What is absinthe?
Absinthe is an aromatic spirit. It derives its name from its distinguishing ingredient, Artemisia absinthium, commonly known as grand or common wormwood. While the name of the plant does indeed most likely come from the Greek apsinthion, well-made absinthe is neither bitter nor undrinkable.
Absinthe is made by steeping aromatic herbs and spices in alcohol and distilling the infusion. Additional herbs and spices may be steeped in the resulting distillate for additional flavour and aroma. This final step extracts the chlorophyll from the herbs turning the spirit green. An absinthe so coloured is referred to as a verte. An absinthe which does not undergo the final steeping step remains clear and uncoloured, and is referred to as a blanche.
The herbs most commonly used in the initial infusion are dried and stripped flowering tops of grand wormwood, dried fennel seeds and dried green anise seeds. Coriander seeds and angelica seeds are also commonly used to flavour absinthe. Less common flavourings include veronica, Roman chamomile, genepi, elecampane and mint. Inferior absinthes frequently replace the fennel and green anise seeds with cheaper and stronger flavourings like liquorice root and star anise.
These botanical ingredients are steeped in 85% alcohol for 12 hours. The alcohol was typically derived from grapes, but modern manufacturers tend to use cheaper grain-based spirits. Opinions differ as to whether there is any noticeable effect, detrimental or otherwise, from using grain spirits instead of grape spirits. Water is added to the infusion, along with the 'phlegms', 'tails' or 'low wines' from a previous distillation, and the mixture is distilled.
Typical flavouring herbs for the final flavouring step are the dried and stripped flowering tops of Artemisia pontica (Roman or petite wormwood), melissa (also known as lemon balm) and hyssop flowers. Recipes for blanche absinthes usually add the herbs that would normally be used in the final flavouring step to the initial infusion instead.
Finally, the spirit is diluted to final strength, typically around 74% abv for fine absinthe. Absinthe was usually aged in enormous oak vats, but most modern manufacturers don’t age the spirit at all before bottling.
Both historical and modern absinthes are made simply by blending essential oils of various plants (typically extracted via steam distillation) with alcohol. These 'oil mixes' (and some distilled absinthes) are usually artificially coloured with yellow and blue food dyes. The popular 'La Fee' is one such artificially-coloured oil mix. Many absinthes are also sweetened with added sugar. Most absinthe aficionados frown on such additives, and on oil mixes in general.
Beverages made by steeping herbs and spices in grain alcohol should not be considered as true absinthes. Absinthe is a distilled spirit, not a simple infusion.
Absinthe is served by pouring an ounce into the bottom of a glass goblet. A specially-designed slotted spoon is placed on the rim of the glass over the absinthe. A sugar cube is placed on the spoon. Ice-cold water from a carafe or special absinthe fountain is dripped very, very slowly over the sugar cube. The sugar cube gradually dissolves, the sweet water running through the slots in the spoon and dropping into the absinthe.
As the absinthe is diluted the essential oils dissolved in the spirit fall out of solution making it cloudy. This effect is called the louche (pronounced 'loosh'). Depending on the original strength of the absinthe and the drinker's personal tastes, 3 to 5 parts water are added to the absinthe. The end result is a milky, highly aromatic drink with an alcohol content about the same as wine.
Don't set the sugar on fire. It's a stupid movie gimmick.
Taste of absinthe
Fine absinthe is floral and herbal, and may have citrus or mint notes. It is not bitter, and should not be overwhelmed by anise flavours. Wander down to your local nursery and rub petite wormwood, melissa and hyssop on your fingers. Bad absinthe tastes like ouzo, mouthwash or worse.
Effects of absinthe
Absinthe drinkers frequently claim that they experience other effects (or 'secondaries', as they are often called) in addition to the sensations usually associated with inebriation. Effects described typically range from a feeling of clarity that is unlike the usual fog of grog to hallucinations or visions.
Thujone, a chemical component of many species of Artemisia (and a variety of other plants including sage and cedar), is often cited as the active ingredient of absinthe. Less reputable manufacturers and retailers play upon this common assumption and list absurdly high thujone levels for their products – presumably, the more thujone an absinthe contains, the better the 'high'.
