During our travels, Jen and I happened to procure a bottle of authentic absinthe. It is an alcoholic beverage well-known in artistic circles for its distinctive greenish color as well as its hallucinatory properties. It is very difficult to purchase absinthe in the United States because of it complicated ingredients (the FDA has been all over it for about a century).
Since we found a real bottle of the controversial liquor here in Europe, we decided to take it out for a spin to see what happened (more on that later). During my research into the creation and popularity of absinthe, I discovered a very interesting story that begins with wine.
Just as the ancient Romans brought wine into Europe as they expanded north and west, the European settlers brought their wine across the ‘pond’ to the ‘new world’. However, the grapes couldn’t thrive in North American soil. Over the course of the next century or two, French farmers toyed around with American grape varieties without producing the same quality wines they had become accustomed to in their homelands.
Eventually, the Americans grafted European grapes with American grapes and shipped their yields back across the Atlantic to grow on European soil. Unfortunately, grapes weren’t the only things they brought back. A species of insect called the Phylloxera came along for the ride and caused irreparable damage to the French vineyards.
The Great French Wine Blight started in 1868 and within 40 years, wiped out almost all of the vines. What scientists eventually discovered was that the bugs preferred munching on the leaves of the imported American vines as well as the roots of the local French vines. No grapes were safe.
By the early 20th century, grape growers were using a combination of pesticides and hybrid, phylloxera-resistant, vines of American and French grafting to reconstitute the supply of wine on the continent. Even today, wine has been forever changed due to the Blight (few people living has ever tasted the robust flavors of French wines that existed prior to 1868). However, another effect of the drop in wine production was the rise of absinthe consumption.
Absinthe is a spirit, without any added sugar, that tastes like anise (so don’t eat it with pizzelles). Originating from Switzerland, production of this beverage expanded in France in the late 19th century – 100 years after it was invented. It rose to great popularity directly because of the lack of wine available during the time period (in France alone over 2 million liters were consumed per year during and after the Blight), particularly with artists and writers, who wanted to “see beyond”. Hemingway even created his own use for the spirit by mixing it with champagne (he named it Death in the Afternoon, but more on the American author in another entry).
In literature, films, and music (up to this day), absinthe has been vilified as a dangerous, addictive, and psychoactive drug due to the ingredient thujone, which is present in the plant known as wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). In spite of this inaccurate portrayal, nobody has been able to demonstrate the spirit to be more dangerous than any other alcoholic beverage produced in the world. Too bad, it’s still very difficult to find in the United States (some domestic liquor stores sell versions without wormwood).
Originally, wormwood was utilized as a plant with medicinal purposes from the ancient Egyptians through 18th century European doctors. They thought it had powerful healing effects and would prescribe it to patients with arthritis, fever, menstrual pain, tapeworm, to aid digestion, and even as an antiseptic. As it turns out, it was only a drug, and not a miracle cure (the story parallels that of cocaine use in Coke over a century ago, prior to the drug’s illegality and exclusion from the now popularly consumed carbonated soft-drink).
One of the most fascinating aspects of the spirit is how it’s prepared.
First, fill the bubble at the bottom of your Pontarlier (or another type of long, slender, or conical) glass with pure absinthe from the bottle (if you don’t have a Pontarlier, then fill the bottom 25% of the glass instead).
Next, place a traditional absinthe spoon across the mouth of the glass (this spoon has holes or slits and looks a lot like a fancy cake serving utensil), but if you don’t have that spoon, a fork or another slotted device will work just as well.
Then, set a sugar cube on the spoon and slowly pour ice cold water over the cube and spoon until the sugar dissolves in the water and flows into the glass, mixing with the absinthe (the goal is 4 parts water to 1 part absinthe plus sugar).
At this point, you will notice that while the water and sugar dilutes the absinthe, the mixture also changes the color and consistency of the beverage (the clear green will fade into a cloudy greenish that loses its opaque quality).
Finally, sip and enjoy! Maybe…
Jen and I spent an evening trying out the drink. First of all, it tastes like ass run over twice… unless you’re a fan of licorice. The predominant (and I mean predominant) flavor ingredient is anise. Personally, I hate anise so that was already one strike against absinthe. Choking down the beverage all night didn’t provide the hallucinatory experiences the Bohemian artists of yesteryear claimed it did. What it did give me was a massive stomach ache with a touch of a foggy head (I couldn’t hear correctly for most of the night, as if I were underwater).
Do I recommend absinthe? Nah. It’s not worth the aggravation to create. It’s too strong to consume without diluting it. And if you simply want to get drunk or buzzed, there are plenty of other tastier ways to do it. I believe these are the reasons that absinthe has fallen out of favor with the general population over the past century.
Why drink nasty licorice flavors when you can have vanilla vodka or coconut rum and mix these with Coke or Sprite?
Hasta la Proxima…