FORUM ETIQUETTE <- read me!
2. Why was absinthe banned?
Absinthe is the French word for wormwood. It's pronounced ab´- sant. Wormwood is a plant, or to be more precise, a number of plants classified within the genus Artemisia.
Liquid preparations made from the Artemisias have been used as medicines and tonics for as long as human history has been recorded. Once such medicine, based upon the plant Artemisia absinthium (known to the French as grande absinthe, literally, "tall wormwood", but usually given in English as Common Wormwood) came to be so greatly appreciated in France and Switzerland in the 18th and 19th centuries that people took to drinking it for pleasure. That elixir, a distillate of wormwood and other herbs in alcohol, was called “extrait d'absinthe” (wormwood extract), or, less formally, absinthe. An ever-growing demand for this medicine turned aperitif as the 19th century rolled into the 20th engendered an enormous absinthe industry in Switzerland and France. Absinthe became an emblem of Belle Epoque France, and was intimately associated with the explosion of literary and artistic activity that characterized the era. The industry and the era ended with the prohibition of absinthe manufacture and sale in Switzerland and France, in 1910 and 1915 respectively.
It should be noted that contrary to the frequent misuse of the word liqueur as applied to absinthe, it is not today, nor was it ever a liqueur as defined by the liquor industry in the 1800s in France: an alcoholic beverage with relatively low alcohol content, sweetened with sugar before bottling. Absinthe is rather an extremely high-proof herbal liquor, with no sugar in the bottle, traditionally drunk before dinner as an aperitif, rather than, like most liqueurs, after dinner as a digestif.
3. Was the banning of absinthe rational?
Because that stuff makes you crazy!! After all, the French slogan goes "Absinthe rend fou!" and they ought to know, right?
One French politician who supported the ban claimed that if absinthe remained legal, half the population would eventually be employed in fitting the remaining half with straightjackets as a result. The facts are less lurid. A number of purportedly scientific studies performed in France in the latter half of the 19th century claimed to prove that absinthe was harmful to human health. The foremost of the researchers who carried out these studies was one Dr. Valentin Magnan, whose specialties were alcoholism and insanity. Due in large part to the efforts of Dr. Magnan and his supporters, a political struggle ensued between the liquor industry on one side and prohibitionists on the other. The prohibitionists were eventually victorious, forcing the passage of laws that banned the manufacture and sale of absinthe in Switzerland in 1910, in France in 1915, and in many other western countries in which it was popular, including the United States in 1912. It must be noted that in some countries, such as Spain, Portugal, and Britain, absinthe was never banned.
4. Did absinthe vanish from the earth after the ban?
The short answer is no.
The question is simple but arriving at an intelligent answer is complex, requiring consideration of cultural and scientific factors well beyond the obvious - the banning of absinthe did not take place in a vacuum.
In the first place, although Dr. Magnan made progress for his time in the treatment of alcoholism, he saw absinthe with tunnel vision. He thought that the French "race" was in a downward spiral of degeneration, fueled by absinthe. He thought that absinthe had deleterious effects on the drinker over and above those produced by alcohol alone, based upon experiments that today would be considered laughable, and which, even in Magnan's time, were considered dubious by intelligent, objective observers. Magnan was also convinced that alcohol was the main cause of insanity, and that absinthe-induced insanity was hereditary, capable of being passed on in the genes from parents to children! Magnan considered absinthe to be a curse upon France that had to be lifted at any cost.
The motives of Dr. Magnan's supporters must also be considered. For the French temperance movement, absinthe was the poster-child for the evils of drink - stronger than any other liquor, cheaper than brandy, increasingly popular with the working class, and “proven” by one of the most eminent scientists in France to be uniquely dangerous. Since banning all alcohol was for practical purposes impossible in France – wine was regarded as food from the soil, and part of the French national heritage – absinthe became the primary target of French prohibitionists. In this struggle, they were actively aided by the wine industry itself, which had no use for absinthe, considering it an "industrial" alcohol, an usurper of wine's rightful place in French culture, not to mention in the French economy. The vintners were only too happy to climb upon the prohibitionist bandwagon. Consider that in 1910, 36 million liters of absinthe were consumed in France, part of an apparent trend toward consumption of hard liquor as a whole, not a healthy thing in the eyes of the wine producers, who still smarted from the sting of a plant disease that had all but wiped them out at the end of the 1870’s.
