By Neal MacDonald
You’ve probably heard a lot about absinthe. You’ve heard that it’s illegal; that it’s only available in certain sketchy areas of Europe; that it gives you hallucinations; and that it might kill you.
And now, armed with that information, you’re thinking this might be great stuff to buy for the next party.
And you can get it. Absinthe was made legal in the sense of being available in 2008. However, in what is sure to be a disappointment to some, it does not now-nor did it ever-create an hallucinatory experience. It’s just alcohol and it carries exactly the same risks and potencies that drinking any kind of high-proof alcohol carries.
But what about the wormwood?! Yes, it has Grand Wormwood in it, which is an herb that defines absinthe and has a faintly licorice taste. This carries thujone in it, which is a compound that is a neurotoxin and can cause death. That is, if you somehow ingest a lot of it. It turns out there’s more thujone in a cup of black tea than there is in absinthe. It became illegal for very foolish reasons as an overreaction on the French populace and the government presaging the temperance movement-none of it was based on science.
- Is it legal?
YES (provided you’re of legal age to purchase and you use money rather than criminal activity to acquire it)
- But is it the same stuff as I can get in Europe?
YES (the stuff your buddy smuggled in from Amsterdam isn’t any more or less potent in any way than stuff you can get here)
- Will I hallucinate?
NO (unless you take other drugs with your absinthe, which was happening a lot in France back in the day)
- Will I die?
YES (some day you most certainly will… but absinthe will not hasten this date any more or less than any other spirit)
- I’m kind of disappointed about all this!
Well, you shouldn’t be… while drinking absinthe isn’t exactly tweaking the nose of fate it does taste pretty awesome.
Absinthe is a high proof spirit-made either from a base of grain or eau-de-vie (wine grapes)-infused with a wide variety of botanicals. It is green because the green herbs used in the infusion gives the liquor a green hue just like lemon zest gives lemon liqueurs a yellow hue or berries give crème de cassis a purple hue. In fact, this is just like a flavored vodka except flavored vodkas use a tiny fraction of the herbs, as a result are a lot more boring, and are blended (watered) back to something around 70 proof.
Absinthe, in contrast, is hugely complex and bottled north of 130 proof depending on the whim of the bottler.
In fact, that’s what makes absinthe so damned fun: aside from the Grand Wormwood, the range of botanicals flavoring the spirit is wide-ranging leading to astonishing varieties. There is more variation in absinthe than any other spirit category with the possible exception of gin. It’s like a personal signature from the distiller.
For more reading, check out the Wormwood Society, which is a fine website dedicated to all things absinthe. If you want to just get drinking, then let’s get started below
Do you like licorice?
Yes, I love the flavor of licorice!
Excellent. You probably like ouzo, raki, Sambuca, and a host of other anise liqueurs and spirits. In absinthe, you’ve probably found your life’s pursuit. GO TO STEP 2
No, I don’t like licorice.
Are you sure? You’ve probably had licorice taffy or licorice sticks… but that’s like saying you’ve tried cherry flavored cough drops and hate cherries or strawberry baby aspirin and hate strawberries. You might be in for a big surprise if you give absinthe a chance. GO TO STEP 2
No, seriously, I really, really hate licorice.
Fine. GO BUY A BOTTLE OF WHIPPED CREAM VODKA
Do you wig out if you’re about to spend $50 - $80 on a bottle?
Dude, that’s how I roll.
Good. Because if you’re used to spending that kind of money on vodka or even bourbon, you’re used to overpaying. Absinthe is technically hard to make, expensive to produce, and comes in Olympian proofs… on a dollar-per-ethanol of milliliter or a dollar-per-labor-hour basis, absinthe is a bargain. GO TO STEP 3
Wait… what? $50? Aren’t there cheaper options?
Yes. They’re called licorice schnapps or anise liqueurs. They’re sweetened. They usually have a single ingredient. They come in low proofs. They lack the complexity, the drama, and the elan of absinthe. SUCK IT UP AND GO TO STEP 3
Look, “Thrift Shop” is my favorite song for a reason.
Got it. Good rum can be had for $15 and less and Coke is always on sale. GO SNIP SOME COUPONS
How to drink the stuff.
Straight: served neat in a glass.
NO!!!! Are you insane? Did you see the proof on this stuff? Not even the crazy artists in the Belle Epoque drank the stuff straight and you, my friend, are nowhere near that level of crazy. Plus, absinthe is a vile and revolting potion served straight.
With water, then?
Yes… but a very special preparation:
What about the sugar?
Lots of people like sugar with their absinthe-it’s not remotely sweet on its own. Dissolve some sugar or simple syrup in your drink to taste.
What’s with the absinthe drip and the absinthe spoon and the absinthe glass and the absinthe fountain and all the other supporting apparatus?
Well, this is a newbies guide to absinthe and rolling with that level of equipment will set you back something like $200 - $400. But if you can get it, it’s all very cool. The fountain will contain the icy water and create a slow drip into the glass. The spoon will rest on top of the glass and the drips will gradually dissolve the sugar while you gaze at it. (Then it will help you stir and dissolve the sugar.) The glass will show off the absinthe and the louche. It’s all very dramatic and very, very French. If you like absinthe, then you should do all of this.
But if you just want to try it, ice water is fine as long as it’s cold. The sugar can be dissolved in any way you’re familiar with from drinking coffee.
Last note: we here at Proof66 are greatly indebted to Sonja Kassebaum of North Shore Distillery, who makes Sirene Absinthe. She kindly introduced us to absinthe, spoke to us about its history, and patiently taught us about the proper preparation.