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Revealing the Secrets of Absinthe

One of my favorite parts of tending bar is clearing up misconceptions about alcohol. The biggest one has to be the old saw about beer before liquor or vice versa. (Answer: It doesn't matter, except you tend to drink faster and, therefore, drink more when you start with beer.) Right behind it is that most misunderstood spirit, absinthe. Any time someone spies our bottle of absinthe, I go through an almost ritualistic Q&A session. Yes, it's legal again, duh. Yes, it has wormwood. No, it doesn't make you hallucinate.

The history of absinthe is quite storied. It started in the late 18th century as a medicinal tonic. By the middle of the 19th century, it was prescribed to French soldiers as a malaria treatment. When the soldiers came home, they brought their taste for absinthe. For decades, it was all the rage, especially among artists and writers in the trés chic Bohemian culture.

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The absinthe craze ended at the turn of the 20th century thanks to two strange bedfellows. The temperance movement saw absinthe as an especially evil spirit, and French wine makers saw absinthe as a genuine threat to their profits. All manner of sensational rumors were spread about the dangers of the Green Fairy. The breaking point came when a Swiss farmer reportedly drank absinthe, then killed his family and tried to kill himself. Never mind the copious amounts of wine and brandy he already had that day; it was the two glasses of absinthe that did it.

Now that cooler heads prevail, the bans worldwide have been lifted, and the product today is similar to the pre-ban ones. The questionable compound in wormwood, thujone, never was as big a part of absinthe as it was made out to be. Moreover, it won't cause hallucinations; it will induce muscle spasms, but you'd have to drink so much absinthe that you'd be literally dead of alcohol poisoning before it happened.

Now that you know the history, let's drink. If you've seen the movie Moulin Rouge!, your first instinct with absinthe will likely be to have shots like they do at the start of the movie. Don't. The very high proof of absinthe (most are around 120 to 130 proof) means absinthe served neat is firewater. The most basic (many would argue best) way to prepare absinthe is a traditional Absinthe Drip.

To prepare an Absinthe Drip, all you do is slowly pour water over a sugar cube into a glass that holds a shot of absinthe. There are all manner of gorgeous Art Nouveau accessories to make this easier. While absinthe enthusiasts covet these fabulously expensive tools (yours truly definitely included), I have a couple of simple hacks that will produce an excellent Absinthe Drip without having to blow major coin. We should start with selecting good absinthe. There are two simple rules to remember. First, a decent absinthe is naturally colored. If it's the color of Scope mouthwash, put it back on the shelf. Second, good absinthe is expensive, clocking in at $60 a bottle and up. There's the occasional bargain to be had, but if it's much less than $50, it's almost certainly going to be utter crap. If you want a specific recommendation for a first absinthe, I'm fond of Lucid, the first post-ban absinthe sold in the United States.

With the spirit out of the way, all we need is a sugar cube on a slotted spoon, and a supply of ice water. Some outfits sell specially wrapped absinthe sugar. These are ridiculous. A box of sugar cubes from your favorite grocer will do fine.

Absinthe spoons are inexpensive (often included with absinthes as a premium), and the best way to go; they have a little notch above the bowl that keeps the spoon from prematurely dropping into the drink. If you can't find yours (or don't want to buy one), any slotted spoon you can keep over the glass will work.

The optimal way to supply ice water is through an absinthe fountain, a raised vessel with small spigots that are opened to a slow drip. These range in price from expensive to staggeringly expensive. The fountains are fun because you can watch the absinthe's louche (turning from clear green to opalescent white as you add water) as it swirls and dances with each successive drop.

If you don't feel like spending the money for a fountain (I don't blame you), put well-chilled ice water in a liquid measuring cup. Hold a piece of kitchen twine or thin chain across the top of the cup so that it hangs off the spigot. As you pour, the twine will keep the water in a steady stream, allowing you to pour as slowly as you wish, even drop by drop.

Absinthe Drip 1 ½ ounces absinthe 1 sugar cube 4 to 6 ounces ice-cold water

Pour absinthe into a small glass. Place the sugar cube on an absinthe spoon across the top of the glass. Pour water over sugar as slowly as possible. Stir gently to combine.

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JK Grence
Contact: JK Grence