in any modern absinthe but it bears repeating just in case someone tries to slip one under the radar.
- Actual herbs were used in the production of good absinthe. No essential oil mixes or flavorings. Unfortunately for Americans this doesn’t have to be mentioned on the label.
In America today, there is NO standard definition for what can and cannot be labeled as absinthe. Unlike the regulations for what is and isn’t bourbon, tequila, and so forth. Just about anything can be labeled absinthe. So there’s a lot of random alcohol that’s labeled absinthe and sold at a premium to take advantage of this. To help you get real absinthe, use those seven points listed above as your shopping guidelines. As you can see, some of them are easy to spot before you buy a bottle, and others are not.
There are other traps to avoid as well. Herbs can be a bit expensive, so if you see a 750ml bottle at the store running a mere $20, then that is a good indicator that it is cheap crap. Likewise, many shady marketers are taking advantage of the perceived rarity and selling faux absinthe for hundreds of dollars per bottle. If this is your first bottle, don’t spend less than $50 or more than $100 without doing some research on the specific brand first.
Another trap is the advertising of thujone or psychedelic/legendary effects. Thujone was the chemical that became the scapegoat while various movements were attempting to ban absinthe. To this accord a lot of the myth of absinthe was attributed to thujone. History and modern scientific analysis do not bear these myths out. Advertising thujone, “psychoactive”, or other gimmicks is like advertising the amount magnesium in table salt, pointless.
But now you may be at the store and they don’t have anything that fits the criteria. That’s normal, after a few minutes of study, you will probably know more about absinthe than the buyer, owner, etc. at the local liquor stores and bars. Also, every state is different and some may only have one or two brands of actual absinthe available to retailers.This is not to say that local stores will always bomb the absinthe test. Depending on where you live, they might stock a brand or two worth picking up. As always, stick to your standards and watch out for marketing gimmicks.
To solve the “no real absinthe at the store” problem, I highly recommend checking out the Approved Absinthe Vendors List at The Wormwood Society. I still order most of my absinthe online as most stores in my neck of the woods hardly know anything about absinthe. Some of the online vendors have a few dyed absinthes and a handful of very strange tasting non-traditional absinthes but for the most part you are in good hands with them.
Now you might wonder “What is this white or ‘blanche’ absinthe?” Don’t worry, it is real absinthe and depending on the brand it might be really good. Traditionally absinthe was either green from herbal coloring or not colored at all and bottled clear from the distillation. This clear version was often called white or “blanche”. Reds are speculative historically, so for your first glass stick to natural green or white. No purples or blacks or any other nonsense. I will cover more of the various types of absinthe in part two of this crash course.
Step 2: Prepare a glass.
Okay so you’ve hunted down a real absinthe. Good job, it’s not easy in some parts of the world. Now on to the good part, making your first glass. I’ve already written about how to prepare a glass of absinthe in a previous post. So I’ll do a quick repeat with a few pointers here.
First find a clear glass, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, and pour a shot (1.5 ounces) into the glass. Absinthe is essentially bottled as an extract, which is why you are pouring so little. The high alcohol content is intended to preserve all the herbs used in making absinthe. If you drink absinthe straight, then many of those herbal flavors will still be trapped in ethanol. This is exactly why preparing absinthe is necessary; you need to do something to release the flavors of the herbs. Never, ever use fire. The reason being, that fire will burn away the encapsulated flavors, leaving an unpleasant taste.
Instead, fill a container with ice water. Nothing fancy is necessary. It could be a carafe or even another glass. Let the ice water sit and chill so that the water is cold before you use it.
As you are waiting for the water to chill you may want to add the optional sugar. If you have a sweet tooth, put a cube of sugar on a slotted spoon or fork, and rest it across the rim of the glass. This is for your taste preference and you could use other sweeteners if you prefer. If you taste herbal stuff as bitter then you might want to do this. Just remember: sweetening is a personal choice and always optional.
Once the water is cool slowly pour it into the absinthe. If you use sugar then pour over the sugar cube to dissolve it. The aim is to pour slowly so that the absinthe has time to breathe. A thin stream will suffice, or you can drip it in with drops, just as long as you don’t dump the water in there. At a certain point the absinthe will begin to turn cloudy. This is known as “louching” and is something all absinthes should do when water is added to them.
Once the absinthe is fully clouded (“louched”) with no clear liquid in the glass, stop. Take a sip. It will most likely be way too hot at this point but it won’t be a disaster on your tastebuds. The ratio here for absinthe to water is probably one to one (often noted as 1:1). I highly suggest that you add more water. Most absintheurs prefer something within the range of three to five parts water to one part absinthe (3:1, 5:1). If you are using a shot glass for measure that’s three to five shots of water for each shot of absinthe. The point of having you stop early to taste, is that it is easier to add more water than it is to add a fractional amount of absinthe.
A general rule is that the higher proof an absinthe is, the more water you should add. If you want to get very specific, many people find that reducing the mixture to around 12-15% ABV reaches the sweet spot. To help with the math see this handy webpage. I personally don’t get this specific when just casually drinking. In my opinion, absinthe is for relaxing and not controlling like a science experiment.
Step 3: Drink.
In all likelihood, you just worked your ass off for this glass. You went hunting for real absinthe only to find liquor stores with no clue. Then you waited for real stuff to be shipped to you. Finally you were able to fret over how much to pour and how much water to add. Possibly you debated if your tastebuds required sugar or not.
You could just chug a glass, but why? Smell it, sip it, lay back and enjoy the moment.
You will most likely have a lot of absinthe left in your bottle when you are done drinking. So when you put the bottle away here are a few tips on proper storage:
- Keep it at room temperature. Cold temperatures may cause the anethole (from anise) to solidify and you will have solid white specks or globs in your absinthe. Some people have gotten solids like this to dissolve but most cannot. Hot temperatures will cause the absinthe to age quicker.
- Speaking of aging: oxygen causes aging so close that top. UV light will age absinthe as well, so put the bottle out of direct sunlight. Liquor cabinets work well.
- Store your bottles upright. This is not wine, so do not lay a bottle sideways. The high proof of absinthe can and eventually will eat through the cork and leech a nasty “corked” flavor into the absinthe, not to mention spill all over if left for too long.
- No plastic. Again, the high concentration of alcohol will cause plastic to leech flavor into the absinthe. If you have an absinthe with a screw cap instead of a cork, store it upright due to this as well.
Afterword: I didn’t trip ballz man!
No, you most certainly did not hallucinate. If you thought absinthe did anything like this then you have been sold a myth. The idea that absinthe is a drug or made a person go crazy was a lie conjured up by the temperance movement in order to get the new favorite drink of France banned. Their efforts went nowhere until a financial bump from the competing French wine industry launched their campaign into success. Despite the hypocrisy, it worked.
With absinthe being banned, all sorts of nonsense popped up concerning these accusations. Pop-culture latched on to the myths as “hip” tourists got fleeced out of money at European tourist traps that lit fake absinthe on fire to attract attention to the drink. The internet followed with scam sites selling online kits. This was a very profitable venture, and unfortunately still is.
Thankfully, experiments that actually tested pre-ban absinthe were conducted for the first time in history in the early 2000s. These proved that the urban myths were just that, myths. There’s nothing in absinthe that would make you hallucinate, or go crazy, or anything else. Neither then, now, or at any point in history.