Absinthe has been the source of more legends and tall tales than almost any other spirit. Stories of widespread bans, madness and death all haunt the liquid. In perhaps the most famous case, it has been blamed for spate of insanity that led Van Gogh to liberate his ears from his head.
It is chiefly the inclusion of the chemical thujone that has seen the spirit banned for so long. Mid 19th century research set the precedent and little work has been done to clear up the myths in the years and indeed centuries that followed. Absinthe has been reintroduced to many parts of the world in recent times, but the thujone levels have been restricted.
The spirit itself has several regional European variants, but most link its invention to Switzerland. The Czech Republic and France also became major players in the production of absinthe and they each have their own distinct style. The Greeks, too, are on the forefront of production and consumption with their unique variant, known as ouzo.
Absinthe requires a holy trinity of ingredients: namely wormwood, anise and fennel. These ingredients lend their unique liquorice flavour to the spirit and were originally included because of their perceived medicinal benefits.
The method for serving and drinking absinthe is one that furthers the mystique of the spirit and requires a patient drinker. Using a large water ‘fountain’ with a slow-dripping tap, the water falls onto a sugar cub placed on a specially designed spoon, which rests on the rim of the glass. The sugar and water content sweetens the drink and lowers the alcohol, making the product infinitely more drinkable for most palates.
The French tend to enjoy the spirit long with water or soda, working well as either an aperitif or a digestif. Absinthe can also be used (in small quantities) in cocktails like the Sazerac and Corpse Reviver #2.
Used in the right way, absinthe isn’t so scary after all.