Please consider this an impassioned attempt to explain and stop the heinous modern curiosity of setting either one’s absinthe or one’s sugar cube for absinthe aflame. Such drinking criminalities must come to an end.
Often the word “absinthe” conjures images of flaming Listerine in some “chic” glass or other, often with very dim lighting so as to augment the air of mystery or secrecy or some such coolness. For the record, because it can be bottled to an alcohol content up to and exceeding 74% abv, absinthe can be flammable. Some in the category of questionable modern mixological cool guys—that is not to disparage modern bartenders and mixologists who pursue their craft with excellence and seriousness (indeed there are a number of historical and modern cocktails that require fire), but rather those who find themselves behind a bar and easily distracted by pyrotechnics—love a good flaming floater or shot, and absinthe is low hanging fruit. For their absinthe, some people will dip their sugar cube into the spirit before fishing it out and setting it ablaze on their absinthe spoon, waiting for the sugar to melt before (hopefully) diluting it with water. But absinthe is not to be treated this way.
First, some history. . .
Famously being a Grand Wormwood-infused spirit, absinthe is notoriously bitter, and it was even more so in the mid-19th century. (Changes in popular recipes like that of Dubied Père & Fils through the 1870s show the traditional wormwood-heavy recipes of Pontarlier and Couvet were likely made less bitter to suit a wider market.) To fight the bitterness, people added sweeteners.
A simple sugar syrup was an option, of course, as well as Orgeat, an almond-based French sweetener with orange blossom. But these sweeteners muddy the absinthe’s color and flavors, and that would not do for the modern, industrially-minded society of the 19th century. Instead: the sugar cube.
The sugar cube was invented twice, once by Moravian physician-turned-industrial manager Jakob Rad in 1843, and again by German engineer Eugen Langen in 1872. Rad’s process pressed free sugar granules into cubes. Langen’s process spun molten sugar in a centrifuge an then cut it down into small cubes; the patent was later sold to Victorian industrialist Henry Tate in London.
The clean abstraction of the sugar cube was exactly what absinthe drinkers were looking for. It easily fit into the aesthetic of the absinthe ritual, itself articulated by mechanisms built solely to elaborate the absinthe ritual. But one thing was not part of this ritual: fire.
Let us talk, for a moment, about the curious and particular life of “Bohemian” absinthes, or “absinth.” After the prohibitionist bans of absinthe in Western countries in the early-20th century, Central European distilleries continued to produce a version of the spirit. This product has become more defined by the “cold process” of flavoring spirits. Starting with a high proof spirit, a cold process absinthe will be flavored using plant essences and flavorings, and is often known to include sweeteners and colorings.
As far as can be told, a ritual somewhat native to this area–Austria and the Czech Republic, particularly–began to use fire, presumably as an extension of the occult associations around absinthe. It is less known but fascinating that Alastair Crowley believed absinthe to literally be a cultic medium, blending the psychotropic mystique with occult allure. Brands embraced this imagery as a visual marketing strategy and, as restrictions were loosened around absinthe’s constituent components in 1988, this whole package of high proof, neon green spirit and occult, conflagratory imagery was exported from Central Europe, mostly to the Netherlands and the UK.
Late 90s and early aughts movies further cemented the flaming image in our minds. Movies like the unendurable From Hell from the Hughes Brothers (2001), and Bar Luhrman’s truly iconic Moulin Rouge (2001) are most notable. The former blurred the lines between absinthe and opium usage–a fairly legit (but surely accidental) echo of 1870s British fears about absinthe. The latter charmed us by convincing us that absinthe hallucinations were the best way to conjure Kylie Minogue. By the time we get to Euro Trip (2004), the absinthe hallucination trope was quite common, with fire being almost as much so.
The historicity of the flaming ritual is further complicated by the existence of branded paraphernalia related to absinthe, particularly match holders. We must remember, absinthe brands printed their logos and brand names on literally anything that could pass through a printer. Not only posters, post cards, and labels, but windows, buildings, paintings, street signs, tins, pitchers, glasses, fountains, and match holders–anything that could conceivably find a place in a bar, a home, or on a street side café table had branding on it, especially something like match holders that already had a natural presence at an out door café. Some might be tempted to interpret the absinthe-branded match holder as artifactual proof of fire’s place in the absinthe ritual, but that’s simply not the case.
If you happen to be out and catch someone eagerly (or, more often, blusteringly) asking their bartender for a match with which to set their absinthe alight, consider yourself lucky. You have been given an opportunity to prevent the waste of, hopefully, good spirit and share a little knowledge. It’s all our job to look out for each other and prevent each other from falling afoul of misinformation. Now you know; go forth and spread the word.