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Chasing the Green Fairy - Absinthe Facts and Fiction
Absinthe (The green fairy spirits) has shown a remarkable revival the last 20 years after having been banned in most of Europe for almost a hundred years.
Although there were no legal definitions for Absinthe (except for Switzerland), until its inclusion into EU Liquor Legislation, there are very good guidelines on what makes a good, and what makes an inferior absinthe.
Also, not a lot of consumers are aware that we are not limited to the standard Green Absinthe.
Much lesser known is rose absinthe ... a possible opportunity for some entrepreneurial distiller to revive and market this truly amazing drink.
But first a look at traditional absinthe.
Where did Absinthe come from?
Absinthe is a highly alcoholic drink with a most controversial history.
It was described that “it makes you crazy and criminal”, “disorganizes and ruins families” and was “a menace to the future of the country” by some highly conservative critics.
Others enjoyed “the Green Fairy” as their favorite spirits and hailed it a “magic spirit” giving your creativity “wondrous wings”.
No matter on which side you were on, absinthe was highly controversial and remains even a little so today.
It is the only spirits that is officially banned in a country’s constitution and even today, it is still illegal in Switzerland.
Adrian Matthews put the “buzz” of absinthe into perspective: ""As somebody who doesn't really drink much and certainly doesn't like to be drunk, I find that it has the mild euphoria that comes with a good bit of tipsy, but it had a quality that was very different. Everything became very clear, visually,"" he recalls. ""My perception of shadows and light became very, very clear. I became extremely chatty and creative”
Absinthe certainly has the potential to provide a totally different “buzz” than normal alcohol based drinks.
The ingredients seems to have been selected specifically for some psychedelic effects, but more on that later.
Absinthe made it’s appearance in Switzerland during the 1790’s as a patent medicine designed by Dr Pierre Ordinaire and it rapidly spread through France and Europe, with France leading the absinthe phenomenon.
In the 1840’s, even the French Army included Absinthe in the rations of their soldiers as a preventative measure to fight malaria!
It became so popular that in the 1860’s five o’clock in the afternoon became known as “l’heure verte” or “the green hour” with reference to Absinte.
In 1910 the French were drinking 36 Million liters of absinthe annually, enjoyed by all social classes including the super wealthy and the poor.
Part of the popularity of Absinthe can definitely be ascribed to the drinking ritual when enjoying Absinthe, dripping ice-cold water from a special Absinthe fountain, through a sugar cube suspended in a slotted spoon over a tulip shaped glass with Absinthe in.
As the water droplets touche the crystal clear green absinthe, it slowly turns in a milky white with amazing louching effects displayed in the glass.
Famous personalities that are known to have enjoyed Absinthe included Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemmingway, Mark Twain and almost all artists in France up to 1915, the year of the … big crash!
Ultra conservatives and prohibitionists, started to strongly campaign against spirits and on Absinthe in particular.
In Switzerland a national referendum was held and 1908 Absinthe was banned in Switzerland.
This spread through Europe and by 1915 most countries had Absinthe banned – based on no scientific evidence at all!
The ban lasted for almost a hundred years until the truth about absinthe eventually overpowered the myths about, superstitions about and unfavorable bias towards Absinthe.
After almost a 100 years, Absinthe has been unbanned across the world and still is only banned in Switzerland, it’s country of birth.
What is in proper Absinthe?
Absinthe is a complex herbal liquor, made in much the same way as Gin (without using Juniper) and which almost always contains three categories of herbs.
The primary “absinthe” herbs are:
- Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium);
- Anise (Pimpinella anisum) and;
- Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
These three herbs are also collectively known as the “Holy Trinity” of absinthe herbs.
In addition to the Holy Trinity, we can also add additional Herbs, Spices and other Botanicals, which can be grouped in two main categories. These are roughly divided into:
- Taste Enhancing Botanicals and;
- Color Enhancing Botanicals.
The “Holy Trinity” of herbs is what distinguishes absinthe from all other herbal based liquors.
1. Grand Wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium)
The primary herb that contributes to the characteristic “buzz” of absinthe.
The wormwood contains Thujone as an active ingredient that was said to cause the interesting effects of absinthe.
A member of a class of compounds called Terpenoids, Thujone has been shown to have an effect on the central nervous system in large quantities and dosages, but the quantities present in wormwood are minute, and in absinthe only trace amounts (between 0.5 and 43 mg / liter) will be found, therefore it will have no effect on the nervous system.
In much larger quantities, it can cause seizures due to its ability to suppress the action of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) inhibitors on the brain.
Some of the effects large quantities Thujone can have on the central nervous system is that it can cause convulsions and hallucinations.
This contributes to the myth that Thujone could be compared to cannabis.
On the other hand, the culinary herb, Sage, produces oil that can contain up to 50% Thujone (by weight); much more than Wormwood is capable of producing.
