Absinthe is another name for the herb wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and the name of a licorice-anise flavored green liqueur that was created at the end of the 18th century, and manufactured by Henry-Louis Pernod. Called the 'green Muse' it became very popular in the 19th century, but was eventually banned in most countries beginning in 1908. The reason is the presence of the toxic oil 'thujone' in wormwood, which was one of the main ingredients of Absinthe. Absinthe seemed to cause brain lesions, convulsions, hallucinations and severe mental problems. Thujone was thought to be the culprit, along with the fact that Absinthe was manufactured with an alcohol content of 68% or 132 proof.
Pernod and other companies came out with new, lower alcohol content, wormwood free, licorice-anise flavored liqueurs to replace Absinthe, with names such as Pernod, anis, anisette, pastis, ouzo and raki.
E-mail from Andrew, 5/16/2012
I was just reading your rather fascinating site and noticed you had a rare thing - an accurate section on absinthe - (so congratulations!) - unlike many things you read online about absinthe.
I thought I should let you know since you last updated the page a lot has happened in the world of absinthe, including the legalisation of absinthe in the USA in 2007 (so long as it contains a less than 10mg/L of thujone and doesn't have a label that suggests psychoactive effects). France, although they had absinthe for years under the name Spiritueux aux Plantes d'Absinthe, just calling it absinthe was not allowed. Since last year, I am very pleased to say the word absinthe alone is now permitted.
Our site Absinthes.com - www.Absinthes.com - is another source for high quality absinthes. We have a larger range available, although we only actively promote the highest quality distilled absinthes.
Now I must try to avoid spending too much time looking at your articles!
Best wishes, Andrew.
E-mail From Sam Adams, 3/17/04
Absinthe is now legal in the European Union and is being manufactured once again in France and Spain, among other countries. Switzerland has recently overturned its ban on the beverage and it will soon be legally produced there again. France, somewhat obscurely, now insists that the drink be labelled "Spiriteux aux Plantes d'Absinthe" or "Absinthes Distillees"; anything labelled simply "Absinthe" cannot be sold there. This may simply be the French way of abiding by EU policies while maintaining that "absinthe" itself is still illegal.
Today's cheaper varieties use a mixture of herbal oils added to diluted alcohol to produce a drink of 45% to 70% alcohol by volume. This includes most varieties made in Spain and in the Czech Republic. The latter are rather poorly regarded by connoisseurs, as their flavor profile has very little to do with the drink enjoyed at the turn of the century in France.
The better, more traditional and more expensive varieties are made by macerating wormwood, green anise and fennel together in 80-90% alcohol, then distilling the result. The distillate is then given an infusion of herbs including hyssop, lemon balm and Roman wormwood, which give it a strong floral scent and a greenish-yellow color. Finally, it is diluted to a strength of 68-72% alcohol. An absinthe blanche (sometimes called La Bleue, especially in Switzerland, where it has been made clandestinely since the ban) is made the same way, but omits the coloring step.
Absinthe is drunk with a mixture of 3 to 5 parts water to one part liquor, frequently using a slotted spoon to hold a sugar cube over the glass while water is dripped slowly into the absinthe. The sugar enhances the flavor profile but isn't strictly necessary. Good absinthe, like a good arak or ouzo, is dry but not bitter.
As for the thujone/health issue, recent testing has found that thujone exists in absinthe, but only as a trace impurity. The best absinthes typically contain very low amounts of the substance, far below the amount needed to have any clinical effect on the human body. It has been speculated that the bad effects of poorly made absinthe were trumped up by French vinters in an effort to rid themselves of a dangerous economic rival. Absinthe supplanted wine as the French national beverage during the phylloxera epidemic of the 19th century, which devastated French vineyards.
Unfortunately, there are brands of absinthe produced in Germany and Eastern Europe that are labelled "high thujone" and try to exploit the sensationalist image of absinthe as a rumored hallucinogen. Invariably these are not distilled absinthes, but oil mixtures, and they miss the most important aspect of absinthe: its flavor.
I recommend that you visit La Fee Verte (www.feeverte.net), the best absinthe site on the Web. It has a FAQ, a brief history of absinthe, a buyer's guide to currently-produced absinthes and a lively online forum. Also visit www.absintheonline.com, the site of Liqueurs de France, which commissions and sells what are probably the best commercial absinthes available today.