Sensationalism and yellow journalism also played their parts. A particularly lurid set of domestic murders, committed by a Swiss laborer named Jean Lanfray in 1905, was laid at the door of absinthe, in spite of the fact that Lanfray was a hopeless alcoholic who drank whatever wine or liquor he could get. All of Europe read about these crimes, and absinthe's fate was sealed.
It must also be noted that the term "absinthe" cannot be used to describe any and all products sold under that name before the ban as though they were all the same thing. For every carefully distilled product, made with the finest natural ingredients, there were any number of shoddy, even dangerous, concoctions made with poorly rectified alcohols, essences of doubtful manufacture, dyes unfit for human consumption and other harmful chemical additives. So we have bad science, selfish financial incentive, cultural bias, ignorance and scare tactics. Do these make for good law? Unfortunately, even today, legislation is sometimes enacted for exactly the same reasons. Some things never change.
5. How can I get a taste of absinthe?
It would be easy to believe that of a product all but forgotten for almost a century, especially one that has passed into legend, but samples of absinthe made in Europe before the ban survive today.
Still-sealed bottles of the famous elixir emerge from the dust of history from time to time and, more rarely, change hands at ever-increasing prices. Absinthe does not deteriorate in the bottle, and in fact, it can improve with age if well made in the first place. An increasing number of connoisseurs today count sipping of vintage absinthe as one of the sensory pleasures they have enjoyed, thanks mostly to the generosity of the few who are not only capable of entering the bidding wars associated with the arrival of such bottles upon the market, but inclined to share such amounts as exceed their personal needs with fellow enthusiasts.
Fortunately for those with shallower pockets and fewer connections, absinthe production has made a comeback. A distiller in Czechoslovakia began marketing his "recreation" of absinthe in the United Kingdom after the fall of the Iron Curtain. This was possible because the infamous liquor had never been outlawed in either country, probably because interest in it there had never been great enough to warrant attention from prohibitionists. Thanks to absinthe's enduring mystique, the success of this Czech "absinth" (note the missing "e") was guaranteed, and a legion of copycat products rushed to market to fill a growing demand, mostly in England and Germany.
The growing interest in absinthe brought to light some little-known facts, such as that "clandestine" (bootleg) absinthe never disappeared from the scene in Switzerland, and could be obtained by those willing to take the chances and pay the exorbitant prices of pursuing a bootleg product. Moreover, a handful of Spanish distilleries quietly produced absinthe all through the 20th century, and still do, because absinthe was never banned in Spain.
But the best news of all is that due to changes in and/or reinterpretations of the absinthe statutes in France and Switzerland, absinthe is once again being legally produced in its birthplace. and is now widely available.
6. What does absinthe taste like?
For vintage absinthe, check the Virtual Absinthe Museum, or make friends with an absinthe collector. For modern products, see the Absinthe Buyer's Guide on the Fee Verte website, the most authoritative of its kind in the world.
The absinthe scene has evolved at lightning speed since Hills Absinth (the Czech product alluded to previously) made its appearance in 1994. Today there are literally too many absinthes to count, made almost everywhere in the world. Some are merely takeoffs on the Czech products, most are oil mixes of various quality, and some (fortunately an increasing number) are carefully distilled as were the highest quality products of the Belle Epoque.
Distilled absinthes, particularly those made using the "Swiss method" (it's a technical matter, it does not necessarily mean made in Switzerland) were always regarded as the best, followed by "ordinary" distilled absinthes, then by oil mixes of good quality. The consumer is well advised to proceed carefully to avoid wasting his money, as there is no such thing as cheap absinthe, regardless of quality.
