Ah Absinthe, Le Fee Verte, “The Green Fairy”: liquid muse of poets, artists, writers and ear-cutting painters generally. The LSD of the 19th Century. Beloved by such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Toulouse Lautrec and Vincent Van Gogh. An emerald liqueur steeped in mystery, prohibition, misunderstanding and condemnation.
So, what is Absinthe anyway? Where does it come from? What are its effects? Why was it banned for over 100 years? And will drinking it turn you into a raging homicidal maniac?
Well, here at Romantic Bohemian, I intend to educate you and dispel those myths once and for all. Sadly, by doing so perhaps some of the mystique and urban legend will be stripped from your consciousness forever, but I think it’s only right and just to lay down some boozy education where it’s most needed.
Lets start off with a little history: Absinthe is derived from the naturally growing Wormwood plant Artemisia absinthium. Historians have found evidence that the bitter tasting wormwood bush was used as a medicinal, alcohol-infused extract dating back to both ancient Egypt and Greece. It was not until 1792, that the first recipe of a distilled, wormwood based liqueur was invented by a Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland. His version of absinthe contained the combination of wormwood, anise and fennel. Like so many herb based liqueurs of the day, Dr Pierre sold it as a curative tonic for a variety ailments.
By the early 1840’s, French colonial troops were being given Absinthe as a “malaria preventative” (not that it helped), and their thirst for the milky green beverage was brought back home with them to France. The drink grew in such popularity by the middle of the 19th Century that it was being produced on a mass industrial scale and became a fixture of the many bars, restaurants and cafes of sophisticated European capitals. Indeed, 5pm in Paris became known as the l’heure verte “the green hour” as both wealthy bourgeois and the common working people poured themselves a nip and unwound after a hard day’s work.
So why did Absinthe get such a bad rap? A twofold confluence of events:
1. Let’s face it, alcohol safety production standards were not exactly regulated in those times. For the cheaper versions favored by the poor, Absinthe’s trademark green color was often achieved using, instead of natural herbs as was originally intended, dyes derived from rusted copper pipes or other dubious industrial chemicals. The alcohol level of Absinthe is also extremely high: 60-75%. Your average whiskey is around 40-45%, so this stuff packs a serious punch. So, if you’re the average slum dweller in rapidly industrializing Paris, a cheap bottle of Absinthe certainly gave you some bang for your buck, as well as a rapidly deteriorating liver.
2. The temperance movement was quickly gaining steam in many countries. Distilled spirits were replacing traditional beer and wine, often getting a bum rap around the world and being blamed for all the attendant violence, alcoholism and misery of the working classes. The French wine industry was also threatened by Absinthe’s incredible popularity, it was more than happy to jump on the anti-Absinthe bandwagon that was eating into its profits.
When a Swiss farmer, Jean Lanfray, murdered his wife and daughter in 1904, supposedly in a bout of “Absinthe Madness”, and despite the fact that Panfry had earlier that night drunk seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee laced with brandy, two crème de menthes, before consuming the final 2 glasses of Absinthe, Absinthe was demonized as the culprit of his murderous behavior. It was just the excuse the temperance advocates needed to push the public into supporting an outright Absinthe ban. Belgium, Holland, the US and France soon followed suit in the next decade. The ban would remain in place for almost 100 years in these countries.
Most of the purported “hallucinogenic” and insanity inducing effects of Absinthe were attributed to the chemical Thujone, present in Wormwood. Yes, Thujone is a neurotoxin, and in large quantities, can be poisonous to the human body. However, lab tests of vintage, pre-ban Absinthes found only trace amounts of Thujone to be present. Seriously, you would have to drink multiple bottles of Absinthe at 70% alcohol to even start being effected by any sort of Thujone.
And guess what? Its little known fact that alcohol itself is a fucking poison!!! It’s going to kill you, or make you murder your wife and kids in a fit of anger, far faster than any sort of microscopic toxin present in a naturally growing herb macerated into a liqueur. Got it?
How is Absinthe made?
