The Myth of Absinthe

Very few drinks in this world, if any, have endured such controversy, myth and hysteria as Absinthe. Taking on the incredible reputation of being not only a lethal drink, but a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug, many have speculated that the small quantities of the chemical “thujone”, present in Absinthe, are responsible for the effects of hallucination and euphoria upon its drinker. Known to many as “La Fée Verte” or “The Green Fairy” because of the natural color caused by chlorophyll, if not for the lavish rumours that drinking enough would cause you to see green fairies, the drink itself saw much embellishment and exaggeration from the creative circles of the era. Famous artists Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Viktor Olivia, Vincent Van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso, were only a few of the avid drinkers of Absinthe, and many of their classical artworks drew inspiration from their love of the drink.

In 1840, Absinthe was initially given to French troops as a medicine and treatment to malaria, but as the troops returned home it soon became one of the most popular drinks in Europe, especially in Paris. By 1860, the hour of 5pm became known as “l’heure verte”, or “the green hour”, and people of all social classes, rich and poor, would gather at their local bar, bistro or cabaret to enjoy a glass (or two) of the anise-flavoured spirit. It was unfortunate, however, that in an attempt to make a quick profit, some manufactures began to add toxic chemicals to produce the green color and clouding effect the drink was famous for, causing mental illness and death to several people. This led to an eventual ban across most of Europe as well as the New World, by the early 1900’s.

It has been 100 years since Absinthe was first banned, but in the last ten or so years, the drink has seen a bit of a resurgence. In the year 2000, “La Fée Absinthe” became the first brand labelled Absinthe that was distilled and bottled in France, since the 1914 ban. As a chain reaction, countries all over the world began to lift the century-long prohibition of Absinthe. Until recently, America and most of Canada have also legalized the sale and possession of Absinthe, although there are specific rules surrounding its marketing and labelling procedures. Firstly, the word “absinthe” cannot be the brand name, nor is it allowed to stand alone on the label. Secondly, the packaging cannot “project images of hallucinogenic, psychotropic or mind-altering effects”.

Early 20th century poster for absinthe prohibition in Switzerland

Early 20th century poster for absinthe prohibition in Switzerland

Found in wormwood, the chemical thujone, which was once believed to be the component of Absinthe responsible for causing madness and hallucinations, has since been proven to be a false myth. In fact, it is interesting to note that Sage, a common kitchen herb, has three times the amount of thujone compared to Absinthe. Nonetheless, further restrictions regulate the amount of thujone present in Absinthe, and in some provinces such as Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, the amount of thujone present in Absinthe has been limited to a range of 5-10mg/kg. In the province of British Columbia, there is no established limit on the amount of thujone, allowing business owners to import true, authentic Absinthe from France, among other countries.

Also imported from France is the Absinthe Fountain, handmade from mouth blown glass, and plated brass, with four spigots designed for the slow release of ice-cold water. The Absinthe Fountain is a key component of the 150 year old drink-making ritual, and is often referred to as “The French Method”, or “La Louche”. Contrary to popular belief, the French never prepared Absinthe using fire, for that was known as “the Bohemian method”. In fact, one American company went so far as to warn against using fire in the Absinthe ritual, stating that in addition to burning the alcohol and spoiling the nuances of the drink, there is also the risk of accidental fire and injury.  

Traditional Absinthe spouts, glasses, and sugar cubes

Traditional Absinthe spouts, glasses, and sugar cubes

In keeping with the French tradition, the process at most lounges involve the fountain, rather than the flame. After filling the fountain with ice cubes, the drink is traditionally prepared by placing a sugar cube on top of a slotted, specially designed Absinthe spoon. The spoon is then placed on a glass which has been filled with a shot of Absinthe, and positioned directly under one of the four spigots of the Fountain. Opening the valve allows the ice-cold water to drip slowly onto the sugar cube, evenly dispersing the water and sugar into the Absinthe; diluting the potency of the drink and slightly sweetening it. During this process, the components not soluble in water begin to cloud the light green color. It is recommended to prepare the drink with one part absinthe and 3-5 parts water; any less then that would result in an extremely potent drink.

Absinthe ranges from 45-74% alcohol (90-148 proof), so while it won’t make you see green fairies if you drink it, it will definitely make you feel a bit tipsy, at the very least. Absinthe has had a very rich and exciting history and has played a part in the creation of many other famous cocktails. The Sazerac, known as the oldest American cocktail, would not be the same without the Absinthe rinsed glass, a technique which gives the Sazerac the fresh smell of anise, but without the liquorice qualities of Absinthe. In its long history, it has even been said by the artists who loved it, that drinking absinthe could increase one’s creative power; although that may just be for you to discover on your own. Pick up a bottle of Absinthe, get together with some friends, and experience the Absinthe “green hour” tradition for yourself.

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