There's a lot of myth and misinformation surrounding absinthe, which is one of the most complex and interesting drinks about. Here, we clarify the green from the clear varieties, and how it ought to be drunk.
What is absinthe?
Absinthe is a spirit that began life as a medicine. In the late 18th Century, a Swiss doctor named Pierre Ordinaire concocted a patent remedy that combined wormwood (artimisia absinthium, from which absinthe takes its name), fennel and anise, along with other medicinal herbs. He began distilling the mixture in alcohol as a preservative measure, and its popularity spread.
By 1797 Henri-Louis Pernod had acquired the recipe, and started distilling absinthe commercially, as an aperitif. It wasn't until absinthe was banned in France in 1915 that Pernod switched to the production of the pastis
he is now famous for.
The drink exploded in popularity over the 18th and 19th centuries, and its association with the bohemian lifestyle, as well as concerns over its health effects, led to a conservative backlash against it. As cheap absinthe artificially coloured with dangerous copper sulfate flooded the market in the early 20th Century, authorities enacted what was to become a century-long ban.
Modern absinthe can contain anywhere between 45 and 90 per cent alcohol, but it's generally diluted with 3-5 parts water, if drunk in the traditional manner.
Joop van Heusden, who imports and serves more than 25 different French and Swiss absinthes at his Absinthe Salon
in Sydney's Surry Hills, recommends starting at a lower alcohol content and stepping up if consuming more than one glass in a sitting.
Is absinthe hallucinogenic?
No. It has been conclusively proven that wormwood, at the levels it's present in absinthe, cannot cause a person to hallucinate. It's been posited that the effects of some of the trace herbs in absinthe do add a quality of lucidity to the effect of the alcohol, but this is speculative. The only likely effect of the thujone you're likely to notice drinking absinthe is a slight numbing on the tip of the tongue.
Types of absinthe
There are three main types of absinthe:
- Swiss/Blanche ($90-$200 per bottle)
This clear spirit is bottled immediately after distillation, and it was the favoured style by bootleggers during the ban years, since its clear colour made identification by authorities more difficult. It louches (goes cloudy) with the addition of water.
- French/Verte (up to $200 per bottle)
This was the main type of absinthe found in continental Europe before the ban was enforced. French, or verte (green) absinthe starts out as blanche absinthe, but takes its colour, and some flavours, from herbs that are steeped in the spirit prior to bottling. You'll invariably find it in dark glass bottles, as exposure to light affects its colouring.
- Bohemian/Absinth (up to $200 per bottle)
The first type of absinth(e) to re-emerge after the ban came from the Czech republic, and has become known as “bohemian absinthe” or simple “absinth”, without an “e”. This is often scorned by fans of Swiss and French absinthes, and differs from these products in a few important respects. The herbal components of absinthe are often replaced or absent, and cheaper versions can be cold-mixed, rather than distilled. They generally do not louche when water is added. The one area in which bohemian absinth is preferable to traditional absinthe is in punches and cocktails.
Absinthe in Australia
Absinthe has a longer history over here than you might think. Merchants were importing it into Sydney as early as the 1840s, and Sydney's Paris House – a turn-of-the-century mecca for colonial Francophiles – likely had it on their menu. But when bans on absinthe came into force in the European absinthe-producing countries, the local supply was cut off for a century.
These days it's undergoing a resurgence, with at least four different importers bringing in European product. Bohemian absinths are the most common.
Southtrade International imports the most popular first-pour absinth, the bohemian Green Fairy. Matt Rimmer, who manages the brand, has seen sales jump 12% in the last year to over 168 000 bottles. It's partially been driven by the product's suitability for cocktails.
“Green Fairy will mix with nearly all fruit juices and soft drinks, as well as in cocktails,” says Southtrade director Tony Stubley.
While Green Fairy dominates the absinthe market, boutique imports of Swiss and French absinthe are growing fast, according to importer and Absinthe Salon
small-bar owner Joop Van Heusden.
“It looks like, at the moment, the market is getting better and better,” he says.
Van Heusden and his partner, Gaye, have plans to open other Absinthe Salon outlets after the success of their Sydney venture, at which there's a three drink limit per patron (with sit-in prices $13-$22 per glass). They import the largest range of French and Swiss absinthes available in Australia, which can be ordered through absinthesalon.com.au
How to drink absinthe
Pour a 30-45 ml dose into a glass, and place a slotted spoon over your glass. Place a sugar cube on the spoon.
Slowly drip ice-cold water, from either a carafe or an absinthe fountain, over the sugar and into your glass. Make it one part absinthe to 3-5 parts water. As the water mixes with the oils they will separate and louche, and the drink will become cloudy.
Stir gently. Sip it slowly. Enjoy.