The Green Devil in a Bottle: The Tale of Absinthe
By Mallory Ambrose | March 9, 2023
Originally dubbed “the green fairy” then “the green devil” a century later, the rise and heartbreaking downfall of absinthe, is quite the wild ride. Though the popular myths surrounding this libation have been dispelled, absinthe still remains one of the most perplexing spirits behind any bar. In honor of the recent National Absinthe Day, I had to try it for myself.
What is Absinthe?
Produced much like gin, absinthe is made by distilling a high-proof neutral spirit with an infusion of macerated herbs and spices. They include Sweet Fennel, Green Anise, and most notably, Grande Wormwood. These particular botanicals give absinthe it’s trademark bitter licorice flavor. Traditionally, the alcohol is infused a second time before bottling to intensify the flavor. This also provides the vibrant green color that gave absinthe its nickname, “the green fairy.”
The History and Origin of Absinthe
Introduced to France in the 1840s, absinthe developed a luxurious yet controversial reputation. To some the drink symbolized freedom and creativity, and to others, pandemonium.
Absinthe— the Green Fairy of freedom, of altered perceptions and unveiled meanings—appealed to artistic libertines around the world. Oscar Wilde stated, “A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?” Pablo Picasso took part in it for a time, painting The Absinthe Drinker and The Glass of Absinthe.
Capturing the danger and intrigue of the pale-green drink, Ernest Hemingway championed absinthe describing it as, “opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy,” stating, “It’s supposed to rot your brain out, but I don’t believe it. It only changes the ideas.”
Towards the end of the 19th century many felt that absinthe was the root of many problems in society. Wormwood, an herb used to make absinthe, contains a compound called thujone. Also found in oregano and sage, this compound can cause hallucinations, convulsions, and sleeplessness if taken in large quantities.
Many saw these symptoms and violent outbursts to be caused by the wormwood found in absinthe. Realistically, the amount required for thujone to cause these negative effects is so large that alcohol poisoning would set in before anything were to take place.
Out of fear of mania roaming society and in a wave of support for the growing Temperance Movement, one-by-one countries began banning absinthe. The United States officially banned the spirit in 1912.
Absinthe was outlawed in the United States in 1912 and was illegal until October 2007. The TTB issued a new code of guidelines that made absinthe containing thujone legal as long as the bottle contained less than 10 parts per million of thujone. If it contained less than this amount it was considered “thujone free” and was ultimately legal.
Try it for yourself
Now that you know a bit about absinthes history, let’s dive into the traditional way to drink it.
In the traditional preparation of this drink, an absinthe fountain, or Belle Époque fountain, is brought to the table, where the customer prepares the absinthe themself. The ice cold water drips from the fountain over a sugar cube that rests on a flat, slotted spoon melting into the green spirit.
Water is an important element of the drink as absinthe is most often enjoyed diluted with four to six ounces of ice-cold water. The water to absinthe combination transforms the electric green color to a luminescent, almost milky chartreuse. This act–and the final opalescent change in appearance–is referred to as la louche. It releases the aromatic oils and perfumes of the Sweet Fennel, Grande Wormwood and Green Anise found in absinthe and tones down the alcohol.
The mysterious Green Fairy is something everyone should try at least once in their life. Its electric green color, botanical fragrance and black licorice flavor was unlike anything I have ever had before. After my experience with absinthe, I can see why the spirit still carries such a perplexing reputation.