Signature Absinthe Qualities
One of the defining characteristics of absinthe is its green – or yellowish-green – color. It takes on a light green hue naturally from the green anise and other herbs included in the spirit. Many brands of absinthe are bright green, however, the more vibrant spirits often include artificial dyes to punch up the color.
In addition to its signature color, the herbs used in absinthe also provide its unique, bitter anise flavor, similar in taste to black licorice. Wormwood, a bitter herb notorious for both its supposed hallucinogenic properties and health benefits, is the chief flavoring ingredient. Other aromatic ingredients include licorice, hyssop, fennel, angelica root, aniseed, and star aniseed.
Much like gin is set apart from vodka by the use of botanicals during distillation, absinthe is made by redistilling neutral alcohol with the aforementioned botanicals. The botanicals are steeped in high-proof spirits, like brandy, resulting in a finished product with an alcohol content typically in the range of 45%-74% by volume.
Absinthe is perhaps best known for the many myths and misconceptions associated with it. One of the most common of these is the belief that it’s hallucinogenic. Wormwood does contain thujone, a chemical that’s known to be a convulsant at extremely high doses, but the amount in absinthe is so low that its effects couldn’t be felt without consuming far in excess of a deadly amount of alcohol.
A related misconception is that absinthe was banned in the US and much of Europe in the early 1920s due to its reputation as a hallucinogen. In truth, the spirit became a victim of its own popularity. Both the temperance movement and the French wine industry targeted it as a common scapegoat to promote their respective agendas.
There is a lingering belief that absinthe sold in the US isn’t “real,” due to its nearly century-long ban. But in truth, absinthe was made legal again in the US in 2007, so many of the options available on American shelves do contain wormwood, the signature ingredient of the liquor. However, some brands, particularly in the EU, do market products as absinthe which are essentially just artificially flavored vodka with green dye. So be sure to keep an eye out for products that contain wormwood if you want the real deal.
“Parisian style,” or an absinthe drip, is the classic method of consuming the spirit. In this way of preparation, a sugar cube is placed on a flat slotted spoon that’s balanced over a glass of absinthe. Cold water is poured over the sugar cube, allowing it to slowly dissolve into the liquor. During this process, the clear liquid thickens slightly and turns cloudy, a phenomenon known as louching.
There are also several popular cocktail recipes that call for absinthe. One easy-to-craft option is the Death in the Afternoon, a recipe reportedly created by author Ernest Hemingway. To make this drink, pour 1.5 ounces of absinthe into a Champagne glass and top slowly with 4.5 ounces of chilled Champagne.
There’s also the classic New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac, which calls for just a touch of the potent liquor. To make a Sazerac, start by rinsing a chilled Old Fashioned glass with the absinthe, then fill it with crushed ice and set it aside. Next, add 2 ounces of cognac, 0.5 ounces of simple syrup, and 3 dashes of bitters into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled. Then, discard the ice and any excess absinthe from the prepared glass, and strain the drink into the glass. To finish, express lemon peel oils over the top of the drink, and garnish with the peel.
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