The strange and intriguing history of Absinthe
From the reservoir glass like a vase in a museum and the ornately-carved slotted spoon, to the lively green liquid transforming into a milky iridescence; from the legends of madness and mayhem, to fans of the beverage including Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Edgar Allen Poe, and, more recently, Marilyn Manson; from its mystical origins to its legendary hallucinogenic abilities, absinthe, the wormwood-based spirit colloquially known as the green fairy, might just be the most romantic beverage on the planet.
It certainly helps that absinthe’s precise origin remains a mystery. Medical use of wormwood dates back to ancient Egypt, and ancient Greeks used wormwood extracts and wine-soaked wormwood leaves as medical remedies.
Indeed, the name itself comes from Artemisia absinthium, the scientific name for wormwood. The first on-record existence of modern absinthe, the distilled spirit containing green anise and fennel, appears in the 18th century. Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland, sold absinthe as an all-purpose patent remedy.
In the 1840’s, it was included in the rations of French soldiers colonizing Algeria, “for the prevention of fevers and treatment of dysentery.” Pretty soon the French soldiers were drinking absinthe for non-medical purposes as well, and brought it back home with them—right around the time a vine-killing aphid left France’s wine in short supply.
A ritualistic culture was soon created around absinthe drinking, even leading to France’s happy hour being called “the green hour” in the 1800’s.
Producers of absinthe usually use the distillation process, similar to the production of high quality gin, in which a high-proof neutral spirit is infused with a blend of botanicals. The “holy trinity” of botanicals are grande wormwood, green anise, and florence fennel, although other herbs can be used as well. The spirit is redistilled and, traditionally, infused a second time to intensify the flavor and garner the green color from chlorophyll in the botanicals.
The traditional way to prepare absinthe is as follows: place a sugar cube on a slotted spoon placed over the absinthe-filled reservoir glass. Next, drip cold water over the sugar cube and into the absinthe. This will cause a phenomenon called the “ouzo effect.” When the sugar-water hits the absinthe, it releases the essential oils from the alcohol into the water, creating a spontaneous emulsion. This causes the drink to become cloudy, a process the French called “le louche.”
Now it’s time to put one legend to rest: absinthe is not a hallucinogenic. Partially responsible for this belief is French psychiatrist Valentin Magnan, who studied 250 cases of alcoholism and found that absinthe drinkers were worse off than those who picked another poison. 19th century bohemians caught wind of this and happily embraced the legend. Oscar Wilde reported a phantom sensation of tulips brushing against his leg after leaving a bar at closing time—an event we can likely chalk up to creative license.
With a romantic aesthetic and a rich history, the green fairy will always be a welcome visitor.