Absinthe is making a comeback, due in no small part to the power of the Internet.
For those of my readers who are somewhat less-worldly, absinthe is a drink containing a kick-in-the-pants alcohol level, along with an impressive amount and variety of herbal additives. One of those herbs being wormwood.
A significant percentage of the wormwood is a complex chemical substance called thujone. Thujone is poisonous. Matter-of-fact, it’s a neurotoxin. How-some-ever, ingested in amounts under the lethal dose, thujone has some … interesting … effects. Some people see things. Others understand the universe. Stuff like that.
Now, wormwood is a wee bit problematical. Too little and you don’t get the effect. Too much…well, it is a poison. A properly brewed absinthe will have the wormwood balanced against the alcohol, so that you will pass out (or wind up with alcohol poisoning) before you get a dangerous dose of thujone.
Absinthe is also usually green — not just any green, mind you, but luminescent emerald green. It also tastes strongly of bitter licorice. The colour and the bitterness have led to a ritual involved in the preparation of the drink using sugar and water, which leads to an interesting effect.
There are two methods for putting your sugar and water into your absinthe. The first is the classic French method, in which a sugar cube is placed in a slotted spoon balanced across the top of your glass. You then pour cold water on the cube, dissolving it and mixing it into the absinthe.
The second method probably doesn’t seem have any basis in historical fact, but since it involves fire, some of the younger, more macho types prefer it.
You place the sugar in the spoon across the top of your glass, and dribble a bit of absinthe onto the sugar. You then set the sugar on fire, and when it is caramelized to your liking, you pour the water over the flaming sugar, dousing the fire, dissolving the sugar, and watering the drink.
Unfortunately, absinthe generally runs about 60-80% alcohol by volume. One little ‘whoopsie’ with your fire, and you just became the evenings pyrotechnic entertainment. So, the French method tends to be the most popular.
Either way, the interesting effect mentioned above happens when the water hits the absinthe. Oils and esthers present in the drink then precipitate out, forming a colliodal suspension and turning the absinthe from a clear green resembling liquid peridot, to a cloudy, opaque green, strongly reminiscent of milky jade.
Kind of neat to see.
Absinthe has long been associated with madness — the ‘seeing devils’ kind of madness — so it has long been unlawful in various countries. However, since absinthe never really caught on in the United States the first time around, the good old U.S. of A. didn’t get around to passing a whole lot of laws against it, and it never got the stigma of madness here that it gained in Europe.
You should, of course, check the laws in your locality, rather than depend on me, if you decide that absinthe is the stuff for you.
Recently the Europeans passed laws regulating the amount of thujone present, and passed strict licensing requirements upon makers of absinthe, leading to a fairly decent absinthe revival in parts of Europe.
Given the Internet, and FedEx/UPS/DHL, absinthe has been cropping up here and there, including recently in rural Texas.
Caveat Emptor, folks, if you’re buying your absinthe off the Internet, be aware that some unscrupulous types will take a barrel of mouthwash, soak a panty-hose full of various candies and kitchen spices in it for a while, then bottle it and sell it to you as Genuine Absinthe at Genuine Absinthe prices — they get about 1000% profit, and you get a bottle of licorice-flavoured mouthwash.