Cocktail Queries: What Is Absinthe, Is It Legal, and Why Was It Banned?

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Cocktail Queries: What Is Absinthe, Is It Legal, and Why Was It Banned?

Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.

There are few spirits with more mythological power in their names than “absinthe.” Revered, demonized, feared and consistently misunderstood, it’s actually a fairly broad category of liquor—one with a pop-cultural depiction that has often cast absinthe in a sickly green light, as a ruiner of homes or gateway to psychedelic hallucinations. Absinthe has had a tough existence, including bans in many countries that lasted almost a century, but today the green-tinted spirit is again growing and thriving as part of the modern microdistillery and mixology scene.

But what is absinthe, exactly? How is it made? Where and why was it banned? How is it consumed? And how has it persistently maintained such an exotic reputation? Read on, and find out how absinthe has returned stronger than ever.


A brief history of absinthe

In the simplest of definitions, “absinthe” describes a potent alcoholic spirit, often distilled between 45-74% ABV (90-148 proof), that is flavored with anise and artemisia absinthium, better known as “grand wormwood” or just “wormwood.” When we say “anise,” we’re specifically talking about green anise, also known as aniseed, rather than the spice known as star anise, although it may additionally be used. Other herbs and spices are likewise used in classical absinthe production, including sweet fennel, hyssop, peppermint, coriander, angelica and many others. In this sense, absinthe bears some similarity to gin—it’s a neutral spirit that is flavored by its botanical infusions during distillation and maceration, but true absinthe is differentiated by a focus on anise-like flavors and the presence of wormwood, as well as what is typically a higher proof point.

Most countries have no specific legal definition for absinthe, which means that its production has historically varied. Traditional, high-quality absinthe, however, was typically produced via a combination of maceration and distillation. Botanicals, including aniseed and wormwood, are macerated (steeped) in distilled alcohol, which infuses the alcohol with those flavors. The spirit is then distilled again, often to a fairly high level of 70% ABV or more, which yields a clear, non-colored spirit. This spirit can then be bottled, which is referred to as blanche absinthe, or it can take on the style’s signature green color via either artificial coloring, or a second maceration with whole herbs, which is considered traditional. The green color of absinthe, then, is classically a result of this second maceration with herbs such as petite wormwood and hyssop—the liquor is literally green because of chlorophyll from those plants, resulting in the absinthe nickname “the green fairy.” Cheaper “absinthe,” meanwhile is sometimes what is known as “cold-mixed absinthe,” which is not macerated with herbs, but rather just a strong neutral grain spirit mixed with flavoring essences. Unsurprisingly, purists would consider this to be cheating.

Distilled spirits containing anise or wormwood date back, like so many other spirits, to the work of pioneering alchemists and chemists in the Middle Ages, but the first recorded appearances of absinthe-like liquors occurred in the late 1700s and early 1800s, as many other liquor styles were concurrently taking shape. By the mid-1800s, absinthe had become quite popular indeed, especially in mainland Europe, where France and Switzerland in particular became known as centers of absinthe production and consumption. It was an unusually cosmopolitan beverage, being popular among a range of social classes, although it eventually developed a reputation as a drink of choice among artists, creatives and bohemians … something that would eventually be a major factor in the spirit’s demonization. In the U.S., the French population of New Orleans meant it rapidly became associated with absinthe consumption, and absinthe as a result is considered an integral ingredient (albeit in a very small dose) in the city’s signature cocktail, the Sazerac.

As absinthe exploded in popularity across mainland Europe, though, it also became a target of demonization and smear campaigns. Opponents claimed that absinthe had particular powers to drive its users into a violent rage, or lay waste to families. It was the same sort of language—one particular claim said absinthe “makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant”—that was used to slander many other undesirable alcohol styles at the time by the rising temperance movement, typically based in righteous rhetoric rather than scientific observation. Not coincidentally, the styles of alcohol most persecuted were typically those associated with the working poor, bohemians and whichever segments of society were viewed by the elite as the least desirable. And as the 1900s dawned, that was absinthe. In particular, a fuse-lighting moment occurred in 1905, when a Swiss farmer named Jean Lanfray was convicted of murdering his family in a drunken rage, after consuming a wide range of liquors that included a small amount of absinthe. The green-colored liquor, however, was blamed for the deaths, and it ignited a long-growing moral panic against absinthe that concluded in the spirit being banned in the country in 1908.

absinthe-depictions.jpg Two very different depictions of the relative virtues of absinthe. On the left, an advertisement. On the right, Edgar Degas’ 1876 painting “L’Absinthe.”

