Mysterious Absinthe

The myth and merits of ‘the green fairy’


Once the symbolic drink of late 19th-century Parisian artists, writers, and bons vivants, the anise-flavored spirit absinthe had as many detractors as lovers. Van Gogh, Hemingway, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Picasso drank it and sang its praises. Absinthe, being between 90 and 148 proof in the U.S., was portrayed as a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug and hallucinogen and by 1915 it had been banned in the United States and most of Europe.

By the 1990s, absinthe was legal again and found a revival amongst mixologists. Absinthe traditionally has a natural olive green color but can be colorless. It is known as la fée verte, the green fairy, in French. Absinthe’s finish should be dry and crisp and have a silky mouthfeel. Derived from botanicals, including the flowers and leaves of grand wormwood, along with green anise, sweet fennel, and other herbs, absinthe is normally diluted with water before drinking. While absinthe was vilified, it has not been demonstrated to be any more dangerous than ordinary spirits. Recent studies have shown that absinthe's psychoactive properties (apart from that of the alcohol) have been exaggerated.

Here’s how to partake of absinthe: The traditional preparation is to slowly drip water over a sugar cube and into the spirit, which becomes cloudy (this is called the louche). You can also use small quantities of absinthe (a few dashes, a rinse, or a quarter-ounce) to add a floral, bittersweet quality to just about any cocktail. You also need absinthe to make a proper SAZERAC, a cocktail that originated in New Orleans, and is considered to be the first “branded” American cocktail.