Ask people if they have heard of Absinthe and a good portion will probably respond, “Isn’t that the stuff that was banned?” And of course, that’s true. Absinthe was banned in much of the EU, most notably France in 1914 and banned here in the States until 2007. But the story behind this fascinating drink, as you may guess, is much more than that.
Absinthe, which traces its origins to Switzerland, is a distilled spirit which can either be green or clear. It is produced from several plants and herbs, including anise, fennel and grande wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). It is believed to have started as a medicinal drink much in the same way as Jägermeister (and many other herbal drinks) and at one point was given to French troops as a preventative for Malaria. From those beginnings the popularity of Absinthe spread, especially catching on with the French artisan crowd. Artists Troulouse Latrec and Vincent Van Gogh were frequent imbibers. The popularity of the drink grew until by the 1860s, the hour of 5 p.m. was called l’heure verte (“the green hour”) in bars, bistros and cafes across France. By the time the drink arrived in America in New Orleans, famous people like Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Franklin Roosevelt, Aleister Crowley and Frank Sinatra were drinking it.
Much has been written about the ban of Absinthe. And to be blunt, most of it is BS. The popular scapegoat for its ban is a chemical compound called thujone. In the 1970s the journal Nature published an article that compared the shape of the molecule to that of THC, the primary psychoactive in marijuana. That’s like saying that a house cat has the same shape as a lion, so both are equally as dangerous. It’s true that thujone at high levels can cause seizures. But modern science has shown that the amount of thujone in pre-ban Absinthe was well below harmful levels. In fact, most were around or below the current FDA mandated 10ppm limit for all imported Absinthes into the USA. As an aside, another common herb, sage, has far more of the compound in it than wormwood.
The real reason for the ban is far less mind altering. French wine makers, fearing the rising popularity of the drink, along with backers of the temperance movement started a smear campaign against it (people who have followed the history of marijuana will see some similarities here) blaming it for alignments in drinkers ranging from hallucinations, to seizures, to epilepsy and tuberculosis. The bohemian writers and artists that enjoyed the drink did not exactly help their cause any by partaking in other activities who’s side effects could be used to support the case – mainly chewing on paintbrushes covered with lead paint and contracting syphilis. Unfortunately the campaign proved successful, and the drink (specifically any drink made from grande wormwood) began being banned in countries at the start of the 1900s.
And it remained banned in the US until 2007 when the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau lifted it allowing the import of Absinthe into the country – as long as the thujone level was below 10ppm as set by the FDA. Up to that point the closest thing on the market was a product called Absente, which showed up in 2001. This product was originally produced with a different variety of wormwood and contained added sugar. This classified the drink as a liqueur, which is different from the originally produced spirit. In 2009, as a result of the ban lift, the producers of Absente began making their product with the original grande wormwood.
Part of the allure of absinthe is the ritual way in which the drink is prepared, often referred to as “the French method”. A special slotted spoon is placed on top of a glass and one or two (depending on the absinthe) sugar cubes are placed on the spoon. The absinthe is then poured over the cubes and allowed to run into the glass. Once that’s done ice water, usually from an ornate “fountain” with little faucets, is allowed to drip over the sugar and into the absinthe. The water turns the drink cloudy as it forces compounds in the absinthe that are not water soluble to come out of solution. This is called the louche, and the fluttering appearance as it first starts is what attributed to the drink being referred to as “the green fairy”. This release of compounds enhances the herbal nose and taste of the drink beyond that of the neat absinthe, much in the way scotch drinkers will add a little water to their drinks to “open them up.” This ritual can have slight deviations depending on the absinthe and the bar. At the Pirates Alley Café and Absinthe House, in New Orleans where Tracey and I were given a master’s class in absinthe drinking, they follow the more bohemian style of preparation by lighting the sugar cubes on fire after the absinthe has been poured and waiting for the flame to extinguish before adding the water. They feel this gives the absinthe an extra depth of flavor.
The resulting drink is said to be an uplifting tonic that gives you a far more appealing buzz than other alcoholic beverages. I’m not going to tell you that it’s ready to replace Five Hour Energy Drink on your convenience store shelves, but I will say that we were feeling pretty lively after our studies of this intriguing drink.
So the next time you’re in the mood for something different, seek out the Green Fairy. Who knows, it may inspire you as it has done so many other great artists in the past. You may find yourself painting the next great masterpiece. Just use lead free paint.
Coming up, Chasing Hurricanes around the French Quarter and The Year End BBQ Review. And yes, I haven’t forgotten that this is a beer blog. So I’ll be giving some thoughts to DING’s Top 10 Myths on Beer, doing a play by play of the upcoming Belgian Beer Fest at Max’s in Baltimore and, oh what the heck, why not a beer review or two.
Time for another beer….