As a supposed “hallucinogenic” Thujone is a bit over rated, but nonetheless, without real wormwood absinthe just would not be absinthe.
2. Anise (Pimpinella Anisum)
The second herb of the “Holy Trinity” herbs, anise, gives absinthe its typical liquorice flavor and scent.
Due to the amounts of essential oil that is extracted from anise during infusion, it is this herb that provides absinthe with the unusually strong louching effect.
The oil dissolves in alcohol and does not show when absinthe is diluted.
However, the moment water is added the oil goes into suspension and forms an emulsion which turns opaque and white the more water is added.
Anise also contains anethole, a substance that has been confirmed to cause psychedelic effects if consumed in large quantities - but again, the concentration in Absinthe is not high enough to achieve this.
3. Fennel (Foeniculum Vulgare)
The last of the “Holy Trinity” herbs, fennel, also contains to the liquorice aromas of absinthe but is less intense, and a little sweeter, than anise’s liquorice aromas.
This sweetness balances out the bitterness of Wormwood and reduces the sharp edge of anise. Just like anise, fennel also contains anethole, but again, the concentration in Absinthe is not high enough to cause psychedelic effects.
As seen from the above, at least two of the “holy trinity” herbs contains anethole, capable of creating hallucinating effects, adding to the interesting character and buzz caused by absinthe.
These super “loud” ingredients are eventually turned in a harmonious blend of delicately balanced flavors that compliments each other in an outstanding absinthe.
Many absinthe distilleries do not achieved this delicate balance and an unbalanced absinthe could quickly, after the first sip, turn into a horrible, perhaps even revolting experience.
Other taste enhancing herbs in absinthe are used to “tune down” the very potent and “loud” aroma and flavor of the “Holy Trinity” herbs.
What else can I include in my Absinthe?
Calamus (Acorus Calamus) root contributes a sweet aroma and also adds to the particular buzz of absinthe.
American Indians (particularly the Cree tribe) use Calamus as an “entrance to the dream world” and “allows you to fly without touching the ground”.
Interestingly It is this particular herb that is claimed in Europe to give the “green fairy her wings”.
Apart from “giving you wings”, Calamus is also widely used as an aphrodisiac by the Orient people and the then people from medieval Europe.
Sadly, most commercial Absinthes lack this very important herb and leaves us with rather dull absinthe. mostly sweeten with ordinary table sugar to hide it's inferior character.
Star Anise (Illicium Verum) is different than anise but also contributes to the liquorice taste and aroma of absinthe.
Of all the herbs used in absinthe, the oil form star anise contains the most anethole; up to 90% of star anise oil.
Star Anise also easily creates a tongue numbing effect and it should not be over used in absinthe.
A single “start fruit” (or commonly referred to as the seed) is enough to treat a few liters of spirits and it should not be crushed when infused.
Hyssop (Hyssopus Officianalis) belongs to the mint family and is added to absinthe for it coloring (green) as well as a slight vanilla flavor.
The bitterness associated also with hyssop, should be masked by the sweetness of Calamus in a well-produced absinthe.
This herb also has been shown to actively relax blood vessels, increase alertness and has similar properties to Thujone.
Coriander Seed (Coriandrum Cativum) adds a fresh, flowery and piquant spicy aroma to absinthe. Coriander also has been shown to positively relieve anxiety and acts as a sedative.
Angelica (Angelica Archangelica) root and seed is used in absinthe for flavor and aroma. It has a long history as medicinal herb and a mild anesthetic effect.
Tarragon (Artemisia Dracunculus / Dracunculoides) - also called Dragon' wort, or silky wormwood and related to Grand Wormwood. It reduces blood coagulation and may help prevent cardiovascular disease.
From the above it is evident that absinthe contains quite a number of herbs with known psycho-active or medicinal ingredients, and although none of them on their own are in a high enough concentration to induce Psychedelic Effects, all of them combined, could conceivable contribute to the unique “buzz” Absinthe is known for.
Sadly, many of these herbs are not present in present day Absinthe to reduce manufacturing costs and turns present day Absinthe easily into a mere shadow of historical absinthe.
What is in Modern Absinthe?
The following herbs is used mainly for coloring and aroma enhancement of absinthe:
Chamomile (Anthemis Nobilis) contributes to a crisp spicy aroma and is used frequently in aroma therapy as a relaxant.
Peppermint (Menta Piperita) is added mainly for the volatile aromatic components.
Melissa (Melissa Officianalis) is added for its lemon balm/citrus aromas. This herb is also known for its calming effect on people.
Veronica (Veronica Officianalis) adds light spicy aromas and also deepens the green color of absinthe.
Small Absinthe (Artemisia Pontica) adds a gingery aroma.
