Wednesday, January 16, 2008

How to Drink Absinthe

Absinthe is a formerly banned spirit drink that is made with Artemisia absinthium (wormwood) and other herbs. Also known as la fée verte (the green fairy), absinthe was originally formulated during the 18th century by the French-born Dr. Pierre Ordinaire in Switzerland as a digestive tonic. During the 19th century absinthe became a very popular drink in France. Often associated with artists and writers, absinthe was consumed by such figures as Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway. After being illegal for many years, true absinthe is once again legal in many countries. There are many different types of absinthe, some much more authentic and of higher quality than others. Absinthe is traditionally prepared and enjoyed according to the absinthe ritual.

  1. Select a quality bottle of absinthe. Absinthe is made using many different methods and ingredients. There are several standards that help one to determine if a particular brand of absinthe is authentic and of high quality. It is also possible to make absinthe, although this is dangerous and not recommended.

    • Different brands of absinthe will contain anywhere from negligible amounts of thujone up to about 35 mg/kg thujone. See the Tips below for more about the role of thujone in absinthe. International standards require that alcoholic beverages that contain greater than 25 percent alcohol by volume contain no more than 10 mg/kg thujone, while bitter spirits may contain up to 35 mg/kg thujone. If an absinthe is labeled as a bitter, it will probably contain 10 to 35 mg/kg thujone. Thujone is illegal as a food additive in the United States, but authentic absinthe containing negligible amounts of thujone can be legally sold. Vintage bottles of pre-ban absinthe can be obtained, and it is reputed that some of the lesser quality versions contained inordinately high levels of thujone and harmful adulterants such as copper salts, aniline dye and antimony trichloride, which led to its poor reputation.
    • Completed louche effect
      Completed louche effect
      Quality absinthe will usually show the louche effect. It is desirable for absinthe to gradually demonstrate increasing turbidity (opaqueness) or turn partially translucent as ice water is gradually added to it. This is known as the louche effect. The louched color should demonstrate complexity as well as nuance, and the absinthe should not turn opaque rapidly. However, it must be noted that not all quality absinthe will turn opaque, as the louche effect is primarily produced by the herbs anise and fennel. Absinthe typically tastes like liquorice due to the addition of such herbs. The louche effect is produced by the precipitation of the herbal essential oils.
    • Pernod Fils has historically been a high-quality absinthe
      Pernod Fils has historically been a high-quality absinthe
      The absinthe should be made from natural, whole herbal ingredients. The finest absinthe is made with whole, natural herbs and does not contain any artificial ingredients such as artificial colors and flavors. The herbs are merely ground up so that they can be efficiently used during the distillation and extraction processes. The pale-green color of typical high-quality absinthe is imparted by the chlorophyll that is extracted from whole, natural herbs. Absinthe that is bright green may be artificially colored. However, not all quality absinthe has a green color. Quality absinthe may also be clear, orange, or red, but the color should be imparted by natural herbal ingredients such as petite wormwood. Vintage absinthe may have an amber color, as the chlorophyll will have faded over time.
    • Absinthe with 74 percent alcohol by volume
      Absinthe with 74 percent alcohol by volume
      Quality absinthe has a high alcohol content. The best tasting absinthe falls into the range of 45-68 percent alcohol by volume. Absinthe has traditionally been about 136-proof. A very high alcohol content is not considered to be excessive because absinthe is traditionally diluted with water before drinking and it is meant to be sipped slowly over time, so as not to allow the effects of alcohol to overwhelm the subtle and pleasant effect of the herbs.
  2. Prepare the absinthe for drinking. There are different traditional and non-traditional ways to prepare absinthe. The most popular method is referred to as the absinthe ritual, although there are slight variations on this method. When preparing absinthe, keep in mind that the green fairy is associated with creativity, and is not something to be conformed to. Several methods are described below.
  3. 'Absinthe Drinker' by Viktor Oliva
    'Absinthe Drinker' by Viktor Oliva
    Drink your absinthe. The prepared absinthe can be drunk as desired, perhaps sipped gradually while pondering creative ideas. Oscar Wilde described drinking absinthe as such: "After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."

