Food & Drink » Concoctions

Absinthe, Part 1

The myth of the green fairy


Mention absinthe at a bar in hushed tones to fellow tipplers and you'll get wide eyes and discussions of its mind-altering effects. This spirit, its sales banned for almost a century in the United States and only recently made legal again to produce and sell in parts of Europe, is making a comeback. Home-brewed recipes can be found on the Internet while modern versions--breaking away from the traditional fluorescent green color being bright orange, blue and clear--are showing up in foreign markets.

Part of absinthe's allure and myth is the alleged mind-altering qualities derived from the inclusion of wormwood, among a witches brew of other botanicals in the recipes. Scientific studies have shown that the substance contained in wormwood called thujone blocks the brain's receptors for an inhibitor of nerve impulses causing neurons to fire easily which may lead to seizures. While oil of wormwood has been considered powerful medicine for centuries, in great quantities it is also known as a poison. Thujone has been pointed to as the main cause for the mythological hallucinatory quality of the drink, but recent research has proven otherwise.

Ted Breaux, a 39-year-old environmental chemist from New Orleans became fascinated with absinthe after hearing about it from a friend in the early 1990s. Since then he has been on a mission to rediscover the ancient recipes banned and since lost for almost a hundred years. In his research chemically analyzing samples of absinthe from hundred year-old bottles discovered at estate sales and bought from collectors he has discovered that there is practically no thujone present in these old recipes. From a recent article in The New Yorker, we learn that Breaux has been working with the Combier distillery in Saumur, France (an old-school, pot stilled distillery designed by Gustave Eiffel) to reverse engineer and produce three old-style brands of absinthe.

Recently I ordered one of each bottle and had a tasting at my swank bachelor pad. Invited guests were all excited to taste the mysterious banned spirit and while we didn't have any Cuban cigars to share at our contraband-infused evening, it was enjoyable to taste them all discussing each one's unique characteristics. While buying absinthe abroad to bring back or ordering it on the Internet is not illegal, bottles can be confiscated by customs. Distillation of absinthe within the United States does remain illegal, but so does a host of other activities that make little sense. A variation by the name of Absente does appear on U.S. shelves, but it contains no thujone and in my opinion bears little resemblance to traditional absinthe.

Modern absinthe distilled in various European countries often is advertised as having a high thujone content, playing off the urban myth of the hallucinogenic qualities attributed to the beverage. What is more likely to be the cause is that absinthe is usually bottled at 140 proof, about 70 percent alcohol. Your typical bottle of vodka is about 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol. In other words, if not prepared properly, it will kick your ass. You are not supposed to drink it straight, but mix it with ice water poured over a sugar cube sitting on an absinthe spoon. One other disturbing trend in the absinthe renaissance is that some of these modern absinthes are being advertised as "The ultimate panty remover" an implied variation on using a substance like the date-rape drug GHB to seduce your date.

Home-brewed recipes found on the Internet are not made in the same process and bear little or no resemblance to old-school absinthe. In fact, they may be dangerous. Simply soaking wormwood and other herbs in a bottle of vodka does not make absinthe. Traditional absinthe is made from grape alcohol (also used to make brandy) and macerating the herbs prior to distillation. Like resurrecting extinct species from DNA found in fossils, historians like Ted Breaux have taken the time, done the research and made the effort to produce it in the old-fashioned way to allow us a taste of history, a history that has been profoundly influenced by the culture that it spawned.

Next time... Absinthe's influence on culture that is still being felt today and what made it the catalyst in global prohibition.