Citrus Peel to enhance the citrus aroma produce by Melissa (Lemon Balm).
In addition to the above herbs it would not be uncommon to find the following herbs also present in Absinthe:
Elecampane (Inula helenium), a stimulant,
Tansy (Tanacetum Vulgare), also containing Thujone,
Dictamnus (Dictamnus Albus) used to treat brain related disorders; and;
And possibly any one or a combination of the rare varieties of Wormwood (Artemisia Mutellina, Artemisia Spicata, Artemisia Umbelliformis or Artemisia Glacialis)
Why is Absinthe Green?
Traditionally absinthe was colored green by using the green color produced by chlorophyll in plant leaves.
Unfortunately the bright green produced by these herbs gradually dulls to a light brownish/yellowish color over time. Incidentally, this indicates a very old absinthe.
Modern Absinthes are mostly colored with artificial colorants - a South African producer must be careful here as to what the Law allows in terms of additives.
A few variants of Absinthe were produced and that included the “Pink Fairy”, or Red Absinthe.
Absinthe is colored pink by infusing red rose petals, and is colored red when using hibiscus flowers, also adding a floral rose note to the already wonderful bouquet of absinthe.
Why is there a Negative Attitude toward Absinthe?
The Green Fairy, or "la fée verte" as it is called in French - is it a benign or malignant force? Or is it even real?
For decades Absinthe was romanticized by artists and writers, and condemned as a cause of social upheavel adn dissolution by social reformers.
Only recently has Absinthe shed both extremes of its reputation.
At its core, Absinthe is just strong alcohol - sometimes (and traditionally) very strong, as high as 50-72% alcohol by volume, making it 100-144 proof, depending on the variety.
Its rumored hallucinogenic properties, greatly exaggerated and espoused by the Bohemian writers and artists of the time, and its supposed capacity to drive its consumers to depravity, promulgated by prohibitionists, have in the past several decades been revealed as part of a fascinating but largely baseless mythology.
Just like any alcoholic drink, it’s neither inherently good or bad.
Nothing, aside from its (sometimes) high ABV%, distinguishes it from other spirits in terms of its effects on the drinker.
The use of wormwood as a flavoring agent in Absinthe is predated by its use as a medicinal herb, which dates back to the ancient Egyptians.
It is first mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, a medical treatise dated to 1551 B.C.
The ancient Greeks and Romans used it too.
Pythagoras of Samos and Hippocrates both suggested the use of wormwood as a pain reliever.
Pliny the Elder describes its ingestion by chariot racers as a reward for victory, claiming that its salutary benefits balanced its bitterness.
The plant got its common name from its efficacy as a Vermicide - that is, it aided patients in voiding parasitic intestinal worms.
A 1597 herbal describes its utility as a moth repellent.
Wormwood’s use in the liquor that now bears its name dates to about 1769, when it is believed that two sisters by the name Henriod began selling an absinthe concoction as a health drink in Couvet, Switzerland.
A doctor, Pierre Ordinaire, who moved to the same town in 1768, also began selling an absinthe drink as a purgative elixir in 1789; he patented it in 1792.
Whether he obtained his recipe from the Henriods, whom he knew, or not, is the subject of some debate.
In 1797, the recipe was sold by either the Henriods or Ordinaire to a Major Dubied, who, with his son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod, founded the Pernod distillery and began selling absinthe liquor.
Another distillery was opened by the company in Pontarlier, France in 1805.
Though initially restricted to the upper classes, absinthe consumption increased substantially after absinthe concoctions were served to soldiers participating in the Wars of French Algeria starting in 1844.
The substance was meant to stave off Helminthiasis, or worm infection, and malaria, but when mixed with wine, it became a popular recreational drink.
Returning soldiers continued drinking absinthe and in what some have speculated was an attempt to emulate these patriots, civilians joined in.
By 1849, there were 26 distilleries producing the emerald liquor and by the 1860s, the five o’clock hour had become known as “l’heure verte” - when people getting off work would stop in the cafes for a drink - or several.
As more-affordable versions were released, it became increasingly popular among the lower classes and gained particular cachet among the bohemians of the Latin Quarter and Montmartre.
When Édouard Manet submitted his painting Le Buveur d’absinthe (The Absinthe Drinker), to the Paris Salon in 1859, it was summarily rejected for its grim depiction of a working class man lounging next to a glass of absinthe and an empty bottle.
As was often the case, the academy proved out of step with the sensibilities of the artistic class.
Absinthe won converts in artists including Henri-Toulouse Lautrec and Edgar Degas, whose 1876 painting Dans un cafe, depicting a morose couple drinking absinthe, was similarly derided at a Christie’s auction.
Vincent van Gogh was a regular consumer of absinthe and painted it, along with the water used to dilute it, in 1887.