7. What are the ingredients in absinthe?
Absinthe is an anise-based drink. Anise almost always makes up the greatest portion of its herbal ingredients, therefore, it should come as no surprise that all absinthe (properly made) has an anise flavor. Absinthe is often described by the less perceptive as licorice-flavored. Although licorice may be an almost insignificant ingredient of some absinthes, the flavors of anise (the seed-like fruit of the plant Pimpinella anisum) and licorice (the root of the plant Glycyrrhiza glabra) are not the same. The other herbs in absinthe, and even the alcohol used, can and do influence the flavor of the liquor, but generally speaking, if you don't like anise, you won't like absinthe.
8. How is absinthe made?
Mostly ethanol (ordinary drinking alcohol).
There is a "holy trinity" of herbs in virtually all absinthe: Green anise (Pimpinella anisum, not to be confused with star anise, which is Illicium verum) Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium and Artemisia pontica) Florence Fennel (various cultivars of Foeniculum vulgare)
Recipes vary. One distilled absinthe from Spain manages to make do with only wormwood and green anise. Hyssop and lemon balm (also called melissa) are often used, as is, especially in Spanish absinthes and some clear Swiss absinthes, star anise. A variety of other herbs and spices, such as tansy, coriander, veronica and angelica, were historically, but less commonly, used.
It's ironic that the liquor named after wormwood contains a relatively small amount of the plant, compared to the total of other herbs used in virtually all recipes. Anise is the predominant herb.
9. Why is absinthe green?
The herbal ingredients are crushed and macerated in a solution of alcohol and water, and the mixture is distilled to yield a colorless, fragrant alcohol that is later cut with water to yield the desired alcoholic content, usually anywhere from 45% to 72% (90 to 144 proof). It's also possible to make absinthe by dissolving already prepared essences of the herbal ingredients (essence of anise, essence of wormwood, etc.) in potable alcohol - these are the oil mix absinthes.
It should be noted that these are the ONLY two ways of making anything that can legitimately be called absinthe. Any other "protocols", instructions, or do it yourself "kits" such as proliferate on the Internet, will produce more or less noxious swill, but never absinthe - it's simply not possible.
10. Will absinthe hurt me?
The colorless product that runs out of the still was traditionally fortified with additional herbs to strengthen its fragrance. These herbs transfer chlorophyll to the clear liquor, turning it green. The original intent was probably not to create a green color – this was likely just a happy accident – although one that has certainly contributed over the years to absinthe’s popularity.
The chlorophyll in the absinthe degrades with time and turns brown, just as leaves do on trees - the French call the result "feuille morte", and the process is considered desirable. Very old absinthe is usually amber-brown. Depending upon the herbs used for coloration and the method, absinthe freshly colored with herbs may range from pale yellow to dark green. A shade commonly compared to the gemston peridot was apparently the color of the best absinthes of the Belle Epoque. We say apparently, because there was no color photography, and as noted previously, 100-year-old absinthe is no longer green. Therefore we must get our clues from period paintings and textual descriptions.
Absinthe producers who wanted to short-cut the delicate and tedious natural coloration process simply dyed the clear liquor green, which missed the point, but fooled the undiscerning or indifferent consumer.
11. But what about thujone?
It certainly will, if you drink a bottle of it and drive into a tree! But it won't poison you or make you crazy. The dyes used by producers of old to turn the lesser-quality products green were sometimes little short of poisons themselves, but no commercial absinthe producer could stoop that low today even if he wanted to, due to food and drug regulations.
In addition, because absinthe followed back to its roots is a "home remedy", it must be considered that every plant in it is there for a reason - they all have some effect on the human body. These effects, such as the reduction of fever, were obviously considered desirable by the writers of early herbals and pharmacopeias.
Just as the discerning consumer of herbal products from the health food store should inform himself as to the possible ramifications of ingesting these substances, the consumer of absinthe, especially if he is in poor health, should do his homework. Epileptics in particular should be wary, as some of the substances found in small quantities in absinthe are convulsants. A discussion of the effects on the human body of all the herbs that might be found in absinthe (none of them are illegal plants) is beyond the scope of this FAQ, but is covered in some of the other documents on this site.
