Made popular during the late nineteenth century, absinthe was the aphrodisiac of La Belle Epoch. It was portrayed as a psychoaddictive drug and was banned from most Western nations about 1915. So why, then, can you walk into any well-stocked liquor store and buy yourself what has been known until now as bootleg hooch?
Absinthe enjoyed a revival in Europe in the 1990’s, when most countries repealed their bans against La Fee Vert, or Green Fairy as absinthe is affectionately called. It took until 2007 for the U.S. to repeal bans. However, the absinthe of today varies slightly from La Fee of the Belle Epoch in that today only absinthes with a low level of wormwood are acceptable for import and sales.
Traditional absinthe was the moonshine of its time. In the late nineteenth century, much of it was made in back yards and cellars with little control over the proportions of ingredients. Was it to blame for the hallucinations, wild rollicking, and even murder for which it was blamed? It is likely that the wormwood in absinthe, the ingredient most commonly blamed for absinthe’s ill effects, caused little to none of the pain for which it was held responsible. However, as Michel Roux of Grande Absente explains: “You can make alcohol with anything you can ferment. So without regulations, people were making absinthe with the cheapest ingredients possible. Mixed with wormwood and a high concentration of cheap alcohol, you can make poison.”
To better understand absinthe’s dangerous reputation, it is best to examine the process of producing this reputed devilish drink. Absinthe is a liquor, not a liqueur as it is sometimes mistakenly called, meaning it is a flavored spirit distilled and bottled without the addition of sugar. The blend of flavoring varies with the maker, which is why there are so many brands of absinthe available. (Some crazy number, like 200 different brands, can be purchased in the United States). Unfortunately, with each manufacturer wishing to put their own spin on the spirit, the flavor profile can range wildly from a bottling heavy with licorice and sweetness to something light and faintly herbal.
The one common denominator in all absinthes is wormwood. Artemisia Absinthum, or wormwood, is a perennial plant that grows wild in Mediterranean climates.
There is an active ingredient in wormwood, thujone, which was thought until recently to react in the body similarly to THC. So why the limit on wormwood in modern day absinthe production? Well, we now know that in massive doses, thujone is toxic to the brain and liver and can cause convulsions – but hey, even nutmeg is toxic if you eat the whole jar!
Today, what truly gives absinthe its seductive powers is the high level of alcohol (I recommend a two-drink maximum, if performance is your goal). High proof is the result of reduced wormwood levels, claims Monsieur Roux. Wormwood gave absinthe much of its body in the good ole days, and, of course, the easiest way to bring body back is by increasing proof.
But absinthe has a second aphrodisiac factor going for it: It is very sexy in its ceremonial preparation. Traditionally, absinthe was mixed with water, or louched, as it was called. Sugar was usually added to make the drink more palatable, although many of today’s more finely crafted absinthes need no sugar to be enjoyed. The absinthe was first poured into a special absinthe glass (see Edouard Manet’s “The Absinthe Drinker” for illustration). Then a flat, slotted absinthe spoon was balanced on the rim of the glass; a sugar cube balanced on top. Three or four ounces of water were slowly poured over the cube until the sugar was dissolved. The spoon was then slipped into the drink for a final stir before the absinthe was ready for imbibing.
You can certainly serve a glass of modern absinthe to your lover using this form of culinary foreplay. Any absinthe, with the drink’s rather extreme proof, will benefit from the addition of water.