Absinthe is the victim of one of the worst smear campaigns in alcoholic history. To this day, La Fée Verte is believed by many to be a hallucinogenic terror, as likely to drive its drinker mad as to inspire genius. I suppose it's not entirely unearned and, as they say, any press is good press. Regardless, reports of the spirit's properties have been greatly exaggerated.
While it's likely that many turn-of-the-century drinkers suffered more than a wicked hangover as a result of absinthe consumption, it's even more likely that the novel side-effects were the result of poor production techniques, not the admittedly toxic Wormwood that bears the brunt of Absinthe's reputation as a killer cocktail ingredient.
While it's highly toxic in high doses, the amount of Wormwood contained in commercially available Absinthe is negligible, and poses no danger. After a long exile, Absinthe was legalized for sale in the United States in 2007, with the caveat that its concentration of Thujone, the supposedly psychotropic ingredient in Wormwood, is below acceptable levels.
Absinthe is an anise-flavored spirit, with varying amounts of other herbal and spice flavorings differing between different brands. It is typically, though not necessarily, tinted green. While it differs in its high alcohol content, Absinthe is similar in flavor to other anisettes, such as French Pastis and Greek Ouzo. Like those less sensationalized anisettes, Absinthe is typified by the louche effect.
Part of the romantic allure of Absinthe is wrapped up in ritual. The slow, languorous trickle of water over a cube of sugar; the drip-by-drip transformation from a clear, green fluid to a milky, mysterious elixir; even the specialized spoons and fountains are part of the idealized appeal of Absinthe. As the sugar serves to cut through the heady, boozy bouquet, the water emulsifies with the essential oils suspended in the alcohol, clouding the drink. The result is transformative, in more ways than one, and feeds right into the symbolism of the spirit's supposed revelatory effects.
While I've yet to experience Absinthe in its most universally recognized application, I've come to appreciate its refreshing and bracing herbal appeal in a number of cocktails. To simplify, you could certainly substitute Absinthe for any anisette, and the results would likely be delicious. Absinthe plays well with citrus, and also with the similarly strident botanicals of gin. An absinthe martini is a delicious twist on a classic, tasting vibrant and pleasantly medicinal in equal measure.
Apart from The Green Hour ritual of La Belle Époque, Absinthe's most recognized use is probably as the seemingly innocuous rinse in the classic Sazerac cocktail. Those unfamiliar with the drink may be forgiven for finding it silly. Regardless, the rinse is absolutely critical to the integrity of the drink, imparting an important flavor element and, more importantly, a heady aroma. As you bring the drink to your lips, the thin coating of liquor around the glass releases a host of aromatic compounds, perfuming the air, and therefore the experience of the drink, with an array of complex and ever-shifting aromas. Almond, basil, coriander, eucalyptus, and the ever-present blaze of alcohol itself inform the experience, before the drink even meets your palate.
- 2oz. Rye
- Barspoon Turbinado Simple Syrup
- ¼oz. Peychaud's Bitters
Stir all ingredients together with ice and strain into rocks glass rinsed with Absinthe (To rinse, swirl a small amount of Absinthe in the glass, rolling it around to coat. Discard - or pour back into the bottle - any liquor left in the bottom after rinsing); garnish with a lemon twist.
Sometimes, when I'm lacking inspiration for a new cocktail, I'll start sniffing. While the frustration of bartender's block does sometimes get to me, I'm not talking about that kind of sniffing. I'll take my key ingredient, sniff it, and then sniff it in conjunction with other spirits I think might work. While it's not a foolproof method, it can definitely set you on the right track; a good portion of what we perceive as flavor is actual driven by aroma, after all.
This time, I began with Absinthe and Madeira, just out of curiosity. When the darker smell of the port-cousin - with its rich notes of spice, dried fruit, and tobacco - seemed to complement the bracing herbals of Absinthe, I knew I was on to something. A jump to Maraschino liqueur for its sympathizing sweet funk, and a whiff of bitters with a nod to a classic, and I had an aroma profile that smelled promising.
A quick stir, and I was encouraged, but not quite there. Too sweet, too boozy, too much. My wife agreed, and I was just about to go back to the drawing board when I decided to see if I could simultaneously lighten and liven things up with a splash of tonic water. It did just the trick, with the slight effervescence bringing the drink to life while the quinine kick reinforced the bitter edge that balances the sweeter components. I was going to try for another that night, but didn't want to fall victim to La Fée Verte, and wind up sending my ear to a rival.
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- 1oz. Madeira
- ½oz. Absinthe
- ¼oz. Marschino Liqueur
- Dash Peychaud's
Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into champagne flute. Top with tonic water and stir gently to combine. Garnish with orange peel and a maraschino cherry.