Most importantly of all, 140-proof liquor is not a thing to be taken lightly, even by a completely healthy person.
12. So why does the European Union impose limits on Thujone in liquor?
Thujone is the ingredient in absinthe that made people crazy, right?
In fact, thujone is a scapegoat, an albatross hung upon the neck of absinthe by bad science and ignorance. When it comes to absinthe, thujone is much ado about nothing much.
Thujone is a fragrant, oily chemical (C10H16O), a ketone. It is found in various plants, notably wormwood, as well as from the bark of the thuja tree, hence its name. It is believed to be a neurotoxin.
So, wormwood contains thujone - absinthe contains wormwood - absinthe must be poison, right? It's a popular assumption, given credence by much old and some modern research on thujone. The problem is, absinthe is not thujone, and contrary to the assumptions of researchers both long-dead and alive and kicking, very little thujone actually seems to find its way into absinthe.
Early researchers generally used wormwood oil, which isn’t the same as absinthe and is only present in absinthe in tiny quantities. More recent researchers have tended to assume that thujone was present in high quantities in vintage absinthes. This turns out though, to be incorrect. It’s only in the last few years that accurate testing for thujone has become widely commercially available (the analytic method is painstaking and expensive to perform and easily results in false positives and errors). When vintage absinthes, and modern absinthes made scrupulously according to historical protocols, were first tested for thujone, they showed, contrary to all expectations, extremely low levels of thujone, in some cases well within the 10mg/l norm allowed by EU regulations. It appears that very little thujone survives the distillation process. In other words, the entire historical demonization of absinthe is based on a false premise – that it is a thujone-rich drink. It isn’t.
The importance of this finding can’t be overstated. Many herbs, including those commonly used in cooking, contain substances that if consumed in enormous quantities are potentially harmful. But common sense tells us that they are safe to use, because in practice these substances are only present in miniscule amounts. Likewise with absinthe – yes it contains thujone, yes thujone is potentially harmful, but the quantity of thujone actually in a bottle of absinthe is extremely small.
To make matters worse, thujone is assumed by modern-day druggies to lend some sort of buzz (it does not), and unscrupulous producers prey upon this ignorance by publishing impossibly high thujone contents for their "absinthe". Run, don't walk, away from any absinthe vendor touting thujone, because he's lying in more ways than one, either purposely or through ignorance.
13. What limits on thujone does the U.S. set? Can I import absinthe into the US myself?
Would-be absinthe distillers in France, Switzerland, and other European countries, raring to go after seeing the success of the Czechs, were allowed to proceed in the late 1990s, but under a 10mg per liter limit on thujone, to ensure an amount considered to be safe for human consumption. It was a way of muzzling the green menace before letting her out of the cage, but in fact, these "restrictions" were a boon to the handful of would-be absinthe producers who had done their homework: they knew that such a regulation set absinthe free,
rather than chaining it to the fence! These people knew that many absinthes banned at the turn of the century never contained more than 10mg of thujone in the first place!
A further twist: under EU regulations, liquors classified as "bitters" may legally contain as much as 35mg per liter of thujone. For this reason, certain absinthes are described as "bitters" ("amer" in French) on the label - or increasingly, are registered in this category even without this being reflected on the label. Effectively 35mg/l has become the defacto EU thujone limit for absinthe.
14. Will absinthe make me trip?
Absinthe was made illegal in the U.S. in 1912, with the enactment of a pure food and drug regulation to address it. After almost a century of prohibition absinthe containing less than 10ppm of thujone was finally re-legalized in the USA in 2007. A full account of the process leading up to the recent re-legalization can be found here. Stringent labelling regulations are enforced, and absinthes with more than 10mg but less than 35mg of thujone, which are legal in the EU, are not legal in the US. Customs has the authority and the ability to confiscate absinthe entering the U.S., either on your person or otherwise. They do confiscate absinthe from time to time, but they don't seem to place a high priority on interdicting it, which is understandable, as they have so many other things to deal with. In addition, there are many laws and regulations dealing with alcohol that automatically apply to absinthe - for example, the U.S. Postal Service does not transport alcohol willingly, and has the authority to confiscate it if they find it, and every State has its own laws regarding liquor of any kind.
