Today is Repeal Day, the cork-popping anniversary of the end of that long dry spell from 1920 to 1933 that was Prohibition. To honor the occasion, we’re taking an up-close look at a spirit that, until just last year, had been sentenced to a special ban of its own: Absinthe.
“The Green Fairy” as it’s also sometimes known, has a bad (although irresistibly romantic) reputation as dangerous, hallucinatory stuff. Countless nineteenth-century artists and bohemians were supposed to have become addicted to, driven mad by, or been poisoned by this shady spirit until it was finally pulled off the shelves in 1915. But how much of this is true?
Armed with a recently acquired absinthe spoon, and inspired by a pretty vintage cocktail glass given to me by a friend, I decided to test-drive some of this legendary - and newly-legalized - green liquor at home. I obtained some samples of two of the many brands now available in the U.S.: Pernod and Lucid. I was all set.
But then doubt began to creep in. This stuff was banned for over 90 years. Um, should I be worried?
Is absinthe dangerous? Short answer, No. Or at least no more dangerous than any other alcoholic drink. Absinthe has a very high alcohol content (up to a whopping 72 percent), but it’s not meant to be sipped straight. Enjoyed in moderation, it’s safe.
Ok, then. So why was absinthe banned? It got a lot of really, really bad press. At one time, it was a pricey, aristocratic drink in France, but during the late 19th Century it became mass-produced (and mass-consumed). Some unscrupulous distillers added cheap, unsafe, and untested ingredients to their products. Eccentric artists and political radicals liked to drink it. “Absinthism” was cited in a famous Swiss murder case. Finally, absinthe was scapegoated by those who wanted to ban alcohol altogether.
But what about absinthe’s supposed mind-bending effects? These have never been proven clinically. The bitter herb wormwood, which contains the chemical compound thujone, is an essential ingredient in absinthe, and often gets blamed for the liquor’s allegedly druggy effects. Taken in extremely high doses, thujone can be toxic - but not to worry, it is only present in FDA-approved absinthe in trace amounts. (Thujone is, incidentally, also present in the common kitchen herb sage, as well as the spirits Chartreuse, vermouth, and Benedictine.)
Ok. My mind was set at ease. It was time to try my first glass of absinthe.
Part of the fun and attraction of absinthe is the ritual that goes into its preparation. Absinthe needs water (to dilute the alcohol and release the aromatic oils). And sugar (to offset the bitterness of the wormwood and to complement the herbal flavors). And it needs to be drunk cold. Here’s the classic technique:
Absinthe makes one drink
1 ounce absinthe 3-5 ounces ice water (I used 4) 1-3 sugar cubes (I used 2)
Pour absinthe into a glass. Place a slotted absinthe spoon (a tea strainer would work in a pinch) across the rim of the glass and set sugar cubes on top. Slowly trickle the ice water through the sugar until it is dissolved and the mixture turns a milky white. Stir in any remaining sugar with the spoon.
The Verdict? It was fun to pour the ice water and watch the green liquor magically turn to white (an effect called the “louche”). With its distinctive anise-licorice tang, the flavor of the drink was a little like pastis, but not quite as herbal. Even with two added sugar cubes, I could still taste the bitterness of the wormwood, but not in a bad way. No druggy effects were observed.