Absinthe: A primer

My love affair with the Green Fairy began in the winter of ‘05-’06. I was a bushy tailed freshman in college and my transition from rural Minnesota to the Twin Cities had all the bacchanalian excesses of Rumspringa.

A good friend of mine had French citizenship and returned from a holiday there with a few bottles of the hallowed stuff. At the time the States prohibited genuine absinthe, and even French distillers had to tiptoe around its murky legality. At 18, with flavored rums and vodkas still seeming pretty fucking novel, this was more or less the Holy Grail of booze. It had the ancillary benefit of being doubly illegal.

It’s been seven years since the ban was lifted, but almost a century in purgatory has left people with only the vaguest idea of what it is, how to drink it, and if they’re gonna go nuts and kill everyone around them in a green-hazed bloodlust. So here’s Absinthe 101.

Absinthe dates back to the end of the 18th century. It’s a base spirit of its own, in the company of other less controversial cousins like gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, brandy and tequila. The base is neutral (flavorless but for the burn) alcohol, with the addition of any number of other vegetation: fennel, coriander, lemon balm, hyssop, a million others, and most importantly anise and wormwood.

Wormwood root is where both the identity and the controversy stems from. Even the name “absinthe” is the result of a game of telephone from the ancient Greeks to Latin Rome to the Gauls meaning, well, wormwood. It’s not easy to describe other than to say it has a bit of a minty, floral taste that softens up the heavy black liquorice flavor of the anise. Like all things sexy though, wormwood brings some baggage along with its charms. Consumed in massive quantities, a chemical in it called thujone can cause epileptic seizures. Supposedly, this is also the vehicle for any hallucinations or eventual madness.

In the early 1900s a French dude killed his family after a few glasses of absinthe and ruined things for bohemians and partiers everywhere. It was the early equivalent of some idiot thinking he can fly while on acid or rolling so hard he dies of dehydration. The fact that he’d been drinking for hours and was probably a real asshole didn’t make it into the papers. In the years leading up to total prohibition–the Al Capone, rum-runner, speakeasy, bathtub gin prohibition–buzzkills and teetotalers were using every angle they could to shut down the liquor business. The massive smear campaign earned absinthe the special distinction of being banned five years before the 18th amendment made a lot of mobsters rich or dead.

Nearly a century after the ban, some European distillers headed by the Pernod-Ricard monolith managed to convince Congress it was about time to back off their puritan stance. The hard science just didn’t sync up with the PR hate machine. For one thing, absinthe is usually over 100 proof (much stronger than most spirits), and for anther, the thujone wouldn’t begin to affect you until you’ve drank enough liquor to kill Hemingway three times over. So if anyone dies (be it by suicide, murder, or poison), it’s the absurd amount of alcohol doing the killing, not the wormwood.

Absinthe is about as easy to prepare at home as anything. The best way to drink it is with water, and tap will do the trick. Slowly pour the water (two or three times the amount of the absinthe) in and you’ll see the translucent, neon green color turn opaque and almost milky-looking in real time. Give it a taste, and if you’d like, add a little sugar to lighten the intensity. A bottle will set you back $40+, so if you want to test drive it you can always stop by a local gin joint and try a little there. Pick a nice place to be certain they have real absinthe instead of the fake liquorice stuff that was peddled during the unfortunate lapse of legality.

The initial draw people feel pulled in by is the mystery and questionable reputation of absinthe. Well, I’ve attempted to remove the mystique and make a case against the propaganda. This might strip away some of the charm, but absinthe never really needed the hype or the bad-boy rep. Do yourself a favor. Go drink some.

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