Absinthe

There has undoubtedly been a resurgence in eating weird and bizarre foods. Everyone that has dreamed of world tours alongside Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain wants to be able to eat pig intestine, duck embryos, and cow’s blood without a wince. I applaud your adventurous nature while I skate the line myself between sparing my own gag reflex and preaching my own sentiment by being as fearless an eater as possible.

Why are these types of foods considered so out there? Why do we have aversions to these in the first place? Taste aversion or having a simple association between a certain food and one singular nauseous experience is circumstantial. It’s not a fear. Is it just simply stepping out of our comfort zones? Why is it the same with alcohol? We have aversions but why are we simply afraid of certain spirits? Why does absinthe get a “bizarre” spirit reputation?

We are just as likely to get sick from an E. Coli breakout in spinach than we are a grasshopper. We’re just as likely to get the same drunk hangover from too many navy-strength rums or gin than we are absinthe. Is it merely the society we live in? Possibly. With so much of today’s society obsessed with the idea of a counterculture or this adventurous foodie syndrome, why are drinks taking a back burner? Why do we dive right into beef tongue and brains while absinthe still gets drunk in bar spoons, dashes, and in a general fear of the green fairy?

The original absinthe recipe was based on green anise and fennel flavors and used for medicinal purposes. This was done very similarly to juniper concoctions that eventually translated into our contemporary genevers and gins. In the middle of the 1800’s, French troops were given absinthe to subside malaria poisoning and then brought the taste for it back to their home country. It was drunk by all classes as it proved to be a cheap spirit and at one point, more liters were drunk than wine in France. Absinthe was in popular culture to be the drink of choice to bohemians and artists including Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and most famously, Ernest Hemingway. Absinthe eventually made its way to the US and gained a place in its own Belle Epoque in the city of New Orleans. This time period famously instituted The Old Absinthe House and the classic cocktail, the Sazerac.

rye whiskey, peychaud's bitters, sugar cube, absinthe or herbsaint.

Where did all these bans and bad raps come from? Similar to prohibition in the U.S. in the 1920’s, Europe found their own temperance movements taking form at the end of the 1800’s where radical conservatives outcried against drunken debauchery. Hallucinogenic portrayals of the drink in art as well as certain scientific studies on rats perpetuated the arguments. In a scientific study, it was concluded that wormwood, a major ingredient in absinthe, had a chemical called thujone and when ingested in large amounts caused absinthe’s undesired effects. The tipping point occurred when a Swiss farmer named Jean Lafray murdered his wife and two children in 1905 after a heavy day of drinking. Although seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, two glasses of creme de menthe, and two coffees laced with brandy were involved, the two glasses of absinthe got the blame. What ensued were formal petitions and the banning of absinthe in Switzerland and then the other European countries followed suit.

In 1912, the US banned any import of absinthe and close to 100 years later lifted the ban in 2007 to allow the distillation and import of absinthe. The FDA will only allow absinthes with a thujone level of 10 mg/kg or lower but it allows some lenience for a lot of imported absinthes.

Officially, the ban has been lifted and we can now import another interesting and bizarre spirit to the market but how do you lift the certain stigma it’s carried?

Luckily for us, we have dedicated scientists and fellow spirits nerds searching for what all the fuss used to be about. People like Ted Breaux who have used their knowledge of science and spirits have compared older obscure absinthes to the kinds that tainted absinthe’s reputation. There were many laced with chemical tastes and the others were full, well-crafted, herbal, and balanced. Nowadays, the absinthes among us are made more with care rather than with older crude techniques. The art of “louching” is what we’ve seen in vintage posters. This is where water drips over sugar cubes placed on a slotted spoon over a glass of absinthe to create a milky effect. Because of better crafted-spirits, this is less needed nowadays as absinthe has become more approachable. St. George in California has even begun distilling their own absinthe here in the U.S. and Tenneyson brings their proof down to 100 to compete with gins and more popular spirits.

chrysanthemum- benedictine, french vermouth, absinthe

In order to begin dispelling your fear, know that drinking a couple bottles of absinthe is just as bad as a couple bottles of cognac. Know that you’re enjoying a spirit of authenticity, history, and a flavor profile that rivals very few other spirits. To be fairly honest, I live in hallucinations of sipping on absinthe at a tiny French cafe in 1890’s with writers and painters of the time but those hallucinations aren’t absinthe-induced, I promise. You might actually have to use your imagination and step out of your comfort zone. For those of you interested in the bizarre, the strange, and drinking alongside the counterculture, this spirit is for you. With all the flannel and thick-rimmed glasses I see, I don’t see why this drink isn’t more popular.