“…that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy.”
When Terese and I were in San Francisco on one of our research missions for Soul Keeper, we discovered a wonderful and unique restaurant, Absinthe Brasserie and Bar. We have a scene in Soul Keeper where our antagonist uses absinthe, performing a corrupted version of the absinthe ritual, so we thought it would be an interesting experience to check out an actual absinthe bar. We discovered that Absinthe Brasserie and Bar is one of the country’s premier absinthe cafes, with 17 international brands for sampling. After a delicious meal we sampled several cocktails with absinthe and found it a strong yet interesting flavor. Even more fun was actually seeing the ritual in person! The history and ritual of ‘the green fairy’ is truly fascinating.
Hemingway was just one of many who have written of the power and mystery behind absinthe. Known as “the Green Fairy”, or la fée verte, the exact origins of absinthe are murky, but the rise of this powerful drink began in the 1800s.
Popular throughout the Belle Époque, or “Beautiful Age”, in French history, absinthe saw its heyday from the late 1800s to the start of World War I. So, what exactly is absinthe, and how has one alcoholic beverage built such a reputation for magic and transformation? The answers lie in the power of accessing our own minds and harnessing the mystery that put absinthe at the heart of one of the most impactful cultural and artistic revolutions of our world.
The Rise and Fall of Absinthe and L’heure Verte
What we now know as absinthe originated in Switzerland in the late 1700s, where it rose to incredible heights of popularity during the Beautiful Age of France. Considered to be an agent of transformation and of reaching ultimate creative potential, absinthe thrived in the cultural and art scene of 1800s France and served as the muse to many of the time’s greatest talents.
The spirit was referred to as la fée verte—the Green Fairy—from the myth that those drinking it would be visited by the green fairy of transformation and enlightenment. Absinthe’s popularity is also what gave way to the term l’heure verte, or “the Green Hour”, which was likely the beginning of the modern-day “Happy Hour”.
By the early 1900s, absinthe was banned in Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, France, and the United States. The ban came after immense pushback from the temperance movement and wine industry, which portrayed absinthe as the cause for violent crimes and social disorder. It wasn’t until the 1990s that absinthe would begin making its comeback.
The Return of Absinthe and the Bohemian Method
The revival of absinthe in the 1990s also saw the introduction of what is known as “The Bohemian Method” of drinking the spirit. This method involves presoaking the sugar cube in alcohol, setting it on fire, and dropping it into the glass of absinthe—igniting the drink. The flame is then put out with a shot glass of water.
While you may get a stronger drink with the Bohemian Method, but it is often looked down upon from absinthe aficionados as a gimmick that does more to destroy absinthe’s flavor than to enhance it. With the reintroduction of absinthe into modern culture, there are plenty less-than-quality spirits on the market. The fire method may be used to hide the fact that poorly crafted absinthe often contains dyes won’t give the desirable louche effect—the transformation in color when water is added to the spirit.
The Unique Composition that Gives Absinthe its Power
To understand absinthe, you must understand what sets it apart from standard spirits. Known for its exceptionally high alcohol percentage—which varies between 53% to 75% ABV, or up to 148 proof—most of the stories of absinthe’s power can be attributed to the sheer strength of the alcohol.
However, that’s not the only thing that puts absinthe in a different realm.
The unique taste of absinthe is from the natural botanicals that are infused into the spirit, where those tasting the green liquid will find hints of peppermint, lemon balm, hyssop, coriander, and several other complex floral or earthy notes. At the center of this is the “holy trinity” of absinthe—green anise, Florence fennel, and grand wormwood.
While green anise gives absinthe its distinctive licorice flavor, it is the grand wormwood that has led to the controversy and supposed power of the drink. Wormwood contains a chemical compound called thujone, and this component is where the myth of absinthe causing hallucinations all started.
What is Thujone and is it Really Hallucinogenic?
During the rise of absinthe’s popularity, thujone was thought to be responsible for causing intense hallucinations and spiritual experiences for those who drank the Green Fairy, and concoctions containing thujone have been used throughout history for a variety of medicinal purposes. However, studies have shown that despite the trace amounts of thujone in absinthe, its ability to cause the drinker to hallucinate has been widely exaggerated.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”
While his words make a case for absinthe’s psychedelic effects, in reality, there is no evidence that thujone-containing absinthe will cause anything other than alcohol intoxication. As a GABA antagonist, thujone can cause toxicity in large doses, but extensive research has shown that it would be virtually impossible to consume enough thujone via absinthe before the alcohol itself resulted in mortality.
Fear over the dangerous effects of thujone-containing absinthe even resulted in a ban of the drink in the United States in 1915—which wasn’t lifted until 2007. Today, absinthe sold in the US must have a thujone content of less than 10 ppm to be considered thujone-free.
Understanding the Ritual of the Green Fairy
When consuming absinthe, you don’t just pour, toast, and drink. Drinking absinthe is deeply based in a ritual that unlocks the intrinsic botanical flavor notes of the spirit.
In short, to drink absinthe in the traditional way, you shouldn’t drink it neat.
The proper steps to preparing absinthe include:
- Gather Your Supplies: An Absinthe Fountain is the classic method of preparing absinthe, but you can do it with a few key tools. You’ll need an absinthe glass, absinthe spoon, sugar cubes, and distilled, ice-cold water.
- Pour the Absinthe: You’ll first pour the spirit into your absinthe glass—aiming for a 1 oz. to a 1.5 oz. pour. Absinthe glasses may have measurements to assist with proper pouring.
- Position the Spoon: An absinthe spoon is specially slotted to allow for sugar and water to dissolve into the spirit. Position the spoon on top of the glass with a sugar cube in the center.
- Saturate the Sugar Cube: Using an eyedropper, you’ll take cold distilled water and drip it over the sugar cube—continue until it is fully saturated.
- Add Water to the Mix: You are looking for a ratio between 3:1 and 5:1 when pouring water over the saturated sugar cube. During the process, you’ll see the trademark louche where the green absinthe transforms into a milky, opalescence shade.
- Sip and Enjoy: After the absinthe has changed color, mix with the absinthe spoon, and sit back to enjoy your experience with the Green Fairy.