Absinthe is one of the most storied, misunderstood and talked about spirits in the world. Everyone knows someone who “had it in Europe” and brought back lurid tales of hallucinations and bizarre rituals – perpetuating the myth of the green fairy. Sure, it's true that some of history's greatest artists and writers loved the stuff in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but their inspiration was far more likely to come from the extremely high alcohol content, rather than any nigh-legendary, and highly questionable hallucinogenic qualities of the wormwood used to make the stuff.
So why, if it's no more dizzying than any other spirit, was it outlawed for so long? Absinthe was the drink of choice for vast portions of the population in the late 1800s. The liquor was mass produced in countries across Europe and in the U.S. and the price was ridiculously low – making it an easy pick for people from across virtually any social class.
With so many drinking it, combined with the spirit's reputed hallucinogenic properties stemming from a chemical found in the wormwood called thujone, it was easy to blame heinous crimes like suicide and murder on the green fairy. One petition circulated in 1907 advocating the ban of absinthe in France stated, “"Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country."
Bans came down across Europe, with few countries spared. By 1915 most countries had outlawed the green guzzle, bringing a fairly definitive end to the era of the bohemian artist. It wasn't until a few enterprising souls in Europe, and then here in the U.S. a few years later, made a push to reintroduce it in the 1990s that the laws were changed and absinthe started making a powerful comeback.
And it is powerful stuff. Unlike most spirits, absinthe isn't diluted to a lower proof before hitting the bottle – relying instead on drinkers to water the heady elixir, turning the normally pale green liquid to a cloudy greenish white. This ritual, known as la louche, usually involves slowly drizzling ice cold water over a sugar cube placed on top of a specially designed perforated spoon. This not only tones down the heat of the alcohol by diluting it, it also adds a much needed dose of sweetness to the herbal spirit, which can be quite overpowering on its own. When drinking it in public, keep in mind that lighting it on fire is considered to be very uncouth.
When absinthe was first brought back to the U.S., there weren't that many options for those looking for a high quality reproduction of the spirit that inspired an era. Now, however, there's almost too much to choose from, with bottles claiming to be authentic versions of long-gone labels and confusion over whether the U.S. even has “real” absinthe – the assumption being that the European stuff still contains the magic elixir that drives men to madness while we get stuck with plain old herb-infused liquor. The reality, however, is that the absinthe we drink here is every bit as potent, and delicious, as in Europe. And since absinthe isn't cheap, here are a few bottles to keep an eye out for.
Obsello – A Spanish absinthe and as such, a little different from the norm. While there's a powerful dose of anise, it's also oddly peppery. At 100 proof straight from the bottle, it requires more than a few drops of water to open up and tone down the heat. It benefits greatly from the sugar as well, providing much-needed balance. Once diluted, it turns a milky green and offers a nice creamy texture on the tongue. Even better, there are a ton of bracing herbal aromatics in this bottle, meaning that it was born to be mixed into a Sazerac, one of the first cocktails ever developed and consisting of 1.5 ounces rye, three dashes Peychaud's bitters, simple syrup, and just enough absinthe to wash the glass with.
La Clandestine – Named for the clandestine absinthes made after the ban Switzerland laid down just under 100 years ago, La Clandestine is mouth-puckeringly herbal taken straight, but with just a touch of sugar and enough water to turn it gently cloudy, this absinthe has a gentle licorice bite and an interesting warmth that almost tingles on the tongue. At 106 proof it definitely has the capability to bring on the green fairy, but with such a great balance of flavors it's a versatile choice for a house absinthe.
Nouvelle Orleans – Developed by Ted Breaux, one of the men responsible for absinthe's return to the U.S., Nouvelle Orleans is a different breed of absinthe. At 124 proof it's far too hot to drink without dilution, transforming to an almost luminous greenish white cloud with a little water, but it's one of the few absinthes that requires little to no sugar. Lightly sweet and with a gentle anise kick, it has a slightly creamy mouth feel and a ton of cocktail potential. Absinthe is a touchy ingredient, requiring a deft hand, or you'll end up with a drink that tastes like black jelly beans. Nouvelle Orleans is balanced and gentle but still exhibits a ton of absinthe character. It's a gentleman's absinthe, at least until you drink enough to make the walls start crawling. Then all bets are off.
Kubler – An oddly yellow-tinged cloudy white once diluted, Kubler is an odd duck among absinthes. With clear lemony notes that inspire undying love or unmitigated hate for the bottle, it's clearly not an absinthe for everyone. The citrus and licorice combo does present some intriguing possibilities for cocktails though, and because of that lemon it drinks much more cleanly than many other spirits – the flavors coming off the palate very quickly. Plus, it's a Swiss absinthe, providing yet another small bit of evidence that the Swiss do something other than chocolate, watches, and banking.