Absinthe — sometimes called the “Green Fairy” because of the alleged hallucinatory properties — is perhaps one of the most misunderstood spirits out there. This isn’t just because of the whole “wormwood makes you see things” thing, but also because (unlike your everyday whiskey), to get the most out of absinthe, you can’t just pour it into a glass and go. (Well, you could just pour it into a glass and drink it, but with the average proof of absinthes being over 50 percent ABV, it isn’t advisable.)
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, Oregon, that’s renowned for its absinthe collection.
What Is Absinthe?
Though only legally available in the U.S. for around a decade, absinthe is steeped in history. 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 percent). 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 and verges on disgusting.
“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.” Essentially, alcohol poisoning — the life of any party — would kill you before you got anywhere near enough thujone in your system.
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.
So, how do you drink it?
Method No. 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.
The Long Walk
- 1.5 oz tequila
- .75 oz Green Chartreuse
- .75 oz lemon juice
- .5 oz agave syrup
- .25 oz Kübler absinthe
Method: Pour ingredients into a shaker and shake with ice. Strain into a stemmed glass.
Method No. 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. 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.”
There is a common notion that absinthe found in the U.S. is less potent, but that is rarely the case. This method can easily assess the spirit because high-quality absinthe will create a louche, without fail, while lesser products will keep their original color.
Method No. 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.
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.
If you’re willing to invest in a life full of absinthe imbibing, here are the tools you’ll need.
Get the Gear
Reservoir glass – $13
These glasses have either a bubble or etching near the bottom of the glass to show how much absinthe to use. The most common type of reservoir glass is known as a Pontarlier glass.
Absinthe spoon – $9
These slotted metal spoons balance atop your glass, providing a resting place for wayward sugar cubes. Elaborate grilles achieve the same effect with more stability and are made to be easily secured on most reservoir glasses.
Fountain – $185
No, you can’t really use this for anything else, but you’ll definitely earn style points if you whip this out with a bottle of Pernod. The faucet speed is adjustable, so you can watch your absinthe transform at your own pace.
Brouilleur – $33
If the fountain’s too much for you (or your cabinet space), consider a brouilleur. Also known as drippers, brouilleurs are typically small bowls that can sit on a reservoir glass and slowly funnel drops of water downwards. More elaborate versions called balanciers employ a method in which the water moves a small see-saw below the opening, displacing the water on the way down. The end result is more of a splash than a pour or droplet, so it creates a nice middle ground in terms of prep time.
Absinthe pipe – $50
Need to bring your absinthe into the 21st century? Grab an absinthe pipe. Despite its name, there’s no smoke involved other than the cloudy transformation. Some pipes are simple in design, much like brandy sippers, but Slipstream captures the visual experience of preparing absinthe without all the tools. The main carafe has three chambers: the bottom for the absinthe, the middle for the sugar cube, and the top for the ice water.
Absinthe doesn’t have to be intimidating or make you take a nap in the middle of the party you’re hosting. Enjoyed properly, 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.
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.
A previous version of this article b J Fergus ran on July 26, 2017. Last updated by Sam Slaughter on March 4, 2018.