The Beginner’s Guide to Absinthe
Absinthe, after having disappeared from the cocktail and beverage scene for several decades, is making a comeback. It is a highly alcoholic distilled beverage ranging from 45% to 74 % alcohol by volume, and is a spirit mainly flavoured by the herb Artemisia absinthium which is also known by its English name grand wormwood. In Morocco, the herb is known as chiba and is commonly used as a flavouring agent for tea consumed on cold days in the winter. Absinthe is also flavoured with green anise and sweet fennel, and traditionally it is green coloured but colourless varieties exist.
Absinthe is also known as “The Green Fairy”; in the 1800’s it was thought that thujone, a substance found in trace amounts in the spirit, was present in sufficient quantity to produce psychoactive hallucinations. Absinthe ended up being banned in most countries in 1915, however, in the 1990’s studies showed that absinthe basically had the same effects as alcohol and the bans prohibiting its sale were removed in Europe. The drink is now becoming quite popular, with over 200 brands available.
Absinthe is not drunk straight; since it has a very high alcoholic volume and contains no sugar, water and sweetener must be added. However, there is a method to doing this correctly; it is not just a question of grabbing a sugar spoon and placing a glass with a shot of absinthe under the faucet and giving everything a shake. Here is how to drink absinthe the old-fashioned way, which also happens to be the best way.
To prepare a proper absinthe beverage, you’ll need an old-fashioned or highball glass, a spoon, something for measuring quantities such as an ounce glass, water, sugar, and of course, absinthe. Traditional equipment for absinthe includes a sort of footed, short-stemmed glass called a reservoir and a slotted absinthe spoon, which looks like a flat spoon with slots punched out of it.
Next, pour between one or two ounces of absinthe into the glass. The recommended ratio of absinthe to water is 1:3, meaning that two ounces of absinthe will require six ounces of water, making for an eight-ounce drink. Less absinthe can be used if you want a lighter flavoured beverage.
The next step is to add sugar. Because the “Green Fairy” is far too bitter for most people, this is a step that cannot be ignored or omitted. In fact, if you’re not going to take sugar, it’s best to not drink absinthe at all and it’s better to get something else instead.
Preparation using a traditional absinthe spoon
Adding sugar in the traditional fashion is a little tricky and takes practice. A sugar cube is placed on the old-fashioned, flat, slotted absinthe spoon, then the spoon is placed on top of the glass. Cold water (preferably iced water in a carafe) is then slowly trickled through the sugar cube, dissolving it. Remember this step must be done slowly; if the water is poured over too quickly, the sugar won’t dissolve and the water might splash, causing a mess and a watered-down, bitter drink. The resulting milky-coloured and somewhat opaque liquid which occurs when prepared correctly is called the louche, and the beverage is ready to drink. This method of preparation is known as the French Method.
Once some proficiency has been acquired with the use of traditional absinthe preparation tools, if you want to show off your bartending skills, instead of pouring water over the sugar cube, pour a little absinthe over it, and light it on fire. This will melt the sugar, caramelizing it, and will add a very interesting dimension to the entire absinthe experience. This method is also known as the Bohemian Method and is a fairly recent innovation; drinkers should also be aware that “cooking” the absinthe by the use of this method will destroy the alcohol content, which evaporates with heat.
Preparation using a plain spoon
If you don’t have a fancy absinthe spoon, you can use a regular spoon and granulated sugar. Once the absinthe and water have been poured into the glass, simply add a spoonful of sugar and give everything a stir until the sugar has dissolved. While everything will taste good, you must remember that stirring a drink will add oxygen to the mix and will change the characteristics of the beverage. It is highly recommended to use an absinthe spoon in order to experience the full complexities of the spirit.
Once everything has been mixed together, you should start drinking the absinthe immediately; it’s not a beverage that needs to “breathe” or have the flavours “meld”. As the saying goes, absinthe is best when consumed in moderation; remember that the alcohol percentage is rather high and this is what will affect you if you have too much rather than the trace amounts of thujone. However, there are some absinthe fans who will claim that the effects of thujone are strong.
Storage of Absinthe
What often gets ignored in other “how to drink absinthe” guides is the subject of storage. Naturally green coloured absinthe, if stored incorrectly, will turn yellow and over time will turn a very unappealing brown. Chlorophyll present in green absinthe will not change colour if it is not exposed to air or light; therefore it should be stored in a cool, dark place but not refrigerated. However, if the absinthe does change colour after proper storage, it is not a problem because the flavour will remain unchanged. As mentioned above, absinthe must never be refrigerated; this will cause the polymerization of the anethole in the bottle, resulting in a precipitate which will adversely affect the absinthe’s flavour and aroma.
Absinthe is a wonderful drink, and if possible, you really should make the effort to prepare your drink with the French method and experience absinthe rather than just drink it. Bottoms up!