No, it will not.15. Then why drink absinthe at all?
IIt's easy to find, on the internet, descriptions of alleged absinthe "trips". They were either written by idiots, or the substance upon which the describers tripped was something other than absinthe, or both. There are no psychoactive (in the sense of LSD, THC, etc.) ingredients in absinthe. Absinthe will not make you fail a drug test, either, unless the test is designed to find the ingredients in absinthe, all of which are legal substances. If absinthe makes you fail a drug test due to false positives for illegal substances, your problem is not absinthe, but an incompetent drug tester. Yes, you can find glorious descriptions of absinthe highs in 19th century literature. They're largely so much flowery hot air, written by poets. Poets tend to exaggerate things. There are odes to the divine attributes of whisky and beer. There are thousands of poems about wine. You get the point.
Because it's a delicious, refreshing drink.16. What is absinth?
Because it's fun to watch it change color.
Because you can't get it at your neighborhood bar and you want to be exclusive.
Because you want to pretend you're Toulouse Lautrec (although it won't make you paint any better).
All kidding aside, some people claim to experience "secondary effects" from absinthe. By secondary, they mean effects apart from those due to the alcohol. Not all people claim to experience these effects, but those who do say that absinthe produces a markedly clear-headed drunkenness. It has to be experienced to be understood. It's subtle; it's NOT like being hit by lightning or anything. Other people say absinthe enhances their dreams. Many absinthe drinkers report no effects other than those you’d expect from any high proof liquor.
17. How should absinthe be served?
Note the missing "e". "Absinth" seems to be an Eastern European spelling for absinthe.
That spelling is today usually the mark of an inferior product, not that there's anything wrong with Bohemia, or even pretending to be Bohemian, but there are less than a handful of properly made absinthes produced in any of these countries - and most of them are very bad indeed.
The spelling was used for Hills, the product from the Czech Republic that started the absinthe renaissance. Its makers apparently knew nothing about absinthe other than its name and reputation, as they seemingly went by the seat of their pants when creating their product. Certainly they followed no historical protocol. As a result, Hills was a very poor product indeed, bearing no resemblance to real absinthe, and tasting more like high-proof mouthwash than anything else. It has less in common with real absinthe than, for example, Tennessee whiskey has with Scotch.
Unfortunately, the other Eastern European producers have retained not only the spelling, but the style! It should come as no surprise that absinth can be found in bizarre colors, in bizarre bottles, on websites that make bizarre claims, taking liberties with history ("we use the original 200 year old Swiss recipe!"), science ("our absinthe contains mass quantities of thujone to get you higher!") and tradition ("we’ll tell you how to set it on fire!").
To make a long story short, "absinth" is not merely an alternative spelling, it's really another product entirely, and often a shoddily produced one which in the long run can only damage the reputation of real absinthe. This type of "absinth" should be shunned.
18. What about setting the sugar on fire?
Because it's an extract, a concentrate of sorts, absinthe is intended to be mixed with water before drinking. Because of the high alcohol content, most people will find it more than a little hard to swallow straight.
It can be used in a number of mixed drinks, some of which are traditional (the famous New Orleans Sazerac, for example), but because absinthe is a sort of herbal cocktail by itself, purists drink it only with water, the cleaner and colder the better (no tap water please, unless your tap water is free of contaminants such as chlorine, which lend their own flavor and spoil the drink). How the water is added does matter. A sudden deluge doesn’t bring out the delicate nuances of the drink as well as a drop by drop process, and therein a ritual was born. Essential oils from the herbal ingredients (mostly from anise, but the other herbs contribute as well) are dissolved in the high-proof liquor, and therefore invisible. These oils, if added to pure water, would not dissolve and disappear as they do in alcohol, but would lie on the surface like an oil slick on a puddle, and/or hang within the liquid like clouds in the sky. Therefore, as the drop by drop watering process changes the drink in the glass from alcohol with a little water, to water with a little alcohol, the liquid in the glass eventually becomes entirely cloudy white and opalescent.