Well, this is where things get fun! A standard 19th Century Absinthe was made with the “Holy Trinity” of Wormwood, Green Anise and Fennel Seed. A few other herbs could be used as well, like Coriander. These were left to soak for a number of days in high proof, wine-based brandy and then distilled. The distillate, which is clear at this point, was then left to soak in a few more green colored herbs: Melissa, Hyssop and another variety of Wormwood known as Petit Absinthe. After a few days, the liquor would be dyed a chlorophyl green color and is ready to drink. When water or ice is added to the glass and the alcohol level drops below 40%, oils held in suspension in the Anise will turn the drink a cloudy, milky white Louche – an effect that can also be seen in French Pastis, Greek Ouzo and Turkish Raki.
So lets start with our recipe. This is my own, and it works well enough for me. I use Star Anise along with Green Anise seed, as honestly, Green Anise just didn’t give me the nice thick louche I’m looking for. I also add Angelica, a licorice-like root that was also traditionally used in some older recipes I’ve read.
3 Tbsp wormwood (I bought this from a local Hippie/Herbal store)
2 Tbsp star anise
2 Tbsp green anise seed
3 Tbsp fennel seed
1 tsp corriander
1 tsp angelica
750mls of high proof ethanol (i.e Everclear)
To color the Absinthe, we’ll use:
6 leaves fresh mint (I get some fresh from my garden)
1 tsp hyssop
1 tsp melissa
1 tsp wormwood
You’ll also need a couple large glass mason jars and a pretty bottle to put it in when finished.
Lets start off with getting a coffee grinder and finely grinding the first 8 ingredients.
Once finished, put all of these into your mason jar of ethanol. It will look like a cloudy, dirty soup, but smells divine. A lovely mixture of anise and other fragrant herbs. Leave this to marinate for a good couple days.
OK, now: let’s just say that I have a friend, who has a cousin, who knows this guy in New Zealand who has an alcohol still. This mysterious and unknown character was kind enough to distill my mason jar full of macerated herbs for me (its legal to home distill in New Zealand). Once done, it simply looks like a mason jar of clear white vodka, but still smells strongly of the anise and wormwood. If you drank this now, it might be what the Swiss would call “Blue” Absinthe- they would often distill it clandestinely and transport it across the French border uncolored to fool the customs officials. But let’s stick with the traditional method and perform the second step.
Separate about 30% of your clear liquor into a separate jar and now add the green coloring herbs (mint, hyssop, melissa & wormwood).
The reason for doing this is if you add all the herbs to the entire jar, your final absinthe will have an ugly, cloudy look to it- not what you want. While retaining the other clear jar, take the smaller jar of separate coloring herbs and either microwave it for a minute it to warm it up, let it sit in a saucepan of hot water for 30 minutes, or simply leave it for a week in your closet. Either way, you want to extract those lovely, natural, chlorophyl colors from the herbs.
When the coloring jar is sufficiently dark and green looking, we’re ready for the final bottling. Get your pretty bottle (a old white wine bottle will do) and pour in your retained clear distilled liquor. Now place a funnel with a coffee filter in it on top and pour in the remaining dyed liquor to combine. You obviously want the funky herbs to be filtered out. You can see the green absinthe dripping into the clear in this photo.
Once finished, I took a sample on the alcohol hydrometer to reveal an alcohol by volume level of about 65% (130 Proof). You can even print out a label from the internet and glue it on. Viola! You now have fantastic looking bottle of homemade Absinthe to win friends, influence people and seduce the opposite sex:
Now, the final step: lets drink a glass of this bad boy. It’s really too strong to drink straight up, so diluting it is essential. As we add some water, you can see the louche cloudiness begin to take effect. As the Absinthe’s alcohol level begins to drop below 40%, it becomes almost opaque, and it’s at this level that I like to drink it. Some who like their drink sweeter add a sugar cube (the reason for the existence of the Absinthe spoon) but I prefer it just on its own. Beautiful!
So, if you feel like painting a Post-Impressionist masterpiece, murdering your family, or simply cutting off your ear and sending it to a French prostitute, give the Green Fairie an unjudgmental chance. Its really all up to you folks, but I hope you enjoyed this week’s post of Romantic Bohemian.