Exploring Bottle No. 10: Absinthe

published Dec 3, 2014
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(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

With last month’s coverage of aromatic bitters in the books, we’ve explored all nine bottles that make up the small-yet-mighty 9-Bottle Bar — putting us now into extra innings. During the final weeks of the year, we’ll look into a few optional bottle No. 10s and explore how they would further round out your home bar.

First up: Absinthe, a centuries-old spirit with a complicated past that plays a part in numerous classic cocktails.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

The Story of Absinthe

The story of absinthe could fill a book (and has, many times), but here’s a short and very selective retelling. It’s an herbaceous aperitif spirit (not a liqueur) whose distinctive flavor derives, at least in part, from three key ingredients: grand wormwood, anise, and fennel.

Absinthe hails from an alpine region of France along the country’s border with Switzerland. It enjoyed tremendous popularity during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before a widespread campaign — largely built on false information — got absinthe banned in several countries.

The Recent Resurgence

After decades of obscurity, absinthe has undergone an unlikely resurgence within the past decade, thanks to grassroots efforts by modern enthusiasts to reestablish absinthe’s rightful place on liquor-store shelves and to reeducate the public about what the product is, what’s in it, and what it’s capable of (most importantly, it will not make you hallucinate).

Because absinthe was so popular around the turn of the 20th century, the spirit figures into many important cocktails minted in that era. Though absinthe’s anise-driven flavor profile can be polarizing (at least to modern American palates, which aren’t as well exposed to anise as, say, European ones are), early cocktail drinkers clearly loved the stuff for the fragrant and intensely herbal kick absinthe could lend a drink. For instance, as we mentioned recently in a post about Peychaud’s bitters, absinthe is a crucial ingredient in the Sazerac, a drink synonymous with its birthplace, New Orleans.

Anise: Can You Deal With It?

Before making absinthe your bottle No. 10, there is of course the taste to contend with; if anise just isn’t your thing, then absinthe is likely going to be a hard sell. But on top of that, the price can also be a barrier; fine absinthes — of which there are many on the market today — can cost as much as a long-aged bourbon or Scotch whisky. The reasons for the steep price include the highly spiritous nature of the product (absinthe is typically more than 60% ABV) and the preciousness of the botanical ingredients.

On the flip side, if you use it chiefly for cocktails, a bottle of absinthe is bound to last you a good long while. The recipe for the Sazerac, for instance, only calls for a quarter of an ounce for “rinsing” the drinking glass. So just think of that pricey purchase in terms of how many tasty cocktails it will yield.