Chasing the Green Fairy, Absinthe Demystified

What is Absinthe?

Absinthe, known as “La Fée Verte” or “The Green Fairy”, is a high proof, naturally emerald green spirit (sometimes red, yellow, or colorless) distilled with the “Holy Trinity” of grande wormwood, green anise, and sweet fennel, among other herbs. It is important to know that absinthe is a liquor, not liqueur, as liqueurs have the sugar already added. French, Swiss, and U.S. absinthes are considered to be superior over most Eastern European brands because they are distilled with natural ingredients whereas the latter are infused, often with artificial dyes.

Maryland’s FIRST absinthe is distilled at Tenth Ward Distilling Company in Frederick!

History in a Nutshell

Absinthe originated in Switzerland in 1791 as an elixir. The spirit gained popularity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in France. Artists and poets (including Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, and Ernest Hemingway) gave it a romantic allure that helped it surpass wine as the most popular alcoholic drink, and 5 o’clock became known as “The Green Hour”.

Still Life with Absinthe

Vincent van Gogh
Painting, Oil on Canvas
Paris: Spring, 1887
Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Europe

Many French wine & spirit industries lost customers to absinthe’s popularity, in part by The Great French Wine Blight, an insect infestation (thought to have been caused by aphids that traveled over on American steamships) that decimated their crops. To counter this loss, the industries concocted fictitious scientific studies claiming that absinthe was harmful to health, convincing the ill-informed that drinking it caused insanity. Simultaneously, cheap, fake absinthes were being produced, poisoning its drinkers and causing seizures, and sometimes death, which led to the ban of absinthe in the U.S. in 1912 for its supposed hallucinogenic effects.

Fun Fact: Thujone is the active ingredient in grande wormwood (Artemisia absintheium, where the name absinthe originates) thought to cause hallucinations.

In 2007, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) decided if an absinthe’s thujone level is less than 10ppm, per liter, it’s considered to be “thujone-free”, and the absinthe ban in the U.S. was lifted.

Dispelling Misconceptions

Absinthe is not illegal. Since 2007, real, authentic absinthe is now available in the U.S. In fact, most absinthes are made using original 19th century recipes found in Europe and carefully distilled — using only alcohol, herbs and water.

Absinthe will not make you hallucinate or go insane. The euphoric feeling associated with drinking absinthe is attributable to the combination of the herbs used, which act as a stimulant, giving one a perceived heightened sense of awareness and a feeling of being more “lucid” or “aware”. The spirit is also high in proof, so consuming in excess will cause extreme intoxication.

Absinthe should not be served with fire. This historically inaccurate bohemian method was invented sometime in the 1990s in the Czech Republic as nothing more than a theatrical gimmick. Today many bars choose to “flame” their absinthe because it sparks interest and brings attention to the process. But… why would someone take a handmade and carefully distilled spirit and light it on fire? Please, don’t.

Absinthe Ritual

In the traditional French method absinthe is poured into a goblet, then ice water is slowly dripped over a sugar cube sitting atop an absinthe spoon resting across the rim of the glass. The sugar water drips slowly into the absinthe causing it to louche (cloud), releasing oils and perfuming the air with sweet anise aroma. The beauty of absinthe is you can prepare it to your own liking. Some may prefer more sugar or water for a sweeter or less intense experience. We enjoy it with 1 sugar cube and a 1:3 ratio of absinthe to water.

Watch the emerald absinthe turn opalescent, or louche, as the sugar water drips.

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