How to Drink Absinthe like a Proper Bohemian
Step 1: Pour absinthe into mouth
Step 2: Swallow
End of Guide.
Wait, wait, hold on — as it turns out, drinking absinthe the right way is somewhat more nuanced. We’re all familiar with the mechanics of drinking, but not everyone is acquainted with the art of preparing and drinking absinthe. After all, it’s only been legal in this country for a few years. Since March 5 is National Absinthe Day, we thought we’d put together a guide on how to drink this frequently misunderstood spirit. We have a few options for you, including the method of choice of Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, and other famous bohemians. For some expert guidance, we’ve enlisted the help of Matt Johnson, owner of The Secret Society, a lounge, ballroom, and recording studio in Portland, OR that’s renowned for its absinthe collection.
What Is Absinthe?
First off, it’s important to understand what absinthe is and isn’t. Originally popularized in Switzerland and France in the 1800s, absinthe is a spirit — not a liqueur — with a high alcohol percentage (often upwards of 70%). The spirit is traditionally made with white grape spirits, wormwood, anise, fennel, and other herbs. “One thing that we get all time is people saying ‘I want a shot of absinthe.’ You do not want a shot of absinthe,” says Johnson, and he speaks the truth — absinthe by itself is quite intense.
“Absinthe comes in two main forms: absinthe blanche and absinthe verte, or white and green,” says Johnson. Absinthe’s famous green hue comes from the herbs, which slough off their chlorophyll during secondary maceration.
Of course, it’s difficult to talk about absinthe without mentioning its hallucinogenic properties, of which it has none. “Absinthe traditionally has a very small amount of thujone, which was widely thought to cause hallucinations. However, you’d have to drink a whole bottle to get any effects, and by then you have plenty of other problems.”
The myth of hallucination was widely spread by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and other famous absinthe imbibers during the late 1800s. “All those artists were drinking absinthe, but they were doing other stuff, too,” says Johnson. “They were experimenting with drugs and everyone was drinking out of leaded glasses. So there was other stuff going on.” Also, it’s believed that some shady absinthe distillers actually put hallucinogenics into their swill, but this is no longer the case.
Method 1: In a Cocktail
Matt Johnson made it exceedingly clear that absinthe is not for everyone: “The first thing I ask people is, ‘How do you feel about black licorice?’ If their answer is, ‘It’s disgusting, I want nothing to do with it,’ then we move on to something else. There are also times when i’ll suggest that people try absinthe in a cocktail before going down the traditional French path, just to see how they like the flavor.”
Without further ado, here’s a tasty absinthe cocktail recipe, courtesy of Jesse Lundin at The Secret Society.
1.5 oz tequila
.75 oz Green Chartreuse
.75 oz lemon juice
.5 oz agave syrup
.25 oz Kübler absinthe
Pour ingredients into a shaker and shake with ice. Strain into a stemmed glass.
Related: Swill: Corsair Red Absinthe
Method 2: Cold Water and Simple Syrup
Once you decide that you enjoy the taste of absinthe, consider preparing it the traditional way. However, we understand if you don’t want to make a whole production out of it while you’re still trying it out. Matt Johnson has a suggestion for folks looking to make a simple absinthe drink: “Take an ounce and a half or so of absinthe, put it in a glass, and pour cold water slowly into it. The absinthe will go from clear to cloudy — we call that ‘the louche.’ Take a squeeze bottle of simple syrup, put a little bit in there to taste, and boom, you’re there.”
This method is approaching the traditional method that the Parisian bohemians enjoyed during late 1800s and early 1900s, but it’s not quite there. If you want to go full bohemian, you’ll need special absinthe glasses, an absinthe spoon, and an absinthe fountain. You’ll also need to be a brilliant artist or thinker who sets the world on fire with his ideas. OK, maybe that last part isn’t necessary, but it helps.
Pictured: “The louche,” French for opaque or shady
Method 3: The French Way
“There are simple ways to drink absinthe, and then there’s the French way,” says Johnson. “The French, being who they are, decided that everything should be completely ornate, partially because of the era in which absinthe became popular — the late 1800s, early 1900s.”
- Pour absinthe into a special absinthe glass. Fill up to the lowest line on the glass, or fill the bubble at the bottom.
- Place an absinthe spoon over the top of the glass.
- Place a small brick of sugar on top of the absinthe spoon (they make sugar specifically for this purpose).
- Place the glass beneath the absinthe fountain and turn on the valve until water is slowly dripping onto the sugar.
- Once the sugar dissolves, turn up the speed on the absinthe fountain until the liquid reaches the second line in your absinthe glass.
- Stir and enjoy.
What? You don’t have an absinthe spoon and fountain? What are you, an animal? You can find reasonably priced accessories at Absinthes.com. Also, Matt Johnson says it’s completely acceptable to use a pitcher of water and small strainer in lieu of an absinthe fountain and spoon. It’s not as classy, but it’ll do in a pinch.
Absinthe is not a scary, mysterious drug that you need to clear your schedule before enjoying. Rather, it’s a tasty licorice-flavored spirit that can connect you with some of the greatest artists and thinkers the world has ever known. It’s also a pretty good way to get tanked. If you’re looking to try a new drink, we suggest celebrating National Absinthe Day on March 5 with a glass of milky absinthe. You won’t regret it.
Located in a historic Victorian-era hall, The Secret Society opened in 2008, right around the time absinthe was legalized in the U.S. Visit their website to check out their menu and upcoming events.