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A Pondering About Absinthe for Bartenders

Aug 17, 2007
Absinthe is one of those historic fascinations that never quite go away. We were just on the verge of letting absinthe settle into the dustbin of history when two events happened. One, the Goth kids heard about it, especially that (whoever the 19th century poet they pretend to have read) drank it, which means they must have a glass immediately so everybody knows how cool they are. Two, the cult classic (and tragically short-lived) HBO series "Carnival" featured a character who drank absinthe the way the Small Lebowski drank White Russians, so the art scene found out about it.

For satisfying this crowd of looky-loos, you could just about add green food coloring to ordinary vodka and slap on a new label and most of them wouldn't know the difference. Truly, would you yourself know absinthe if you tasted it? But for the barkeep who's serious about doing their homework and offering the real deal, here's all the research in one place.

Absinthe is (or was) a highly alcoholic, distilled liquor with a kick of anise flavoring, made from a complex set of herbs including the plant known as "grand wormwood", with a light bitterness and great complexity imparted to the flavor by multiple herbs. Be sure to correct those who call it a 'liqueur' - it had no added sugar. That's why you have that goofy spoon - you put a lump of sugar on the spoon and hold it over the glass and pour the absinthe over it. It was consistently green in color, like watered-down green apple schnapps.

Due to its sky-high proof (around 75 percent pure alcohol) and concentration of oils, absinthe drinkers typically add from three to five parts ice-water to a shot of absinthe, which causes the drink to turn cloudy; often the water is used to dissolve the added sugar (from step one) to increase bitterness. This preparation is considered an important part of the experience of drinking absinthe, so much so that it has become ritualized.

Now, here's where the kid angle comes in: The ingredient wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), contains the neurotoxin thujone. Thujone is chemically similar to THC, which is the active ingredient in marijuana, and some speculate that the two compounds act on the brain in similar ways. Of course, the first thought running through the head of a shrouded Goth is "So it's like legal pot???" Well, try to break it gently to them, but no, it isn't. Thujone is only similar to THC, not equal. You'd have to chug a gallon of the stuff to get the thujone effect, passing out in a drunken stupor first. And finally, it is, for the most part, illegal in many parts of the world even today.

The reason behind its illegality is that it was demonized as a ruining influence in 19th century France. All their poets and painters, gargling their late night glasses by gaslight in the cafe society of the belle epoch, supposedly went mad or at least slacked off on production. Vincent van Gosh lopped off his ear and he drank absinthe, so, with the same logic that causes today's courts to ban violent video games whenever kids go on a shooting spree, absinthe was promptly outlawed.

Studies have since shown that the real problem was probably alcoholism in general (including wine served at every single meal), that any specific drink. Perhaps, because absinthe was so strong, alcohol poisoning and the occasional shot of methanol (after all, it was the 19th century, and they were working by gaslight) probably struck the absinthe drinker with more regularity.

Today, most countries do not have a legal definition of 'absinthe' like they do 'scotch whiskey'. But it is technically illegal in a patchwork quilt of countries all over the globe, whatever it is. In some places the laws say absinthe's OK as long as it isn't so-and-so percentage this and that, some countries outlaw it based on its alcohol content alone, and some countries make no sense and ban drinks with wormwood in them, while ingredients like sage and sage oil (which can be 50% thujone!) get off Scott free.

Hey, sage! That's a plan. Maybe you could take Everclear, dilute it with something weak but complicated-tasting, add some sage oil, and sell it as "absinthe"! All it would take is a patent and trademark on the name, you'd have brand recognition for years to come. What's that, Everclear is illegal in some states, too? Oh, phooey, they won't let us have any fun.
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