In fact, the active ingredient of absinthe is simply alcohol. Gas chromatography and mass spectrography show that there is little to no thujone in absinthe. A typical person would need to consume several thousand bottles of absinthe to ingest a lethal dose of thujone, by which time they would have long been in an alcoholic coma or already dead from alcohol poisoning.
Similarly high levels of consumption are required to ingest the amount of thujone required to observe physiological or neurological effects. The idea that thujone might have similar effects to THC because the molecules look the same or that it might bind to GABA receptors in the brain have been comprehensively debunked by modern science.
Nonetheless, the European Union has placed a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages with more than 10mg/kg of thujone. Fortunately, recent analysis showed that all of the absinthes tested fell well below this limit, with many absinthes (including many of those whose manufacturers claim very high levels of thujone) containing next to no thujone.
These low thujone levels are not a recent development. Many drinkers (or their anti-absinthe opponents) claim that vintage or pre-ban absinthes contained very high levels of thujone, and that such absinthes really did cause wonderful (or disastrous) neurological and physiological effects. However, the recipes used to make these vintage absinthes are readily available from texts published at the time, and are used by modern absinthe manufacturers. It would seem strange that the same recipes would produce thujone-rich absinthes a century ago, but not now. In addition, similar analyses to those performed on modern absinthes on samples of vintage absinthes show that they too contained little or no thujone. For example, vintage Pernod Fils was found to contain just 6mg/kg of thujone.
In your humble author's opinion, more extreme secondary effects are largely in the drinker's mind, and are a similar phenomenon to those drinkers who claim that tequila makes them crazy, or that rum makes them aggressive, or that ouzo makes them horny. It is possible that other yet-to-be substances in absinthe (such as anethole, which is present in amounts in the hundreds of milligrams per kilogram in many absinthes) have some neurological or physiological effects on the drinker. It is more likely, however, that absinthe drinkers expect such effects to occur, and so they do. A blind experiment to test the effects of absinthe and ordinary pastis would be an interesting exercise.
In short, absinthe is not a drug. It will not get you high. Thujone content is not an indicator of the quality of an absinthe, although if a particular manufacturer keeps raving about it, it might be a good sign to leave their products well alone.
Recent years have seen a boom in absinthe production in Europe. Unfortunately, many of these absinthes are simply poorly crafted oil mixes, most of which have never been anywhere near an Artemisia flower.
However, there is an increasing number of high-quality artisan-produced absinthes on the market. The most well-known are the Un Emile range of absinthes produced by the distillery of Les Fils d'Emile Pernot in Pontarlier, France. A relative newcomer to the scene is the highly-acclaimed Verte de Fougerolles 72 from the distillery of Paul Devoille in Haut Saone, France. All of these absinthes are available from the UK distributor Liqueurs de France. They're not cheap, but it's better than spending a slightly smaller fortune on something that's little more than artificially-coloured ouzo.
Avoid absinthes made in eastern Europe like the plague. If all you can afford is a bottle of Hills, save your money and drink Windex instead. Don't forget to set the sugar on fire.
Making your own absinthe
You cannot make absinthe by soaking a bunch of herbs and spices in Everclear. You cannot make absinthe by adding essential oil of wormwood to a bottle of Pernod pastis. You cannot make absinthe by mixing anything with a bag or bottle of stuff you bought on eBay. Don’t do it. I said don’t. Dee, oh, en, apostrophe, tee. Don’t.
If you have a decent still, and if you have access to quality botanical ingredients, and if it’s not illegal in your country, and if you know what you’re doing you can make the best absinthe you’ll ever drink at home. Yes, that’s a lot of 'if's.
There’s a thriving community of absinthe bootleggers and their appreciative fans out there in Internet land. Homemade absinthe is often referred to as ‘HG’, which is an abbreviation for 'hausgemacht', the German for 'house-made' or 'homemade'. People distilling such absinthe are sometimes called 'HGers'.
If you’re looking for recipes and instructions, try googling for translations of the texts most commonly referred to by HGers: La Fabrication des Liqueurs by J. de Brevans, Nouveau Traité de la Fabrication des Liqueurs d’Apres les Procedes les Plus Récents by J. Fritsch, Traité des liqueurs et de la distillation des alcools ou le liquoriste et le distillateur moderns by P. Duplais and Traite Pratique de Fabrication des Liqueurs by A. Bedel.