If wormwood gives absinthe its name, anise (Pimpinella anisum) gives its flavor. Part of that flavor is the chemical compound anethole, a phytoestrogen. The cool part about this is that alcohol is better at extracting the medicinal properties of anise than water. This includes anethole. Furthermore, anethole causes a milky, opaque affect when mixed with even a small amount of water. Part of the beauty of absinthe for many drinkers is the ritual of adding ice cold water to the alcohol very slowly, watching the two liquids swirl around together and combine into one cloudy drink. This is known as louching and is caused by the essential oils in the absinthe leaving their suspension in the alcohol as the water interacts with it. Anethole is a direct contributor to this affect.
Anise is also used primarily for stomachic problems and is used to treat several digestive problems. It helps improve appetite and digestion, relieve flatulence and can help soothe a colicky baby. It is claimed to help relieve menstrual cramps and nausea. For a simple insomnia cure, let a few seeds steep in warm milk and then drink. You should be asleep in no time.
In short, anise is considered an antispasmodic, aromatic, carminative, digestive, stimulant, stomachic, and a tonic. It is considered so useful and flavorful that the anise-flavored drink pastis quickly took the place of absinthe after the latter’s banning in France.
Finally, anise is also the predominant herb in absinthe.
The final herb in our Big Three is Florence fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). Fennel also contains anethole, although fennel doesn’t have as strong a flavor as anise. Also, in a true connection to debauched drinking, fennel stalks, which are hollow, were the traditional material for the bacchanalian wands of Dionysus and his followers.
Surprise, surprise, fennel is also an excellent stomach herb, helping increase appetite and relieve cramps and flatulence. It’s considered a carminative, antispasmodic, aromatic, diuretic, stimulant, and a stomachic. Like anise, a light fennel infusion is also good for helping colicky babies. Also, like anise, this herb is considered an expectorant.
The oil can be used externally to help ease rheumatoid arthritis pain.
These three herbs – anise, wormwood, and fennel – are found in all absinthe recipes, which is why they’re so important. Some recipes just rely on the big three, while others incorporate additional herbs into the initial distillation. Perhaps we should take a quick look at how absinthe is made.
The quality of an absinthe depends on the manufacturing methods used to produce it. At the top of the list are the Swiss absinthes. The name refers to the process rather than the country of origin, although several absinthe brands do come from Switzerland. In the Swiss process, herbs and alcohol undergo a heated maceration twice. The first time anise, wormwood, and fennel are added to a quality, high-proof alcohol that’s already been distilled. After several hours, water is added and the mixture undergoes distillation. At this point, the manufacturer has a high-proof, very flavorful, clear liquid, but the flavor isn’t considered all that stable. That comes with the next step where additional herbs, such as mint, hyssop, lemon balm, and coriander, are added and the whole lot macerates, under heat, yet again. This is where the absinthe gets its color, thanks to a transfer of chlorophyll from some of the herbs added to the alcohol “Le bleue”, or clear, absinthes are also possible, as are brownish colored ones. It’s allowed to cool slowly and then water is added to the mixture once again. The absinthe is passed through a fine sieve to strain out all the herbal bits and pieces. Finally, it’s placed into barrels to age. This method yields some truly wonderful tasting absinthes.
Cold-mixed absinthes, which may very well have been what a chunk of the less well-to-do folks drank before the ban, are not macerated or distilled meaning that they really aren’t true absinthes. Flavoring oils and artificial coloring agents are added to a high-proof alcohol and then sold as is. Cold-mixed absinthes are often extremely bitter, even after the addition of a necessary sugar cube or two, and serve mainly to get the imbiber very drunk.
Before the ban, and before legislation and bodies to oversee the purity of our food and drink, it was easy to quickly make an inferior alcohol that looked and perhaps even smelled like true absinthe and pass it off on an unsuspecting public. These drinks were often colored with harsh, poisonous chemicals such as copper, and antimony. No wonder people reacted horribly when drinking the stuff.
Additionally, there is a very high-proof alcohol from the Bohemian region of Europe marketed as absinthe. Apparently, its main function is to get you drunk quickly. Pete Wells, writing about absinthe in the New York Times, recalls tasting some Czech absinth smuggled into the country in a mouthwash bottle by a friend. He said he would have preferred the mouthwash. From everything I’ve read on the Czech version of the Green Fairy, this is a pretty good description of the taste. However, this is where we get the ritual of the flaming sugar cube, used to such wonderful effect in the movie “From Hell”.
