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Primer: How To Drink Absinthe

Any drinker and/or bartender out there will attest to the notion of absinthe’s complexity and misunderstood past — a troublesome scenario that typically deters what would-be first-timers from giving the unique spirit a try. This is not news. For urban legends surrounding the “green fairy” are fueled with otherworldly experiences, possession, seduction, and even murder. Was Van Gogh in the depths of an absinthe binge when he sliced off his ear? Does the once-banned spirit actually transport the drinker into a green-ether coupled with confusing hallucinations and temptation? These are questions mulled over by consumers with a certain level of adversity to the drink. Odds are, however, they’re nothing more than barstool banter.

At its core, however, absinthe is a force to be reckoned with. Its strength comes in both the anise-forward palate and an unusually-high ABV (ranging between 130 and 140 proof) so it goes without saying caution should be exercised in both preparation and consumption. Absinthe’s powerful profile also makes it a difficult spirit to work with behind the bar. Innovation and extensive knowledge of flavor pairings are therefore imperative when crafting cocktails with the drink. Before testing the waters in that manner, however, let’s take a look at how absinthe should be consumed in the traditional manner, via the Absinthe Drip.

Image: The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva

History Of The Spirit

An Otherworldly Experience

Originating in Switzerland back in the late 18th century, absinthe predominately took root in France throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries — particular among Parisian artists, intellectuals, and writers. Such bohemian preference led French aristocrats and social conservatives to reject the spirit as a mind-altering substance of lesser quality.The alleged hallucinatory elements supposedly came from trace amounts of thujone — a naturally occurring chemical compound present in a number of plants — which would eventually lead to its banning in the U.S. by 1915. As for composition, the anise and medicinal qualities of absinthe come from botanical derivatives (including the flowers and leaves of grand wormwood) along with green anise, fennel, and other herbs. The alleged hallucinatory elements supposedly came from trace amounts of thujone — a naturally occurring chemical compound present in a number of plants (such as junipers, sage, and wormwood) — which would eventually lead to its banning in the U.S. by 1915.

An Ancient Preference?

Even though the precise origin of absinthe is unknown, ancient studies have shown the medical use of wormwood actually date back to Egypt around 1550 B.C.E. Wormwood extracts and wine-soaked leaves were used by the ancient Greeks as well.

These accusations of addictive hallucinatory properties were never proven as fact. And it’s more likely that prohibitionists slandered the spirit, along with others at the time, in anticipation of the impending movement and subsequent ban on alcohol in general. Up until that time, however, one French-influenced U.S. city held the spirit in high regard, even developing absinthe-based cocktails like the Sazerac that are still enjoyed today. New Orleans, home of The Old Absinthe House (later called the Absinthe Room) on Bourbon Street, was rightfully frequented by devotees of the spirit — where the likes of Frank Sinatra, Mark Twain, Oscar Wild, and even FDR could be seen visiting the green fairy on their own accord. It wouldn’t be until the late 1990s and early 21st century though that absinthe would enjoy a significant resurgence in the American and European cocktail scene.

Our Pick: Nouvelle Orleans Absinthe Superieure

Representing the inspired work of native New Orleanian T.A. Breaux and paying homage to the peak absinthe scene on Bourbon Street, the Nouvelle-Orleans Absinthe Superieure boasts a unique bouquet of stimulating herbs that originally caught the eye of Belle Époque intellectuals. A lush and descriptive palate is then complemented by a stimulating mouthfeel, floral finish, and a nose and texture comparable to absinthes of centuries past.

Purchase: $72

Image: Le Muse Verte by Albert Maignan

How to Enjoy

5 Simple Steps

What You’ll Need
Absinthe glass. Absinthe spoon. Sugar Cubes. One eye dropper. Up to 7.5 oz of cold distilled water.

Unlike other spirits on the market, there’s a ritualistic essence to enjoying absinthe in the traditional manner. Meaning, don’t drink it neat. This isn’t a two-finger-pour-and-sip experience. Instead, the spirit’s heavy botanical, medicinal, and anise-forward palette require some taming — in this instance, calming the spirit is made possible by a little sugar and distilled water.

At this point, absinthe purists will insist on the traditional Absinthe Fountain that drops distilled water at a slow yet steady pace so they can admire and create the perfect louche (a white cloudy effect in the drink as water is added to absinthe). A period-correct way of preparing the drink without a doubt. The same effect, however, can be accomplished by a standard eye dropper. Here’s how it’s done.

  1. Measure The Absinthe: Pour 1 to 1.5 oz of absinthe into the glass (ideally an absinthe glass at that).

  2. Situate The Spoon: Rest an absinthe spoon atop the glass and place a sugar cube in the center of the spoon so that it’s in the middle of the glass.

  3. Saturate The Sugar: Take an eyedropper and slowly drip water on the sugar cube until it is completely saturated.

  4. Add Water: Now, take 3 to 7.5 oz of cold distilled water and pour it slowly over the sugar cube. Ideally, you want a ratio of water to absinthe to land between 3:1 and 5:1.

  5. Mix & Enjoy: Once the sugar cube is dissolved and the desired amount of water is added, drop the spoon into the drink and stir to mix evenly.

This, for the record, is the traditional method of drinking absinthe. However, the drink can also be equally enjoyed in cocktails (often preferred for those who aren’t a fan of strong anise flavors) as well as the more showboat-centric fire method. It’s worth mentioning though this isn’t recommended for two reasons: 1) due to impending fire danger thanks to the high-proof liquor and 2) because burning the sugar cube ruins the delicate flavor compounds of the drink. There’s also the Frappé method as well — where the same above method is completed over a cup of crushed ice and finished with a touch of mint. Of course, with a handful of techniques at your disposal, be sure to ask your local bartender about their preferred drinking method as they may have some tricks up their sleeves as well.

How To Drink Whiskey

Looking for something a little closer to home? There’s nothing more American than bourbon whiskey. And while this guide on how to drink whiskey covers more than just that American spirit, we’re confident you’ll find it worthwhile in the neverending search for the perfect whiskey.