Absinthe – The New Tequila?


Absinthe is making a come back, both in Paris and other European cities. The French ban on absinthe is still actually in force, but new regulations bringing French law in line with EU laws have once again allowed the manufacture and sale of absinthe and specialty bars serving the drink are re-emerging after a near hundred year absence.

If you happen to find yourself in Paris and are interested in trying the drink, there are now several bars to choose from. “Les Furieux” on the Rue de la Roquette for one. But if you want the whole experience with a history lesson thrown in, the “Hotel Royal Fromentin” on rue Fromentin will serve it the old-fashioned way with a pitcher of ice cold water and a traditional absinthe spoon, a slotted silver spoon upon which one places a cube of sugar. The spoon rests on top of the glass of absinthe and water is slowly poured over the sugar dissolving it until the absinthe has been watered down. This is known as “louching.” It’s best to go here during a less busy time of the day and you will be rewarded with a history lesson along with a little leaflet about the drink’s past.

Absinthe was banned, both by French and US authorities in the early 1900’s because of it’s so-called hallucinogenic properties. One of the most famous so-called absinthe “addicts” was Vincent Van Gogh, and he reputedly cut off his own ear under the influence of the drink in a love-addled absinthe induced hallucination. There is no actual evidence that this was the case, but a series of lurid political cartoons and pundits of the late 1800’s liked to blame any bizarre public behavior on the consumption of absinthe. Although it’s fair to say that the economic issues of the time ( absinthe was fast becoming the most popular drink of the day ) were causing the wine producers some financial difficulty and it was they that bought pressure to bear on the government to have the drink banned. The tabloids reported almost any murder as being absinthe fueled and the drink was labeled a social menace.

Hemingway on Absinthe "Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife into the piano. The woodworms are so bad and eat hell out of all furniture that you can always claim the woodworms did it."

Hemingway on Absinthe
“Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife into the piano. The woodworms are so bad and eat hell out of all furniture that you can always claim the woodworms did it.”

Artists have described the effects of absinthe as being mind opening and hallucinogenic, but there is little scientific evidence to support these statements. Several scientific studies have failed to reproduce these effects and there is some doubt as to whether they actually exist. This sounds like my kind of scientific study and if there are any budding researchers out there needing test subject, let me know. I have a feeling the political and economic pressures that produced the ban in the first place are mostly responsible for the hallucinations. As usual, we want what we can’t have and this only served to fuel absinthe’s popularity. Some noted absinthe drinkers include Oscar Wilde, Manet, Pablo Picasso, Henri Toulouse –Latrec and of course, Ernest Hemingway. If there was alcohol involved it’s a safe bet Hemingway and Wilde would be on the list.

If you wish, it is possible to make your own absinthe and there are kits available to purchase on the internet. Most of these kits involve soaking a mixture of herbs in vodka or some other high proof alcohol and adding potentially dangerous amounts of wormwood extract. Certainly it’s not recommended to try making your own absinthe as the distillation process is what makes the drink really palatable in the first place.

Absinthe is actually made from several herbs, green anise, fennel, and grande wormwood. There are many different recipes which can include nutmeg, juniper, coriander and angelica. The better quality brands are usually distilled and while the un-distilled versions are not necessarily worse, they do tend to be cheaper and are considered a lower quality by connoisseurs of the drink. The wormwood is likely to be the key ingredient for inducing hallucinations. The green color of the drink is produced either by adding color in the cheaper versions or, in the better quality distilled brands by steeping petite wormwood during the distillation process. The alcohol content of absinthe is extremely high, usually between 45% and 75%. Hence the need to water it down.

Absinthe apparently has it’s origins in Switzerland although the history is a little murky on the subject, probably due to too many late night absinthe sessions, and the French like to lay claim to it. During the height of it’s popularity, the French company “Pernod” was the largest supplier world-wide. To this day, Pernod is the most popular “Pastis” manufacturer. Pastis is another aniseed based drink popular in France, but without the hallucinations.

Degas' Absinthe Drinker

Degas’ Absinthe Drinker

I rather enjoy the drink, but would definiitely suggest you buy a better quality brand. The stronger versions are about 70% proof, but I was pleasantly surprised the first time I tried a good quality Absinthe. It’s very easy to drink. I have tried a variety; I prefer the higher thujone contents, but I am still waiting for the hallucinations to start.

The absinthe revival started in the UK, when a local importer discovered the drink had never actually been banned there. They began making absinthe in the Czech republic and importing it into the UK. This prompted similar reactions all around Europe and importers in both Holland and Belgium began challenging their county’s bans. The challenges were successful and the absinthe began to flow once again. Switzerland followed suit and is now legally available there also.

There is some confusion in the USA as to whether the drink is still illegal or not. The FDA regulations contradict the US Customs and Border Protection regulations. The prevailing opinion amongst absinthe drinkers in the US is that it is in fact legal to purchase and consume ( surprise, surprise, ) but that has yet to be challenged legally. There are a number of drinks available under the description “absenthe” which is a milder version of absinthe containing low or no amounts of thujone, the chemical extracted from wormwood and potential hallucinogen. This particular type can be likened to Bohemian style absinthe with little or no wormwood. In 2007 a new drink came on the market called “Lucid” but once again, the thujone levels are very low and it hardly compares to the real thing. If you want a full strength taste of absinthe, American drinkers are still going to have to make a trip abroad or buy from an international shipper. Absinthe is still legal in Mexico and has never been banned there. And is as popular as it ever was.

But be careful though. In 2006 it was reported that US citizen George Allen Smith of Conneticut vanished from on board the Royal Caribbean ship “Brilliance of the Seas” while under the influence of absinthe. Once again the specter of a mind altering, socially unacceptable drug rears it’s head. Michael Herndon, spokesperson for the U.S. Food and Drug administration is quoted as saying, “Absinthe is banned because of harmful neurological effects caused by a toxic chemical called thujone.” These sort of comments from a Federal representative are bound to fuel the sort of popularity absinthe once enjoyed, in fact, that’s what I call a perfect sales pitch. Where’s the nearest absinthe bar?

Useful Absinthe Links