Say the word absinthe to any average Joe and it is most likely going to conjure up some very specific images and ideas. Most likely, hallucinations come to mind. Or, maybe it’s about the spirit’s strength (absinthes regularly fall between 50% and 70% alcohol by volume). Or maybe that average Joe thinks of late-1800s Paris and people like Oscar Wilde downing the stuff as if it were water. Heck, maybe it’s just that scene from Euro Trip where they literally see a green fairy (we won’t judge, we like the movie, too). Whatever image comes to mind when someone mentions absinthe, one thing is for certain — over time it has developed its own mythology and aura that drinkers across the world know and love (or hate).
The biggest thing about absinthe, though, is that it isn’t a beginner spirit. You can’t just crack a bottle and take a pull. You could, but we guarantee that you’ll never, ever want to do that again. Like, ever. For some expert guidance on how to properly consume “The Green Fairy,” 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 available legally in the U.S. for 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. Absinthe is traditionally made with white grape-based spirit, 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 is traditionally made with white grape-based spirit, wormwood, anise, fennel, and other herbs.
“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 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.
Need somewhere to start? Here are the best absinthes on the market right now.
How to Drink Absinthe
In a Cocktail
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 for beginners, 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.
With Cold Water and Simple Syrup
Once you decide that you enjoy the taste of absinthe, consider preparing it the traditional way. 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.
From an Absinthe Fountain
“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.”
The French Way:
- 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.
The Essential List of Absinthe Gear
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Full Absinthe Set
Don’t want to spend the time or effort collecting the pieces for an absinthe set separately? Lucky for you, there are plenty of options when it comes to buying everything you need to properly consume absinthe in one easy package. This one, for example, even comes with sugar cubes to get you started.
A previous version of this article by J Fergus ran on July 26, 2017. Last updated by Sam Slaughter in October 2019.
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