Absinthe was a fundamental ingredient in nineteenth-century cocktails, and fundamental to nineteenth-century culture at large. Beginning its life in 1795, this botanical spirit rose from provincial origins to become the presiding muse of the French empire, of that empire’s arts, and of international imagination. Simultaneous to its rise, however, absinthe was the subject of a massive misinformation campaign that eventually succeeded in banning the product in several countries in the first decades of the twentieth-century, including absinthe’s home countries, Switzerland and France.
We knew absinthe would be a significant part of our beverage program when we first built West Main, and that absinthe education came hand-in-hand with that choice. When scouring print and online information, it can be difficult to sort fact from fiction, and the casual, curious drinker is left to parse it out for themselves. This three-part guide is our effort to address that gap. For starters: absinthe is not the life-threatening, psychotropic, degenerate gateway often told. Absinthe is, from a spirits perspective, similar to gin, with stronger aesthetics and more powerful botanical concentrations that work to produce an extraordinary, engaging spirit.
In terms of distillation, the process of making absinthe will be familiar to anyone who knows a bit about how other spirits are made. One starts with a base—for absinthe, either a brandy or a neutral spirit—and infuses it with plants, much like a tea. Then the infused product is distilled, producing a clear spirit whose important constituent parts are anethole and ethanol, with the latter concentrated between 45% and 85% alcohol by volume (ABV).
For blanche (clear) absinthes, that is more or less the whole process. For verte (green) absinthes (or any color of authentic absinthes), a portion of the distilled spirit is put into a vat (“colorator”) with other plants that impart their chlorophyll and polyphenols to the spirit, producing natural colors ranging from pale hay (yellow), to gem-like peridot, to “dead leaf” (brown). The colored portion of the spirit is filtered before being blended in with the rest of the spirit, and voila! one has absinthe.
Absinthe comes from the paradisiacal Arcadia of the Jura Mountains along the French-Swiss-German borders. Here, one finds (or would find, c.1800) a cluster of crystal-clear glacial lakes and small towns that would become absinthe’s ancestral capitols: Môtiers, Couvet, Pontarlier, and Fougerolles. The earliest “elixir of absinthe extract” from the Jura used a local pomace brandy, marc, as its base. (“Absinthe,” in this case, refers to Grand Wormwood specifically, though the first known product also included other plants in its recipe.) Other brandies were also used throughout the nineteenth-century, but producers eventually leaned more heavily on neutral spirits to produce a lower-cost product that was also more botanical-forward.
Today, distillers use a wide range of bases, according to what kind of product they are seeking to produce, as well as what other spirits they make. Kubler’s Absinthe Superieure (Swiss), for example, uses a neutral grain base from wheat, which presumably is what Franz Kubler used in the 1860s. In our experience, the base is more flexible for smaller American distillers. Germain-Robin (California) uses an apple brandy base for their limited absinthe runs because apple brandy is their main product. Brandy based products usually have a distinct aroma that belies its fruited base, and a flavor that highlights softer botanicals. Semilla-Aymonier (France), who makes gorgeous absinthes, has an absinthe in their catalogue, “La Rebelle,” that uses marc from the Jura as its base—an extraordinary absinthe that brings so much to the glass in addition to its historical authenticity.
Absinthe distillers commonly use a short list of plants as the base for their infusions. First, there is the “Trinity” of absinthe: Grand Wormwood (A. absinthium), Green Anise (P. anisum), and Fennel (F. vulgare). This is the iconic trio that gives absinthe its distinct bitterness, sweetness, and characteristic “licorice” taste. Other common plants are Hyssop (H. officinalis), Lemon Balm (a.k.a. Melissa; M. officinalis), and Petite Wormwood (a.k.a. Pontica or Roman Wormwood; A. pontica). Some plants have more specific applications than others. Pontica and Lemon Balm, for example, are often used in the coloration phase, while Grand Wormwood and Hyssop are more often applied in the initial infusion. A bevy of other plants are used as well, but these six are ubiquitous in historic and modern absinthe recipes.
It may go without saying, but for the sake of clarity: each absinthe’s recipe accounts for quite a lot of variables (which plants are used; the volume of each plant; when each plant is applied; how dry the plants may be; what parts of each plant is used; when and where the plants grow). Historic houses were very particular about these variables, as are the more dedicated modern producers. Each variable affects the chemical makeup of the ingredients and, ultimately, of the final product. Of course, absinthe’s chemical makeup is the source of its notoriety.
