If you weren’t already aware, Absinthe is legal again. In 2007, after a 95-year absence from the U.S. market, a group of distillers and historians, led by intrepid chemist Ted Breaux, convinced the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau that modern European products wouldn’t pose any undue harm to the general populace. The green fairy was to fly again.
It may be impossible to separate the alluring qualities of Absinthe from the illicit ones, but as with most of the broad strokes of history, the fiction far outshines the facts. Created at the close of the 18th Century in Switzerland by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire (got to love that name), Absinthe was really no different than the myriad of other botanical distillates of the time, such as gin. At this point in time, the combination of herbs and alcohol were believed to be the height of healthful tonics. Over the coming decades, Absinthe’s popularity spread throughout Switzerland and, in particular, France.
As with gin, Absinthe ultimately proved to be a little too popular. It was inevitable — it had everything going against it. At about 70%, it was very high in alcohol. It contained a suspected hallucinogen called thujone. And, its cheap price and great availability pandered specifically to the lower and middle classes. In France, all the great evils of society began to be blamed on “la fée verte”. The temperance movers and shakers had their platform, and between 1905 and 1915, most of the Absinthe-drinking world had banned the product.
Forget the obscenely high alcohol level. Forget the gross consumption. The culprit was the thujone. Thujone is a ketone found in the wormwood plant. The Latin name for wormwood is Artemisia absinthium, which is where “Absinthe” comes from. Despite all of the ingredients that made up a bottle (don’t forget the 70% alcohol), Absinthe couldn’t shake its connection to the maligned wormwood. Estimates at the time put the thujone levels in Absinthe as high as 350 mg/l. Death occurs at 60 mg/l. Modern research, however, has proven that the average level of thujone in pre-ban Absinthe was only about 25 mg/l, a safe level. By comparison, oil of the herb sage, which is deemed completely safe, can contain 50% thujone.
As modern research proved that Absinthe had never been the devil it had been decried to be, pre-ban producers, such as Kübler began to return to the European market. With alcohol levels reduced to modern standards and thujone capped at 10 mg/l (considered thujone free), the European products — albeit neutered ones — once again became legal in the United States.
So, legalese out of the way — what does it taste like? Anise and fennel. If you despise licorice, it’s not for you. The traditional way of drinking Absinthe is the drip. A flat, slotted Absinthe spoon (all good addictions need their spoon) is placed over a glass containing a couple of ounces of Absinthe. A sugar cube is then place atop the spoon. Water is slowly dripped over the cube until it dissolves and the glass is mostly full. When the water mixes with the Absinthe, the liquid will “louche” or turn cloudy. Finally, stir the whole thing up. And no, no fire is involved. Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of the Absinthe drip. If you pick up a bottle, try the drip but we have much better uses for the stuff.
Founded in 1863, Kübler is from Val-de-Travers, Switzerland, the birthplace of Absinthe. The same family that made Kübler then produces it today. Of the several brands currently on the market, I chose Kübler for its history, its great taste, its price, and its general availability. A little goes a long way, and as we’ll see, one bottle will keep you well supplied for quite awhile. The only downside for some may be that Kübler is a white Absinthe. While this is a traditional color for Absinthe, it does kill some of the Green Fairy excitement.
In the 95 years that Absinthe was off the market, its surprising how many substitutes — Pernod, Herbsaint, Ricard, and others — muscled to take its place. If you find recipes calling for these, use Absinthe instead, as we’ll do here. Besides, when your guests see the bottle, it’ll make your drinks just that much more exciting.
Esoterica: One of the higher-rated brands of Absinthe on the market is produced by Marilyn Manson, an apparent aficionado. It’s suppose to be quality stuff, but I just could never bring myself to drink anything called Mansinthe.