Finally, there are so-called “absinthe kits” on the market claiming to help you make your own absinthe at home by either adding oils to alcohol or by soaking herbs in it. These “absinthes” are a lot like the cold-mixed ones, in both quality and taste. However, while neither produce absinthe, there are some ancient and historic recipes for a wormwood flavored wine made this way.
Preparing AbsintheDrinking absinthe is a matter of personal taste, although it’s best ice cold. Traditionally, because it’s a distillate, absinthe is drunk after being mixed with water. There is an entire ritual that goes with this, as the ice water must be slowly added to the alcohol. The usual ratio is 1-part absinthe to 4 or 5 parts water and there were even special glasses to help you measure it out. The water can be slowly added as is, or you can add to the ritual with the use of an absinthe spoon.
Sometimes a sugar cube was used, especially for the inferior tasting brands. The sugar would be placed on the spoon and then water would be allowed to trickle down over it until it all dissolved into the glass. High quality absinthes don’t need the addition of the sugar, though. And for goodness sake, don’t burn it, otherwise all you can taste is burnt sugar.
There are also several absinthe cocktails that have been created over the years. Recipes are floating around on the internet and can be quite easy to find. A historically favorite drink at the Absinthe House, in New Orleans, is the absinthe frappe, where the absinthe is poured into a small glass over chipped ice. It’s a pretty refreshing drink.
Here in our household, we like our absinthe neat, or without anything added. The flavors are very intense. And we drink it in small amounts, since we’re all only occasional drinkers. (A liter bottle will last us at least a year.) Why do we drink absinthe? At first it was to soothe my curiosity over a drink that had long been a fascination. However, we’ve all come to love the taste, even my husband who won’t go near anything with the flavor of anise or licorice. It’s a good drink to sip when congested or with a sore throat. And as a digestive tonic, who knows? It certainly doesn’t hurt to settle a too-full tummy, as long as you stick to a small amount. Otherwise I think the strong alcohol has the opposite effect.
Wait, Absinthe is Legal?
By this point you’re probably wondering how we can be discussing the drinking of absinthe if the U.S. banned it back in 1912. Personally, I’d like to thank the Swiss manufacturers of the drink. Many of them never completely stopped producing absinthe, even after it was banned in their country in 1910. At the turn of the 21st century, a Swiss distillery by the name of Kubler undertook the job of changing the Swiss constitution to overturn their country’s ban on absinthe. Just a few years later they tackled the same task here in the U.S. Around the same time, an American company called Viridian Spirits also started pressuring the Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to life the ban on the manufacture and importation of absinthe. Viridian’s Lucid Superieure hit the U.S. market just a few weeks before Kubler Swiss Absinthe. The hardest part of the battle was convincing the TTB that absinthe was not an evil word only associated with some sort of drug usage. What we drink is considered thujone-free according to U.S. standards, meaning it contains less than 10 parts per million of thujone. In that regard, the drink is more than safe.
So, if you feel so inclined and have fallen under the lure of the Green Goddess, if you want to see if the drink is a tonic as originally claimed, drink up! Please, just make sure you get a good bottle, done in the Swiss process method, so you can truly enjoy your walk with the notorious absinthe.
A quick note if you truly are thinking of buying some absinthe. We purchased our absinthe through the mail from a business called DrinkUpNY. I’m not necessarily endorsing any one supplier. We’ve just had good luck with them and I’d trust the quality of the absinthe brands they carry. Cheaper usually isn’t better in the case of absinthe.
For Further Reading:
Baker, Phil. The Book of Absinthe. New York, New York: Grove Press, 2001. Written before the ban on absinthe was lifted here in the U.S., but quite an enjoyable, enlightening read.
Rothstein, Edward. “Absinthe Returns in a Glass Half Full of Mystique and Misery.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/12/arts/12conn.html?scp=4&sq=absinthe&st=cse (accessed February 2019).
Wells, Pete. “Liquor of Legend Makes a Comeback”. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/05/dining/05absi.html?scp+8&sq=absinthe&st=cse (accessed February 2019).
Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1992.
Lust, John. The Herb Book. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1974.
Physicians’ Desktop Reference. “Herbal Remedies, Supplements A-Z Index”. Thomson Reuters. http://www.pdrhealth.com/drugs/altmed/altmed-a-z.aspx (accessed February 2019).
*Originally published in the Llewellyn’s 2011 Herbal Almanac. I’ve edited it some here, just for clarity and ease of reading. I thought of this article when we all started to come down with nasty head colds the past couple of weeks. While you should store absinthe in the freezer for any real length of time, we keep a bottle there just for these situations. It helps cut the gunk out of your throat and ease soreness. AT at the 68% alcohol content our current bottle has, it can also help you pass out and sleep.)