This process is known to absintheurs as the "louche", and the nature of the louche is very much a factor in the consideration of a quality absinthe. Watching this tabletop alchemy came to be regarded as an esthetic experience in itself, thus methods were devised for enhancing the show, such as dripping the water from a carafe held high above the glass, or from especially designed fountains, often of elaborate design. Special glasses were sometimes used, with marks or geometric features to indicate the precise amount (dose) of absinthe to be added. Because absinthe was often taken with sugar, methods were devised to drip the water through a tablet of sugar its way to the glass – most usually by balancing the sugar cube on top of a special perforated spoon. There are over 500 known varieties of these so-called "absinthe spoons", and original Belle Epoque examples are avidly collected.
19. Isn't absinthe terribly bitter?
You'll see that on TV, in movies and in the promotional material of certain products, usually "absinths". It is an abomination, looked upon with disgust by all true absinthe enthusiasts. It has no logical or historical basis whatsoever. Do you want your drink to taste like burnt sugar? Do you want to set yourself on fire? Absinthe burns almost as well as gasoline. The burning sugar "ritual" is, to borrow the words of absinthe historian Benoit Noel, a "savage syncretism", born in the 1990s in the Czech Republic, born of the same ignorance that led the "absinth" producers there to produce the awful swill that goes under the name. The intention was probably to piggyback on the late 1980’s success of flaming sambuca and the like.
In summary, the original Czech producers knew as little about serving absinthe as making absinthe, so they made up their "tradition" as they went along. Unfortunately, the movie From Hell, in which Inspector Aberline, played by Johhny Depp, not only burns his sugar but doses his drink with Laudanum (a solution of opium in alcohol), gave this savage syncretism worldwide play, and new legends die as hard as old ones.
No. Good absinthe has a very mild and pleasant bitterness, certainly less than that found in any moderately hopped beer. Wormwood is indeed the second most bitter plant on earth (after rue), but the bitter constituents in wormwood are purposely excluded from the product in properly made absinthe - only the desirable principles of the wormwood plant, notably its intense fragrance, make it into the liquor. The legend that the French sat at café tables by the thousands sugaring their absinthe to kill its nasty bitterness is due entirely to ignorance propounded by people who’ve never tasted absinthe, and assumed it must be bitter because there's wormwood in it. Nineteenth century drinkers had a far sweeter tooth than we do today, and even then, many drank absinthe without added sugar.20. Can I make my own absinthe?
That depends. Do you have a still at home? If so, you’re probably committing a crime. Most civilized countries prohibit running a still without a license from the governing authorities. We do not promote or even discuss illegal distillation at Fee Verte. Do NOT raise the issue in the Fee Verte Absinthe Forum! You could theoretically make absinthe by dissolving the necessary essences in legally obtained alcohol, but where are you going to get the essences? You don't know and neither do we, and in any case, it probably wouldn't turn out very well, so forget it.21. What about those procedures I found on the Internet, such as soaking wormwood in vodka, or dosing Pernod with wormwood extract?
All of them were created by people utterly ignorant of how to create absinthe.
Absinthe is a distilled product. You CANNOT make something approximating absinthe without distillation. Soaking barley in vodka won't give you whisky. Soaking wormwood in Everclear won't give you absinthe. It won’t taste like absinthe, and it won’t BE absinthe. All you’ll have done is turn a perfectly good bottle of neutral high proof alcohol into a disgustingly bitter, vile tasting mess.
Pastis isn’t absinthe without the wormwood. Adding wormwood essence to pastis won’t make it taste like absinthe. Undiluted wormwood oil is also a potentially dangerous substance, and can lead to severe renal failure if drunk neat. Stay away from it.
In short, unless you have access to a still, it is not physically or chemically possible to make anything remotely approximating absinthe.