What is Absinthe?
Absinthe refers to a strong drink containing wormwood. Even if it only contains a little bit, absinthe does actually contain wormwood, as does most vermouth and several other herbal concoctions.
Wormwood is a perennial shrub of the species artemesia absinthium native to various parts of Europe. It is called absinthion in old Greek, piołun in Polish and absinthe in French. Wormwood has a very bitter flavour as this extract from the Bible suggests:
Revelation 8:10, 11 “… And a great burning star, like a torch, fell out of heaven. And it fell onto the third part of the rivers, and onto the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood. And the third part of the waters became changed into wormwood. And many men died from the waters, because they were made bitter.”
Why was it banned?
The temperance movement were very strong around the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They stifled a burgeoning New Zealand wine industry after WWI, they introduced 6 o’clock closing times in pubs across Australia and New Zealand in 1916, a condition that lasted, in many states, until the late sixties. They managed, in January 1920, to totally ban the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the USA.
During the late nineteenth century, temperance societies in France, and Switzerland had been campaigning hard to see the banning of all spirits, with Absinthe being considered the most morally corrupting of them all. In fact many studies were conducted during this time that refered to both alcoholism and absinthism. It was seen as “degenerating the French race” in accordance with the also popular theory of eugenics (eugenics was a very popular theory with supporters like Eisenhower and Churchill and most of the scientific community of the day. It was a belief in the selective breeding of humans to prevent gene stock from degrading. It also advocated the extermination of those of poor genetic stock, the mentally ill, etc. The theory fell from grace after the greatest eugenics experiment in history, the Nazi death camps, were exposed.)
During lunch on August 28, 1905, a Swiss labourer named Jean Lanfray consumed seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, one coffee laced with brandy, two crème de menthes, and two glasses of absinthe after eating a sandwich. He returned home drunk, got into an argument with his pregnant wife, and shot her in the head with a rifle, he then shot his two and four year old daughters and himself. He was the only one that survived. At his trial, his defence argued that he was in the grip of absinthe madness at the time of the killings…fortunately the judge didn’t agree and he was sentenced to death, commuted to life in prison. He hung himself three days later.
The temperance movement did not agree with the judge and widespread moral panic ensued leading to the ban of absinthe in most of Western Europe within a few years of the crime.
What are the types of absinthe?
Traditional French Absinthe or Western Absinthe (often called “true absinthe” because in the old days the eastern countries had their own names for their drinks) is a strong anise flavoured drink.
This type of absinthe is traditionally drunk diluted or “louched” at a ratio of between 3-5:1. This has the effect of making the drink opaque. Traditionally, sugar was placed on a slotted spoon over the glass and the water poured over. The spoon was then used to stir the sugar into the drink. In practice, most modern absinthes come adequately sweetened already so adding sugar in this way falls somewhere between ritual and marketing. Because of its method of production, where the drink is further distilled after wormwood is added, western or true absinthe typically has relatively low levels of thujone.
Bohemian Absinthe or Eastern Absinthe, known in Polish as piołunówka, contains little or no anise and is quite different in its structure and flavour. It is made by steeping wormwood in rectified spirit (around 96.5% ABV). Straining and generally adding sugar and some other flavourings. The result is traditionally very bitter and rather strong. Modern versions are often less bitter and some contain colourings. The bitter ones tend to contain higher levels of thujone than their western counterparts as they are not distilled after the wormwood is added.
The modern way of drinking this style of absinthe is to dip a cube of sugar into the alcohol and set it on fire, you can generally shake it about and set things on fire having a grand old time before you put it out and stir the sugar in. There is nothing old or traditional about this technique, it was popularized in the late 1990s when a British marketing guy saw a Czech marketing guy doing it through a window. It is fun to do, though, and it does sell a lot of drinks. In my humble experience however, it doesn’t do anything good to the flavour of a drink. As these things do tend to be terribly strong, I don’t mind a spot of water, just to bring it down to vodka strength.
What happens at a Spirited Tales Absinthe Tasting?
We will taste several versions of both Eastern and Western styles, cover the history more thoroughly and try to work out just exactly what it does to you. We do encourage you to learn more about this very interesting, but almost certainly highly volatile drink. We probably draw the line when you begin to imagine that you are a bohemian like Rimbaud, stab your friends and sodomise them in the pursuit of an artistic dream.