[edit] Absinthe Preparation Methods

Classic French Absinthe Ritual

  1. Pour about one ounce (30ml) of absinthe into a glass. There are various types of glasses that can be used, some of antique or historical design and others of more modern design. French absinthe glasses, such as reservoir pontarlier glasses, are quite suitable for the French absinthe ritual. Different styles of reservoir glasses are available, but every style will have a distinct or bulbous bottom area that indicates the amount of absinthe that is to be initially poured.
  2. Absinthe spoon (various types of absinthe spoons are used)
    Absinthe spoon (various types of absinthe spoons are used)
    Lay a flat, perforated absinthe spoon across the rim of the glass, and place a single cube of sugar on the perforated area of the spoon. This is customary but is not necessary. The sugar is traditionally used to balance the bitter taste of the wormwood.
  3. Sugar cube laid on absinthe spoon over glass (various types of glasses can be used)
    Sugar cube laid on absinthe spoon over glass (various types of glasses can be used)
    Dripping ice cold pure water over sugar into absinthe drink
    Dripping ice cold pure water over sugar into absinthe drink
    Drip very pure ice cold water into the absinthe from a small pitcher. This very slow and gradual addition of the water forms the heart of the absinthe ritual, and is done with or without the sugar. When using sugar, the cold water is dripped over the sugar and into the drink, causing the sugar to slowly dissolve into the absinthe. Very high quality absinthe can be expertly experienced simply with the ice cold water.

    • Three or four ounces of water are added per ounce of absinthe.

    • Ice cubes can be added to the pitcher of water if desired, but be sure that they don't fall into the glass of absinthe.

    • As the water is added to the absinthe, the absinthe should gradually louche.

    • Absinthe fountains were traditionally used to drip the ice cold water into absinthe drinks.

    • Brouilleur devices can also be used to automtically drip the water into individual glasses. The brouilleur is placed over the glass, and water, ice cubes, or ice water (as well as sugar if desired) is added to it. The water will gradually drip through the brouilleur into the absinthe. The brouilleur is removed before drinking the prepared absinthe.

  4. Stir the drink with the absinthe spoon after the water has been added. Two or three ice cubes can be added to the finished drink, but this practice may be frowned upon by absinthe purists.

"Glass in a Glass" Method

  1. Drip or trickle the ice cold water into the small glass of absinthe so that it overflows into the larger glass
    Drip or trickle the ice cold water into the small glass of absinthe so that it overflows into the larger glass
    Place a small glass full of absinthe (containing one ounce of absinthe) inside a larger empty glass.
  2. Drip the cold water into the the small glass, causing the contents of the small glass to overflow into the larger glass. Once the three or four ounces of water have been added, the large glass will contain the absinthe and water mixture, while the small glass will just contain water.
  3. Remove the small glass from the larger glass before drinking the absinthe from the larger glass.

Absinthe Neat

  1. Drink absinthe straight (neat). It may be ideal to taste vintage absinthe neat, as this will enable one to evaluate some of the particular nuances of a particular sample of absinthe.
  2. Keep in mind that this is not customary due to the very high alcohol content of traditional absinthe.
  3. Remember that the louche effect is a very important quality of absinthe, however, and should therefore be experienced when preparing quality absinthe.


  • Historically absinthe was a very popular cocktail ingredient. The 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book lists 104 cocktails which contain absinthe.

Czech or Modern Bohemian Method

  1. Pour a dose of absinthe into a glass, then place a sugar cube on an absinthe spoon or teaspoon.
  2. Soak the sugar in absinthe by dipping it into the absinthe with the spoon or pouring a little absinthe over it.
  3. Flaming absinthe-soaked sugar cube over glass of absinthe
    Flaming absinthe-soaked sugar cube over glass of absinthe
    Light the absinthe-soaked sugar on fire for about one minute, allowing the sugar caramelize and melt. If an absinthe spoon is used, the burning, melted sugar should drip into the absinthe.
  4. Dunk the still flaming spoon into the absinthe, which may then ignite.
  5. Add ice cold water to the absinthe to quench the flames and produce the louche effect.
  6. Use this method appropriately. Though frowned upon by some absinthe aficionados, this untraditional method has become popular in recent years. Absinthe with a high alcohol content will ignite more readily, but it is certainly not recommended that high-quality absinthe be set aflame.

  • Artemisia absinthium
    Artemisia absinthium
    The primary active botanical constituent in absinthe has been thought until recently to be thujone. However there is debate that the push and pull effect of the many herbs such as valerian root for example which is a depressant and the stimulant effect of other herbs used in its production may simply be at work. Thujone is derived from wormwood, although varieties of wormwood that are grown in certain geographical locales may not contain appreciable or significant amounts of thujone and other botanicals such as common sage contain much higher concentrations. As such, authentic absinthe that is made with grand wormwood need not contain measurable amounts of thujone. Roman or petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica) also contains thujone, and is commonly used in addition to Artemisia absinthium. Artemisia absinthium should be used during the primary distillation of absinthe, while Artemisia pontica may be used to naturally color the distilled absinthe. Thujone can be extracted during the distillation and coloring processes.
  • Some modern absinthe distilleries produce absinthe that is similar to pre-ban absinthe. As absinthe was banned for such a long time, the art of absinthe production is still being researched and re-learned. As such, some very high quality absinthe is produced using antique pre-ban distillation equipment as well as historical recipes and techniques. Some of the pre-ban absinthe production techniques were apparently quite complex, and are difficult to reproduce.
  • Purchase absinthe that has been produced by reputable, traditional European distillers. France, Spain and Switzerland produce authentic, high-quality absinthe.
  • Wormwood and other herbs can be added during different stages of the absinthe production process, and various production methods are utilized. This results in different flavors, variable final absinthe color, and variable concentrations of thujone. As such, different absinthe distillers produce absinthe that contains high levels of thujone, medium to low levels of thujone, and negligible levels of thujone.
  • When purchasing absinthe and absinthe-related products, be sure to read product labels or follow the advice of trusted absinthe connoisseurs.
  • If you don't like the licorice taste of traditional absinthe, there are various brands of absinthe that are made without anise and other herbs that impart the licorice flavor to absinthe.
  • Quality absinthe is made by using herbs during the distillation process. The herbs used during this process are not used to impart the characteristic color to the absinthe. The color is created later during the absinthe production process when herbs are merely soaked in the alcohol that has already been distilled with herbs. This is referred to as an herbal maceration (without subsequent distillation). Lower quality absinthe is essentially made from an herbal maceration, and no herbs are used during the distillation process. Very low quality absinthe may be made using cheap herbal extracts or essences, as well as artificial flavors and colors. Such absinthe may in fact be quite expensive and be labeled with somewhat misleading information. Traditional absinthe recipes call for a maceration of natural, whole wormwood and other herbs such as anise, licorice, hyssop, veronica, fennel, lemon balm, and angelica. An initial maceration may be distilled, then the resulting alcohol may be used for a subsequent maceration that is not distilled.
  • Wormwood is quite bitter, and the additional herbs are used to improve and mask the bitter taste of absinthe. Quality absinthe is also distilled using certain methods to produce a less bitter product. Like fine cognac, the "heart" of the distillation should be used for the finest absinthe, while the "heads" and "tailings" of the distillation (the beginning and the end of the distillation process) are used to make lower-quality absinthe ordinaire or are used to process (soak) the herbal maceration. However, authentic absinthe should have a somewhat bitter taste, as this bitter taste is an indication that wormwood has been used.
  • Absinthe that contains high levels of thujone may be harmful and is more than likely "bathtub" or homemade variety and not the authentic item. Thujone is toxic, especially when high concentrations are consumed. Thujone is a convulsant and binds to gamma-aminobutyric acid A (GABAA) receptors in the central nervous system. The level of thujone in European absinthe is regulated, and such set levels are not thought to be harmful. Absinthe is not an illegal drug, although thujone is regulated due to its potential toxicity. It is not recommended that one drink more than three or four servings of absinthe in one sitting. The acute intake of absinthe is not thought to be harmful, but chronic, long-term consumption may cause harm as with any other alcohol.
  • Never drink absinthe just because it contains thujone. The GABA-type brain receptors that thujone acts upon are also acted upon or influenced by antioxidant polyphenol flavonoids. These flavonoids are not toxic like thujone, and are found in non-toxic herbs such as chamomile and valerian.
  • Absinthe that is labeled as a "bitter" may contain a relatively large amount of thujone, perhaps up to 35 mg/kg.
  • Never consume wormwood extract or oil, as these are very toxic and can be lethal.
  • Absinthe has a high alcohol content.
  • Always drink alcoholic beverages responsibly. Do not drive or operate heavy machinery while your judgment is impaired.
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