Absinthe on the Brain | Hanging Out with the Green Fairy
In Center City the other night I got a little absinthe on the brain and spent some time hanging out with “la fée verte” or the green fairy, as its been called.
Incredibly, I’ve never had absinthe before – I saw a bottle on the shelf at The Buffalo Rose Saloon in Golden, CO (oldest bar in Colorado – established 1859) back in 1998 and some of the black and white framed pictures that hang on the walls of that place clearly show cowboys sipping on some liquor with sterling silver spoons on the bar, next to the bottle. The bar was called “Time,” a lovely little whiskey bar on Sansome Street and the absinthe I tried was a French brand called Grande Absente (138 proof which translates to about 69% alcohol content). Regular whiskey, rum, gin and other spirits are typically about 40-47% alcohol by volume (80-94 proof).
Absinthe is often mischaracterized as a liquor, but since it isn’t bottled with sugar, it is technically a spirit. It’s had a long and colorful history, popular with writers and artists, especially during the French bohemian cultural revolution in the late 18th and 19th centuries. There has always been a mystical lure and lore surrounding absinthe, supposedly because of some ill-defined hallucinatory properties (absinthe on the brain) it possesses (in reality the hallucinations are probably just the effect of the alcohol – its really, really potent).
Absinthe is derived from the Artemisia absinthium (grand wormwood) plant and mixed with assorted botanicals and herbs including green anise and sweet fennel. It has a licorice flavor, or more correctly, the flavor of anise. The reported hallucinatory properties were thought to be due to a chemical called thujone that is present in very, very minute quantities in absinthe and almost surely has no hallucinatory effects, but is was banned in America and most of Europe in the early part of the 20th century.
A resurgence in interest in the West developed in the 1990s when a British importer realized that absinthe had never actually been formally banned in England and began bringing a Czech product into the country. This stimulated other countries to begin relaxing their laws toward the importation of absinthe. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration requires that food and beverages that contain Artemisia species must be thujone-free. The Alcohol, Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) considers a product thujone-free if the thujone content is less than 10 ppm (equal to 10 mg/kg). Most brands of thujone have much lower concentrations than that. On March 5, 2007 (National Absinthe Day) the US ban on absinthe importation was lifted.
The import, distribution, and sale of absinthe is permitted subject to the following restrictions:
- The product must be thujone-free as per TTB guidelines,
- The word “absinthe” can neither be the brand name nor stand alone on the label, and
- The packaging cannot “project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic, or mind-altering effects.”
So the absinthe that is sold in the US is indeed “real” absinthe and contains small amounts of thujone, contrary to what my bartender at “Time” said.
I picked up a bottle of absinthe while in France last year but haven’t opened it yet, so since it was an open bar at “Time” the other night, I decided to give absinthe on the brain a try (plus my wife offered to drive home). You can watch the video here:
The spirit is normally mixed with sugar which lends itself to an elaborate ritual related to melting the sugar into the liquid. I’ve seen videos of people melting the sugar with other alcohols or even melting it with a flame. I chose the Grande Absente from France, which costs about $60/750mL (about the cost of a good bottle of whiskey).My bartender had a neat water dispenser with cold, distilled water that dripped slowly over the sugar cube and into the glass holding the beautiful green liquid. Once the sugar cube was melted into the drink, the bartender allowed about 3 or 4 ounces of additional water to fill the glass to dilute the absinthe. It might’ve been a little too dilute for me – I think I might’ve preferred a slightly stronger taste, which was quite pleasant. I may need to break open this box soon!
As Oscar Wilde said:
“What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”