Friday, July 23, 2010

Absinthe: the Vilified Spirit

A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world…After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are—Oscar Wilde

When Toulouse and I toured Switzerland a few months ago, we spent some time wandering Altstadt Zurich, walking from Neiderdorfstrasse across the Limmat and along trendy Heinrichstrasse. There, we encountered absinthe in all its shapes and forms: from boldly displayed 1-liter bottles of 106-proof in liquor stores to absinthe-filled Swiss Frey Chocolates in a corner grocery store.

As we strolled Heinrichstrasse we had to stop at the Wein und Spezialitäten Heinrich 109 whose colorful display of absinthe products caught our attention. We peered eagerly at the window display (it was Sunday and the shop was closed); Toulouse recognized several brands (well, he’s French and he’s an artist). There was the green-labeled Willy Bovet’s Absinthe Tradition (65% vol.) with its distinct bitter taste, priced at 45 CH. Next to it was a bottle of the Bovet Absinthe Le Chat (54% vol), whose label depicted a cat contentedly drinking absinthe out of a glass. Toulouse tells me that this particular absinthe blossoms with a nice fennel aroma and a lingering wormwood background. Anise is present but not dominant. A one-liter bottle of Le Chat was selling for 69 CH. Bovet is a distiller of absinthe located in Môtiers, at the heart of Val-de-Travers.

Toulouse pointed out La Valote Lucien Fornonis (also from Val-de-Travers), an absinthe that he tells me has a slightly lighter louche (diluted with water) than the other La Valotes. The mouth-feel is nonetheless intensively herbal.

We also saw Elixir du Pays des Fées (55%), the nickname of Val-de-Travers, the valley in the Swiss mountains, where Absinthe originated. Elixir du Pays des Fées (distilled by Bezençon Boissons in Fleurier, Neuchâtel) is a typical La Bleue, combining bitterness with mellowness and demonstrating a remarkable harmony, with a lighter taste. Toulouse informs me that this well-balanced absinthe is the perfect example of a successful high quality absinthe. It was selling for 66 CH.

Le Bleue is clear “Blanche” absinthe bottled directly following distillation and reduction. The term la Bleue was originally used for bootleg Swiss absinthe (easier to disguise), but has become a popular term for post-ban-style Swiss absinthe in general. Verte absinthe begins as a blanche, which is then altered by the "coloring step," when a new mixture of herbs is placed into the clear distillate, providing a peridot green hue and an intense flavor. Vertes are the type of absinthe most commonly consumed in the 19th century.

Not surprisingly, absinthe originated in the canton of Neuchâtel in Switzerland in the Val-de-Travers valley. Yup, where wormwood grows like a weed and major Swiss distillers cluster. It achieved great popularity as an alcoholic drink in late 19th- and early 20th-century France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers. Due in part to its association with bohemian culture, absinthe was opposed by social conservatives and prohibitionists. Notorious fans of absinthe included Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, Vincent van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde.

Absinthe is a highly alcoholic (45–75% ABV) distilled beverage. Toulouse corrected me once already about referring to absinthe as a liqueur. It is an anise-flavored spirit derived from herbs, including the flowers and leaves of Artemisia absinthium, commonly referred to as "grande wormwood". It isn’t bottled with added sugar—and therefore classified a spirit. Absinthe is unusual though among spirits in that it is bottled at a very high proof but is normally diluted with water when consumed. It is traditionally a natural green color but can also be colorless and is commonly referred to in historical literature as "la fée verte" (the green fairy).

The principal ingredients in most absinthes include the herbs grande wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and anise. A grain neutral base spirit distilled from Swiss wheat is commonly used that includes hyssop, lemon balm, coriander, star anise, fennel, Roman wormwood and mint. The traditional method used for over a hundred years consists of a slow distillation after an initial maceration with no sugar or artificial coloring added. The peridot green of the Verte Absinthe comes from the addition of other herbs.

Absinthe is traditionally diluted with ice cold water poured over a sugar cube (called La Louche). According to Willy Bovet, of The Distillery Absinthe Bovet Valote, you place a lump of sugar on an absinthe spoon (flat and slotted) that is perched over the rim of a glass containing some absinthe. You then drizzle ice cold water (drop by drop) onto the sugar. You normally count three to five measures of water to one measure of absinthe at 65 % vol. The sugar takes some of the bitter edge off the grand wormwood and releases the aroma of the plants and the perfume of the flowers and brings out subtleties originally over-powered by the anise. The absinthe turns milky as the drizzled water mixes with it—unlocking the power of the “green fairy” and gently liberating the essential oils and herbs from which absinthe is made; substances like anise, fennel and star anise that aren’t soluble in water. According to absinthe connoisseurs, the visual transformation of the absinthe ritual of Louche reflects the transformation about to be experienced by the drinker; just as water liberates the essences of absinthe, so will absinthe liberate the mind. This wayof Louching is called the “French Method” and is the traditional way absinthe patrons prepared it over a hundred years ago.

