Ok, it’s finally time for that absinthe post I’ve been meaning to do for some time. If I was only able to drink one thing again for the rest of my life, it would be absinthe. In fact, every time I have it, I wonder why I drink anything else. Probably because variety is the spice of life, or something to that effect, but in any case, absinthe is damn good – unless you’re unfortunate enough, like my best friend, to not like the taste of black licorice. Too bad for you, because that’s pretty much what absinthe tastes like. Well, that’s a gross oversimplification, but nevertheless fairly accurate. If you don’t like one, you won’t like the other.
Absinthe, as you probably know, has a long history, which I won’t go into here. Google around a bit, if you’d like. I will point out that it was banned for many years beginning around the 1910s, on the since-proven-false assumption that thujone, a chemical present in wormwood (one of absinthe’s key ingredients), was a hallucinogen. Or maybe it is, but it’s not present in absinthe in enough strength to have any hallucinogenic effect. Something. Anyway, in the early years of the 21st century, absinthe began its resurgence, first in those countries like the Czech Republic and Spain where it had never been outlawed, and eventually making its way to the US.
The first genuine absinthe (with grand wormwood as an ingredient) available on the market here was Lucid, distilled by New Orleans native Ted Breaux. Breaux probably knows more about absinthe than anyone else alive, which is a boon for all of us, as he seems to like to share his knowledge through the production of absinthe. Lucid is still on the market, and it’s a solid product that serves as a great entry point into drinking absinthe. It’s what I drank for many years before turning to Pernod, one of the original French producers who got back in the game once the spirit’s legality was reestablished. Pernod’s eponymous offering was nothing more than an anise-flavored absinthe substitute, in fact. Indeed, it still is, but now that you can have the real stuff, why bother? In any case, Pernod has a very nice flavor, fairly comparable to Lucid. However, they do use artificial coloring, which is stupid and lame.
Wanting to explore absinthe further, and not simply return to drinking Lucid, I discovered Delaware Phoenix Distillery, which makes a couple of different absinthes that are excellent and don’t really cost much more than Lucid or Pernod (those will run you around $60 a bottle; Delaware Phoenix’s offering are only about $5 more). But Breaux has moved on to even greater absinthe heights, offering several absinthes reverse-engineered from genuine unopened bottles of pre-ban absinthe. I haven’t tried all of these, but I have tried his Jade 1901, and I feel no need to go further. Shit’s pricy at about $130 but goddamn! It maintains an overall flavor profile of anise/licorice, but is vastly more complex than any other absinthe I have tried, and has some noticeably more bitter herbal elements. That’s not to say it’s bitter by any means, but merely that it has a lot going on, and bitter notes are part of its overall tapestry. I cannot recommend it highly enough – but if you’re understandably unwilling to pay that much for a bottle of hooch, any of the others I’ve mentioned will do you just fine. Also, check out the Wormwood Society’s reviews for informed opinions on many other brands I have not personally tried.
So how do you drink the stuff, anyway? Not straight – it’s usually bottled at around 68% ABV. The traditional way is known as the Absinthe Drip, which involves filling an absinthe glass (which has a sort of little bulb at the bottom, which tells you how much absinthe to put in), then dripping cold water over a sugar cube placed on a special absinthe spoon that rests on the top of the glass. As the water and sugar blend with the absinthe, the louche takes place, wherein the mixture suddenly takes on a cloudy opacity. Something to do with the water and/or sugar pulling out herbal elements that had been dissolved in the alcohol. What am I, a chemist? Recipes vary but generally call for a ratio of water to absinthe of anywhere from 3:1 to 7:1. If you’re not used to very strong spirits, this is a good way to start, and it’s got a nice element of ritual to it. But even better is the Absinthe Cocktail, which appears in numerous pre- and post-Prohibition bartending guides. Ratios here vary as well, but I recommend, as does the Savoy Cocktail Book, a 1:1 ratio. The Recipe (Absinthe Cocktail): A little simple syrup (I don’t measure this, but I probably use something like a teaspoon) 2 dashes Angostura bitters (or play around – there are so many bitters on the market now) 1 1/2 – 2 ounces absinthe An equal amount of cold water Stir and add ice, preferably a single large cube or chunk. Kinda looks like a glass of gravy, doesn’t it?
Whether or not the thujone (or some other compound from the wormwood) has any psychotropic effects, drinking absinthe does result in a distinctly different sort of buzz than what you’ll get from any other kind of alcohol. Breaux’s theory, which I’m willing to accept, is that many of the herbal elements that go into absinthe act as stimulants, counteracting some of the alcohol’s depressant effects while still simultaneously getting you well-soused pretty quickly. This is why Breaux named his initial offering “Lucid.” I find absinthe has a very numbing effect on the body while strongly stimulating the mind. Up to a point. Don’t drink too much of this stuff, because it will hit you and hit you hard. Because I love it so much, I almost always drink two of these. And to me that’s just the right amount, because I get to experience the distinct drunkenness of absinthe. But a third would do me in. So proceed cautiously, and find what works for you – but by all means do proceed, because absinthe is a treasure and an experience not to be missed.