It’s not wine, but it is the stuff of which hazy green dreams—and art—are made. Absinthe, the liquor of choice of bohemian artists and writers, is not merely legal again in the United States; it’s flourishing. The namesake of bars and restaurants from New York to San Francisco, Absinthe holds unmistakable allure, even mystical connotation. Rare is the beverage that gets its own fairy and its own disease.
Invented in Switzerland at some indistinct point in the late eighteenth century, the liquor known as Absinthe begins as a clear, flavorless, highly alcoholic base that is infused with herbs, flowers and botanicals—namely anise, fennel, and Artemesia absinthium, or grand wormwood. It’s this last ingredient purported to give Absinthe its legendary kick, and it’s the ingredient that caused Absinthe to be banned in Europe and in the US about 80 years ago. The wormwood present in Absinthe provides the spirit with small amounts of the psychoactive chemical thujone, which may account for Absinthe’s hallucinatory effects. However, recent studies suggest that it’s probably just the super-high alcoholic content of Absinthe (40-70%), and not the thujone, that inspired Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Modigliani. (Science sometimes makes me sad.)
Absinthe divides drinkers. You love it, or you loathe it, and if you loathe it, the more for me, frankly. One really positive thing about the recent floodgates of legal Absinthe is the surprising quality. When Absinthe was illegal, it was bad. In fact, the custom of pouring Absinthe over cubes of sugar stems from the liquor’s previously unpleasant, often medicinal, flavor. New York Times writer Eric Asimov recently wrote favorably about the taste of the modern crop of Absinthes and noted that “The absinthes in our tasting had enough natural (and possibly unnatural) sweetness that adding sugar was unnecessary. The quality of most of them was unexpectedly good.”
Asimov seems to be damning with faint praise, but as an Absinthe lover, I’ll take it. I was delighted to read that a New Orleans microbiologist was harnessing all of his powers to recreate belle époque Absinthe, and I was even more delighted to read that a New York woman was creating her own artisanal Absinthe just a short drive away from Manhattan. I recognize that my love of Absinthe is touched with more than its fair share of pretension, and yet I’m delighted to have it infused with regional pride as well.
Part of what makes Absinthe so awesome is its history—one part its sinister reputation, the other part its necessary mad scientist mixology (you just can’t pop it into a glass and sip it; you need to tame the green and savage beast!) Another part is Absinthe’s accessories. Wine glasses may be lovely, but you don’t want a wine fountain. You do, on the other hand, want an Absinthe fountain—or at least I do. (Look for one at my next birthday party.) Absinthe requires complex ritual, and ritual is fun. Plus, Absinthe accoutrements are just so pretty. And if you’re not into the quirky glassware, quick search will help you find a plethora of Absinthe cocktail recipes.
These days, you can buy Absinthe online, or you can read Absinthe blogs. If you’re taking Virgin Airways, you can enjoy Absinthe on a plane. You can even order Absinthe lollypops when it’s socially appropriate to enjoy the PG 13 version of the Green Fairy. It’s an Absinthe mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world. We just drink moderately in it.