Other countries quickly followed suit, helped along by the growing temperance movement, which had a particular grudge against absinthe. Belgium and Brazil beat Switzerland to the punch, banning the spirit in 1906, while The Netherlands followed in 1909. The U.S. wasn’t far behind, instituting its own absinthe ban in 1912, while France finally enacted its own ban in 1914. Several nations, on the other hand, never banned the spirit, including Spain and England, but its popularity declined precipitously in those places regardless.

In the wake of the bans, other anise-infused spirits eventually came into vogue, most notably pastis and ouzo. Pastis in particular is somewhat absinthe-like, being another strong, anise-flavored spirit, but it differentiates itself by not including wormwood, by not being as strong (typically 40-50% ABV), by typically being made with star anise rather than aniseed, by including licorice root, and by being bottled with added sugars, which makes it classified as a liqueur rather than a spirit.

True absinthe, meanwhile, subsequently went into hibernation for decades, until a gradual rediscovery of the spirit in the 1990s led to a wave of alcohol modernization laws throughout Europe in the 2000s. By 2000, the spirit was once again legal in France, and 2007 brought the first legal absinthe to the U.S. since 1912. After almost a century, absinthe returned to the limelight, with small distilleries beginning absinthe production throughout the U.S.A.


How do people consume absinthe?

The most traditional, “old-school” way to consume absinthe is the classical French preparation, sometimes simply called the “Parisian” method. It involves pouring a small amount of absinthe into a glass, and then placing a lump of sugar/sugar cube on a slotted bar spoon above the glass. Ice water is then slowly dripped or poured over the sugar, sometimes from a small fountain, dripping into the glass of absinthe until it has been significantly diluted. Remember that many commercial absinthes are as strong as 70% ABV, so dilutions of 3-5 parts water to 1 part absinthe is common in order to tame the spirit.

As the water drips into the spirit in this method, the drinker will witness a physical transformation in the glass, as at a certain point the mixture will turn cloudy and milky white in color. This change is referred to as the louche. It may look strange or intimidating, but the culprit is simple chemistry, as anise-based liquors contain essential aromatic oils that come out of suspension and cloud the drink when the spirit is diluted to a certain level. The subsequent “bloom” is said to release aromatic compounds that give absinthe prepared in this way its trademark herbal/floral bouquet.

absinthe-glass-inset.jpg Traditional absinthe glasses are well suited to the slow dripping of water into the spirit.

The “Bohemian method,” meanwhile, is a more recent invention that involves soaking the sugar cube in alcohol and then setting it on fire in the spoon before it is dropped into the absinthe, which likewise catches fire. A measured amount of water is then added to douse the flames. This method exists largely for the performative aspect of showing off a flaming drink—check out our recent essay on why we light our drinks on fire—and is not favored by most absinthe purists, who seem to regard it as a gimmick more than anything.

These are the traditional methods for consuming absinthe on its own, but the modern mixology revival has also found ways to incorporate absinthe as an ingredient in many modern cocktails, stretching far beyond its presence in a classic New Orleans Sazerac. The intensely bitter and herbaceous qualities of absinthe mean that it can be applied in similar scenarios as amaro such as Fernet Branca, and it can be used in cocktail recipes to provide a powerful undercurrent of herbal or spicy flavors. It’s considered essential, for instance, in classic tiki recipes such as the Zombie) and the Jet Pilot, where the bitterness of absinthe (originally pastis, because of the time period) provides a counterbalance to the richness of a blend of rums, fruit juices and syrups. You may want to consider what a bar spoon full of absinthe could do to some of your own favorite cocktails.


Does absinthe make you hallucinate?

The stereotype of absinthe as a hallucinatory drug dates all the way back to the 1860s, when a series of questionably conducted lab experiments by French psychiatrist and absinthe detractor Valentin Magnan theorized that the naturally occurring chemical thujone, found within wormwood, could have toxic effects for humans, including the onset of hallucinations.

Magnan wasn’t entirely incorrect, as exceedingly large quantities of thujone have indeed been shown to be linked to conditions such as muscle spasms. But the amounts of thujone present in absinthe are in reality so effectively tiny that it’s impossible for them to pose any threat. In fact, if someone tried to overdose on thujone by consuming copious quantities of absinthe, they would die of alcohol poisoning long before the thujone became an issue. Chemical analysis of vintage bottles of absinthe from the era have shown that thujone levels were of no danger in historic absinthe either, meaning that the chemical was effectively scapegoated in order to target absinthe, which Magnan believed was to blame for a decline in French culture. The reputation of “the green fairy” has stuck around ever since, consistently referenced in American pop culture in films such as 2004’s bawdy comdy EuroTrip.