What the general public is casually certain of is that absinthe has a plant in it—“wormwood, right?”—and that there is something in that plant—Thujone, a monoterpene—that causes hallucinations or seizures, and that the modern product isn’t “real” absinthe. These are, simply, mistruths. Wormwood and many other ingredients have a well-documented history of medicinal use, remedies that leverage bitter plants’ low toxicity to induce healthful reactions in the body. (Wormwood’s use is clear as early as the 5th century BCE, as mentioned by Pythagoras, and perhaps even as early as 1500BCE, per its appearance in the “Ebers Papyrus.”) The same is true for many bitters, alpine liqueurs, and amari. Wormwood was curiously settled on by pseudo-scientist Valentin Magnan (the Dr. Phil of the mid-1800s) and others as early as the 1860s, as the root of “absinthism.” “Absinthism” is a made-up condition responsible for many alleged and hyperbolic symptoms, such as the degradation of one’s brain, physical and mental impairments in one’s offspring, alcoholism, and the moral decline of all France—name your ailment, Wormwood was the culprit.
Now, we know Wormwood’s most historically suspect compound, Thujone, was not identified until 1900, and that scientists did not even have the capacity to isolate Thujone for tests until the 1960s. Consequently, Magnan and others could not have properly tested the compound. We also know that, in 1999, irresponsible agents calculated and published extraordinarily inflated estimates for Thujone concentrations in historic absinthes. These mistruths and their repetition among the scientific community contributed to absinthe’s modern legacy of notoriety but have been proven false. Historical and modern absinthes were and are well within a safe range to imbibe and are not capable of causing hallucinations or any more physical harm that simple alcohol poisoning.
“It glimmers in my glass…”
However, there is a unique, measurable magic at work in absinthe’s chemistry, a physics behind its mesmerizing aesthetic. In addition to terpenes, polyphenols, and esters, absinthe’s botanical ingredients include anethole. Anethole is an oil, a phenylpropene found in Green Anise and Star Anise (I. verum), both important ingredients in absinthe, as well as several other plants. When absinthe comes off the still, its anethole is neatly situated in a solution with ethanol. Not until water is added to dilute the absinthe for drinking, does the anethole perform absinthe’s signature louche.
The louche is the spontaneous transformation that takes place in a glass of absinthe, turning the gem-like clear spirit into a cloudy, opalescent beverage. The added water bonds well with the ethanol, edging anethole out of its solution and into tiny droplets (“tiny” as in 1-3 microns). The overall impression of this complicated mechanism is a creeping pale cloud that forms in the glass, lightly at first, then ultimately taking over. An ideal louche is not fully opaque but retains some dimensionality, and produces a variety of colors in the glass, especially at the edges of the glass. This refracted opalescence is what captured the imagination of so many writers and artists and is consequently why absinthe has such a strong aesthetic place in culture.
The louche will vary based on an absinthe’s ingredients and style. Some classic absinthes, like Duplais Verte, will use less Green or Star Anise, and so will have less anethole and a more transparent louche. So-called “Bohemian” absinthes have almost no louche at all, as they eschew Anise and Fennel flavors in favor of breathier Eucalyptus, Spearmint, and Tarragon.
For the absinthe, anethole is important for its creamy texture in the mouth, often working in interesting concert with the drier, sometimes-tingly effects of other compounds. Too much anethole, however, produces a flat, opaque louche that comes on quick. Such a louche points to the use of Star Anise, which has a higher concentration of the oil and is a cheaper source than Green Anise. Of course, this is not always true, but is an interesting note when drinking as the two bring very different flavors to an absinthe. Too much anethole will lead to the pooling of small oil droplets on the surface of the absinthe, a telltale of over concentration—and signifying the breakdown of absinthe’s delicate emulsion.
Absinthe’s visual magic shines most during traditional service. In the late-1800s, the ritual of absinthe service fostered a dizzying array of mechanisms to perform a single task: slowly dripping water into a glass of absinthe. The most iconic of these is the absinthe fountain, a small tower of cast metal and cut glass that holds ice water for dilution. Absinthe fountains are artifacts of the 1890s (as is the sugar cube, believe it or not) and so were only around for the later days of absinthe’s dominion and though their presence was hardly as ubiquitous as the drink itself, the fountain remains the culmination of the ritualistic culture of the drink.
Water is dripped from the fountain over a sugar cube, suspended over the absinthe on a slotted spoon. The sugar and water mixture then drips into the glass, where sits the one ounce absinthe “dose,” releasing the louche. While absinthe’s chemistry is unique, the dilution also induces changes that would be familiar to, say, a wine drinker. As the water dilutes the spirit, the flavorful plant compounds are each broken out of absinthe’s dense chemical matrix, opening up the spirit’s flavors. Esters are released by the splashing of the water, unleashing powerful, pleasant bouquets. And, of course, the ABV decreases, allowing people to drink more.
Its days as reigning muse of French culture may be long gone, but absinthe still demands our attention. Indeed, we believe it demands the attention of the spirits and cocktail industry at large, especially as so many brilliant products are being made. On any night, but especially weekends, guests will see absinthe fountains throughout our bar, with guests and staff huddled around sets of glasses watching, educating, and tasting. Actually, we are proud to be able to say we sell more absinthe doses than all vodka drinks combined—as it should be.