Notorious author Oscar Wilde was among the many writers to lyrically extol the virtues of the drink’s supposed hallucinogenic properties, claiming to have seen a garden sprout from the floor of a drinking establishment after having indulged in an evening of absinthe.
Poet Arthur Rimbaud dubbed wormwood the “sagebrush of the glaciers” and Charles Baudelaire included absinthe among the intoxicants listed in his 1857 poem “Le poison.”
Gustave Flaubert took it a step further and dubbed it “ultra-violent poison.”
It was practically the norm for the creative class of the Belle Époque.
By 1874, an absinthe bar had even opened in New Orleans. \
Later appreciators included Ernest Hemingway, who mentioned it in several books, and Pablo Picasso, who included it in a painting (1901) and a sculpture (1914).
Not everyone, however, took such a liberal view of the increasing consumption of alcohol during this period.
And absinthe, due in part to its bohemian associations, became a particular focus of censure.
A Dr. Valentin Magnan, who managed the Hôpital Sainte-Anne, an asylum in Paris, took particular exception to what was termed “absinthism.”
Having observed the effects of alcoholism on his patients, many of whom drank absinthe, in 1864 he began publishing about the deleterious effects of the “Green Devil.”
In a number of poorly designed experiments he exposed dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and mice to wormwood oil in closed chambers or fed it to them.
He compared the effects to those experienced by animals exposed to alcohol.
The animals exposed to wormwood oil frequently died after experiencing seizures, while those exposed to alcohol simply became drunk.
Magnan compared these experiments to the behavior he observed in his human patients, which included seizures, tremors, and amnesia.
While some were skeptical of his results, by the 1890s, absinthism was a commonly referenced social ill.
This combined with a general sense of a failing French culture, exacerbated by the country’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian Wars (1870-71), to turn sentiment against the absintheurs, or absinthe drinkers.
The flames of reformative zeal were further fanned by the efforts of French winemakers, whose industry had been devastated by phylloxera aphids from the United States, to prevent the replacement of their product with the viridian poison.
Ironically, absinthe had become more widely available when the expensive grape spirits previously used to distill it had been replaced by cheaper grain alcohols following the aphid infestation.
In 1905, Jean Lanfray, a Swiss man who had had two shots of absinthe - along with an array of other alcoholic beverages (including, it is said, 6 bottles of wine, 2 bottles of beer and a bottle of brandy) - shot his wife and two daughters after returning home drunk.
The prosecution insisted that it was absinthe that was responsible for his out-of-character behavior.
Lanfray was convicted and several day later hung himself in jail.
The story was sensationalized in the media of the day.
Within days, a petition calling for the prohibition of absinthe had amassed some 82 000 signatures.
This was the beginning of the end for the poor Green Fairy.
Though all of the depravity linked to absinthism was attributed by more sensible types to simple alcoholism, absinthe became an appealing scapegoat.
In 1905, Belgium banned its sale.
The Netherlands and Switzerland followed suit in 1910, as did the United States in 1912, Italy in 1913, France in 1915, and Germany in 1923.
The United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, and the Czech Republic, however, remained immune to the hysteria.
Spain in particular became a hub of absinthe production in the resulting vacuum.
That was where Hemingway had his first sip while he covered the Spanish Civil War.
As it turns out, the skeptics were right.
The anti-absinthe hysteria was all for naught.
While some had long speculated that Thujone, might have been responsible for hallucinations experienced by absinthe drinkers, it has since determined to have no hallucinogenic properties.
However, a 2004 study of unopened bottles of pre-ban absinthe determined that the levels of Thujone in the drink were insufficient to have caused such symptoms.
Magnan’s experiments used pure wormwood oil and thus exposed animals to levels of Thujone far higher than those ever found in absinthe.
The study also tested for the presence of copper salts, thought to be used as a dye in inferior-quality absinthe, and antimony, believed to have been added to mimic the “louche” of high-quality absinthe, which occurs when cold water is added, bringing the plant oils in the liquor out of suspension and giving the drink a cloudy cast.
Both substances were hypothesized to have contributed to absinthe’s unique effects.
Not so, it seems.
The presence of both chemicals was found to be negligible.
Though the European Union again legalized the sale of absinthe in 1988, Switzerland did not follow up with a national law until 2005 and France waited until 2011, having previously required that absinthe be labeled as a “Wormwood-based Spirit.” (Those national laws were largely redundant, as the EU legislation covered both countries.)
The United States didn’t follow suit until 2007.
The EU now limits the amount of Thujone to 35 mg/L while the United States restricts it to an even-lower 10 mg/L.
So, if you like the Liquorice Notes of the Green Fairy, and enjoy the ritual of dripping water over a sugar cube suspended above the glass, feel free to indulge.
Just don’t expect to see flowers sprouting from the floor, or a Glowing Tinkerbell flitting above the bar if you do.