Thujone was likewise a topic of debate once again in the 1970s, when a scientific journal presented a theory that thujone’s molecular similarity to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) might mean that it had the capacity to stimulate the same areas of the brain. This particular theory was conclusively disproven in the late 1990s, prior to absinthe’s cultural reemergence.

Still, the distrust of thujone exists to some degree today, and in the U.S. the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) requires that modern absinthes produced by micro-distilleries must be “thujone-free,” which they consider as a concentration of less than 10 mg/kg. These concentrations are verified by testing via gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Nor are distilleries allowed to market their absinthes with marketing language or imagery that projects “images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic, or mind-altering effects.”

Which is all to say: No, there’s nothing in particular within absinthe that is likely to cause hallucinations … besides plenty of ethanol.


A modern U.S. distillery takes on absinthe

Sean Smiley is the founder and owner of State 38 Distilling, a Golden, CO-based microdistillery primarily known for their line of whiskeys and agave spirits. One of his greatest passions as a spirits consumer, however, is traditional absinthe. It’s been something Smiley has loved ever since a post-graduation trip to Europe, where he first sampled it in the bars and cafes of Amsterdam, becoming instantly smitten with the romantic aspect of traditional absinthe preparation. As a distillery owner, he dreamed of bringing absinthe to a greater degree of notoriety stateside, but he stopped short of pursuing that dream at first, assuming that his operation would be unable to produce quality absinthe at a fair price.

“When I first started distilling, it was always something I wanted to make, but I always assumed it would be impossible,” Smiley said to Paste. “I thought ‘It must be too complicated, it’s something I’ll probably never be able to get a federal COLA (certificate of label approval) for.’ I figured the exotic ingredients would probably be too difficult and expensive to source.”

The distiller was beyond surprised, then, to realize that not only were the ingredients not that hard to come by—they also weren’t prohibitively expensive. Today, Smiley, whose Damn. Good. Absinthe Verte brand retails for a mere $25, takes umbrage with the fanciful, mythological image so often assigned to the spirit in the U.S. Selling his brand at an affordable price, in a plainly dressed bottle that simply describes its ingredients in detail, he hopes to demystify the category for drinkers, winning more fans for absinthe along the way as he recasts it as a style of liquor that should be accessible to anyone.

damn-good-absinthe-inset.jpg

“The raw materials it takes to make a genuine, legitimate absinthe are truly no more expensive than the botanicals used to make your average gin,” he said of his absinthe brand. “In fact, most of them are less expensive than juniper berries for gin. Two things came to mind, then: Why on earth is this stuff being sold by U.S. distilleries for $80 per bottle, and why isn’t absinthe more widespread and available? I believe that distilleries have gotten away with charging an unnecessary premium for absinthe because of its allure and mystery, and I want the mass consumer to be able to purchase absinthe wherever they go and really have some fun with it—to use it as more than just a little rinse for a Sazerac. We put out absinthe for $25, and there’s no reason from a raw materials and labor standpoint that it shouldn’t be at that level.”

It’s not as if Smiley’s Damn. Good. Absinthe Verte is cutting corners, although it’s labeled quite plainly. Like other traditional absinthes, it undergoes two macerations with herbs and spices, gaining its green color through completely natural means. It weighs in at 110 proof and is made with grand wormwood, hand-milled anise, fennel, vanilla and Colorado mint leaf. It is, in short, a traditional absinthe, and Smiley delights in helping visitors to the State 38 Distilling tasting room experience it “in drinks where the absinthe is forward, present, front and center.” He particularly recommends a cocktail called the Absinthe God, which is based around absinthe as the primary spirit, also including lemon juice, almond orgeat, egg white and Angostura bitters.

“Drinking culture has definitely started to embrace absinthe a bit more, and that’s obviously a good thing for us,” he said. “When people come in and they’re curious about it, the first thing I ask them is ‘Do you like the black jellybean?’ That is by far the most indicative question that determines if people will embrace it or run away from it, and it’s a very divisive question. But if someone says they like that jelly bean, they absolutely need to try a traditional absinthe drip.”


Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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