The recent “Bohemian Method” is a more dramatic way to louche the drink and involves pre-soaking the sugar cube in absinthe then setting it ablaze. Variants such as “Cooking the Absinthe” or “Flaming Green Fairy” allow the fire to burn itself out, removing much of the alcohol—and taste according to some absinthe connoisseurs. Glasses were specifically made for absinthe: they had a dose line, bulge, or bubble in the lower portion showing how much absinthe should be poured in. Originally a waiter would serve a dose of absinthe, ice water in a carafe, and sugar separately, and the drinker would prepare it to his preference. With increased popularity, the absinthe fountain, a large jar of ice water on a base with spigots, was adopted. It allowed a number of drinks to be prepared at once, and with a hands-free drip, patrons were able to socialize while louching a glass. Toulouse and I ran across one of these in a Montreal hotel bar when we were visiting Montreal for the World Science Fiction Convention. Alas, they didn’t serve absinthe and the fountain was just an antique show-piece.

Absinthe grew popular through the 1840s when it was given to French troops to help treat malaria. When the troops returned home, they brought their taste for absinthe with them. It became so popular that twenty years later 5 p.m. was called l’heure verte ("the green hour").

The temperance movement with the help of the winemakers’ associations publicly associated absinthe with violent crimes and social disorder. The chemical thujone, the active ingredient and present in small quantities, was blamed for alleged harmful effects of absinthe. It didn’t help that several artists and writers—notably Toulouse Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh—popularized the notion that absinthe had powerful psychoactive properties. Despite its vilification, no evidence has shown it to be any more dangerous than ordinary spirits. Its psychoactive properties, apart from those of alcohol, were much exaggerated and scientific experiments have demonstrated that the thujone levels in absinthe do not cause hallucinations. Thujone is a GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) antagonist; which can produce muscle spasms in large doses. It’s likely that historical reports of hallucinogenic effects of absinthe arose due to poisonous chemicals being added to cheaper versions of the drink in the 19th century, to give it a more vivid color.

The debate continues as to whether absinthe produces effects on the human mind additional to those of alcohol, however. Some describe absinthe as “mind opening”. The experience is commonly described as a "clear-headed" feeling of inebriation—a form of "lucid drunkenness". This may arise from a combination of herbal compounds in the drink that act as stimulants and sedatives. Long term effects of low absinthe consumption in humans remain unknown, although the herbs in absinthe have both pain-killing and anti-parasitic properties.

By 1915, absinthe was banned in the United States and in most European countries except the United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The prohibition of absinthe in France led to the increased popularity of pastis and ouzo, anise-flavored spirits that don’t contain wormwood. Pernod was the original absinthe. It is still distilled today, but without the wormwood. Other liqueurs that substitute for wormwood are Ricard, Hersaint, Anisette, Ouzo, and Sambuca, all with that distinct “licorice” or anise taste that people either love or hate.

A revival of absinthe began in the 1990's, when countries in the European Union began to reauthorize its manufacture and sale. Now, nearly 200 brands of absinthe are produced in a dozen countries, most notably France, Switzerland, Spain, and the Czech Republic. Commercial distillation of absinthe in the United States resumed in 2007.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits food and beverages that contain Artemisia species if they are thujone-free (e.g. containing less than 10 ppm thujone). Similarly, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection lets you bring an “absinthe” product into the country so long as it is thujone-free (<10ppm), the name does not appear on the label and the packaging does not show images of hallucinogentic, psychotropic or mind-altering effects. St. George Spirits, a California distillery, began producing and selling thujone-free absinthe in 2007, making it the first U.S. company to do so since 1912.

In Canada, liquor laws are established by the provincial governments and restrictions on absinthe therefore vary. For instance, British Columbia and New Brunswick have no limits for thujone content; 10 mg/kg is the limit for Alberta, Nova Scotia and Ontario; 6-8 mg/kg for Manitoba; and 5 mg/kg for Quebec. Newfoundland and Labrador don’t sell absinthe. Okanagan Spirits in British Columbia released the “Taboo” brand in 2007, making it the first commercial absinthe made in Canada.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Don't get Toulouse hooked on's very addictive.

Those who have given it up say 'absinthe makes the heart grow fonder'....sorry for the pun!

SF Girl said...

LOL! That's funny, Jean-Luc. And thanks for the smart advice...

Both Toulouse and I have only experienced absinthe in Swiss chocolate, which is addictive in its own right! :)

I think Toulouse is far more inclined to drink another "addictive" drink: cafe creme! LOL! Check out his next post...

SF Girl said...

Here is the link to Toulouse's mild obsession... :)

He takes his coffee seriously. The post showcases the 10 best places to drink coffee (good coffee!) in Nova Scotia's South Shore... If you're visiting Nova Scotia and wish a scenic drive along the Lighthouse Route, Toulouse gives some cool places: