From a very early age I have been fascinated by the mystique surrounding absinthe. In 1997 when I went to Spain I scoured all of Barcelona asking for the elusive absenta before I was directed by a butcher to a small place in Barrio Gotico. I got lost looking for this place but discovered Els Quatre Gats cafe in the process. I bought the bottle, stashed it in my suitcase and hoped for the best. Back then it was still illegal. Long story short, I’ve been hooked on the ritual of absinthe ever since.
The History of Absinthe
Appropriately enough, Els Quatre Gats opened back in 1897 and was a key artistic hub for artists such as Miquel Utrillo, Julio Gonzalez, Ramon Casas and others. It soon became the center of the modernist movement. It became one of Picasso’s favorite haunts later on as well. In spite of its colorful history, it soon became apparent that no self respecting Catalan would dare frequent this modern-day tourist trap. Nowadays Els Quatre Gats is overpriced and filled to the brim with tourists. The artists have since migrated to Las Ramblas.
Absinthe takes its name from Artemisia Absinthium the bitter herb that gives it the unique color and flavoring and the botanical name for Wormwood. Wormwood contains thujone the chemical often associated with Absinthe’s bad reputation and the source of the drink’s supposed hallucinogenic properties. Wormwood was used as far back as 1792 to flavor drinks. An elixir was created with it by a French doctor called Pierre Ordinaire. Said potion designed to pack a punch also included anise, hyssop, Melissa coriander as well as other herbs and a 68% alcohol content. Ordinaire left the recipe with two sisters who then sold it to Major Dubied whose son in law was Henri-Louis Pernod.
As an aside, wormwood holds a prominent place in my herb garden. It smells great and it’s useful in treating many illnesses. As a medicine, wormwood is traditionally used as a bitter to improve digestion, to fight worm infestations, and to stimulate menstruation.It was regarded as a useful remedy for problems involving the liver and gallbladder.
By 1797 Absinthe was on it’s way to becoming a national phenomenon. By the 19th century there were at least twenty major distilleries of the green fairy. The success of Pernod brought with it countless imitators that were producing absinthe on the cheap with dubious ingredients. Pernod did pursue the patents in court but it’s during this time it’s reputation started to become tarnished.
From mid 19th century absinthe became associated with the bohemian counterculture thriving in Paris and was often the subject in paintings by Manet, Van Gogh and Picasso. When artists were not painting it they were drinking it. Absinthe was cheap, easily available and it packed a serious punch. Slowly, perhaps as a result of the painters and the crowd who indulged in the green fairy, absinthe acquired a reputation for causing delirium and madness.
Wine producers saw absinthe as a threat to their sales and dumped money into the panic. Posters, articles and the temperance movement all had their part in demonizing the drink. Thujone in large quantities was found to be a neurotoxin that caused death in laboratory animals. The final straw came when the “Absinthe Murder” took place in Switzerland in 1905 when Lanfray shot his entire family after imbibing Absinthe. Lanfray was intoxicated to a deadly level from also having drank several liters of wine and brandy aside from the absinthe.
After nearly a hundred years, Absinthe was legalized once again in the United States. Immediately, I invested in an absinthe fountain and bought exquisite glasses and spoons. The day I lay my hands on a bottle of Lucid I was ecstatic. Armed with sugar cubes and ice we sat around the table watching the milky-white loosh with childlike awe. If you have never indulged in Absinthe, I invite you to partake of this century-old tradition.
How to imbibe
- Pour a measure of absinthe into a tall glass.
- Place a slotted absinthe spoon over the glass and place a sugar cube on it (the lozenge-shaped French cubes work best) Check out Marzio’s imbibing tips for Step 3a.
- Slowly pour 4 to 5 parts of iced water over the sugar and let it drip into the glass. The absinthe will turn from emerald green to a milky white.
- Sip slowly and imagine yourself in a Belle Epoque Parisian cafe
Some of my favorite absinthes
Having tried at least ten different makes of Absinthe, I realize now I prefer less anise and a smoother ride. I also enjoy less sugar than I used to. Lucid is no longer my favorite. Below is a list of some of my favorite Absinthes. I will try to elaborate on why I liked some of these vintages but also give you a little rundown about them. If you love absinthe you can’t go wrong with any of these as they were all a distinct pleasure to the palette.
- Nouvelle-Orleans: This is the absinthe that was poured at my wedding (pictured left). Ted, also the founder of Lucid has created this amazing bouquet that has notes not found in Lucid. It is less harsh, more spicy, more flavorful and louches into a gorgeous pale green color. I tried this absinthe towards the end and it really posed stiff competition to the ones that came before it. Absinthe Nouvelle-Orleans is rooted in the heritage that made Sazrac cocktail and the absinthe frappe famous. It’s distillation simulates herbs and tonics of the Belle Eqpoque. Each batch is handcrafted using authentic methods and equipment used over a century ago. Delicious.
Meadow of Love: Wow, what to say? It was like love at first drink! The color is not as rich, but the flavor is everything you expect from an original Absinthe recipe. Not as thick and creamy as found in the Pontarlier and other styles, but falls more into a nice, smooth satin. Smooth, rich and very, very strong. Careful maceration in copper pot distillation ensures abundant aromas and concentrated flavor. Love it.
St. George: This was truly, truly good. Hands down awesome. As you sip this hidden flavors emerge like lemon peel, pepper, terragon and the usual medley of anise and wormwood. It’s complex and delicious but also refreshing. At 120 proof this goes straight to your brain so don’t be surprised if you see the green fairy! Going to snatch some of this up as well!
Obsello: (This is no longer being made, but you can still buy whatever is left–get your stash asap!) Talking to the maker of Obsello got me excited to try his Absinthe. Can’t say enough about his enthusiasm and joy! Upon tasting Obsello I became an instant convert. I can see why he’s so proud of his baby! It’s heady and light but full of flavor. I tasted small nuances and aromas but it was the smoothness that really made me keep sipping! Plum, grape, vanilla! Absolutely decadently good! Obsello Absinthe Verte is Spain’s most celebrated absinthe, with honors including: GOLD MEDAL 2008-Beverage Testing Institute, 4 STARS Imbibe Magazine, 4 STARS-Wormwood Absinthe Society, and inclusion in Wine Enthusiast’s “Best of 2008″ issue. Get some! The price tag on Obsello cannot be beat at around $50.
Marteau: Marteau is good but it does change depending on how much it is diluted. While I love the smoothness at 6/1 I don’t like the flavor at say 4/1. I also require lots of sugar with this one (3 cubes) at 6/1 for my perfect recipe. My individual taste buds, however, should not dissuade anyone from trying and drinking this amazing Absinthe. It’s on the herby side but it has a lot of complex flavor that just jumps out. Marteau is also one of the costliest Absinthes in the market today at nearly $100 a bottle.
La Clandestine: This is the first absinthe we tried. The louche on this Swiss blue is nearly pure white. It s lighter than the green absinthes and far more refreshing. Drink liberally on a hot summer day! This absinthe marries the rich flavor of anise and fennel with the slight bitterness of wormwood.
Watch Americans Try Absinthe for the First Time. It is is a very entertaining video…that gets progressively more interesting towards the end…and that’s because absinthe is unlike any drink you have ever tried. What are you waiting for? Go get some!
Ready for some more recommendations? Check out “Absinthe Drinkers Love Company” by Marzio.