what is absinthe

What is Absinthe and How to Drink it like a Bohémien

Known since ancient times but apparently invented, in its modern recipe at the end of the XVIII century by a French doctor, Pierre Ordendire, this mixture of Swiss officinal herbs and the plant of the wormwood finds fame and fortune in France towards the end of the nineteenth century. That’s what absinthe really is.

At the time, Paris, the ville lumiere, was the center of the world and opened to the first nocturnal cafés, populated by writers, musicians, painters in search of inspiration.

Absinthe, consumed by many famous artists with rituals and oddities, became an integral part of the bohemian life of the time. It is not difficult to find paintings by Picasso or Tolouse-Lautrec whose protagonists are drinkers of this powerful distillate.

The ban

Incredibly, the enormous success of this drink was consumed in a short time, by little more than a decade: in 1915 it was banned in France because it was considered a powerful hallucinogen, and soon disappeared from the premises of all Europe.

One thing is sure, absinthe alcohol content is victim of several myths. So a question sounds more than legit: what is absinthe nowadays?

Today absinthe, less alcoholic and more aromatic than it used to be, is experiencing a new happy season, thanks also to the many brands it produces and to a renewed image that is certainly indebted to the sinister fame of the past.

How to recognize good quality absinthe

First of all in the case of a product like absinthe (in which in the market it is strongly contaminated by the presence of fakes), it is necessary to make sure to choose an absinthe that is true absinthe and not some bad surrogate.
Whether you are in a store or on the internet, there are a few points to pay attention to to avoid rip-offs:

  • Presence of dyes. The authentic absinthe DOES NOT CONTAIN DYES.
  • Sugar. The authentic absinthe NEVER CONTAINS SUGAR.
  • Gradation. Beware of products that are too high or too low. The authentic assents have an alcohol content of between 45 and 75 degrees.
  • Thujone. Beware of products that contain thujone content, which refer to “high tujone content”, “maximum tujone content” or generally any reference to absinthe as a beverage with particular psychotropic properties.
  • Price. A high price does not guarantee that a wormwood is of quality, but a price too low guarantees that it is not of quality.

Types of absinthe

  • Classic absinthes are usually characterized by a rather intense anise profile, which translates into a dense louche, and a profile that is creamy and velvety in the mouth. Classic absinthe also has an extraordinary aromatic complexity by virtue of ingredients of exceptional quality, but the number of herbs present in the recipe is usually quite low. Classic absinthes are more versatile in all circumstances.
  • Atypical absinthes are characterized by the use of herbs not typically found in classic recipes, and often have a less pronounced anise profile (sometimes in order to better appreciate delicate notes that would otherwise be dominated by an intense anise), more translucent louche, light and feminine in the mouth, or spicy and exotic.

Verte, Blanche and La Bleue

  • The verte absinthe types, unlike the blanche and the la bleue, are characterized by a further maceration after distillation, which gives the color and additional aromatic notes. The absinthe verte has more or less intense herbaceous notes (coming from the maceration/coloring), in some cases very masculine and overbearing, in others more delicate. Wanting to generalize verte absinthes are more complete and complex.
  • Blanche, on the other hand, are often delicate, floral, simple and fresh.
  • The La Bleue are a world apart from the blanche: at the level of aromatic profile the La Bleue are usually distinguished by their rustic and artisan character, and by a particular aromatic note reminiscent of hay; their louche is usually fast and intense (sometimes thanks to the use of small amounts of star anise).

Absinthe alcohol content

In the past the alcoholic gradation allowed to distinguish the higher quality assent from the fine, semi-fine and ordinary ones. Today this distinction no longer exists (due to the lack of norms anyone can bottle the most disgusting concoction and call it superior absinthe) and there are false absinthes with very high gradations, and authentic and quality products with very low alcohol content (below 60%).

First of all it is good to know that a higher gradation (65-68-72) helps an absinthe to keep the color longer, and consequently it is easier to find high-grade absinthe among the verte, compared to that between the blanche and the bleue .

Keep in mind that the gradation never exceeds 80% (and in this case we speak of brut d’alambic, because the distillate is bottled as it comes out of the still without being diluted).
Absinthes with higher gradation are usually more aggressive on the palate, while those with low alcohol content are more delicate; this however does not depend directly on the gradation, but on the fact that the absinthe drinker tends to always operate the same dilution to which he is accustomed, and consequently if he is accustomed to drinking an absinthe at 65% he probably will not add enough water in a wormwood to 72%, and vice versa, if it is used to a wormwood at 72% it will probably water a wormwood at 45%.

How to drink absinthe

In this post I want to show you the traditional way of preparing absinthe, known as absinthe ritual. To prepare a glass of absinthe as a bohémien (French for Bohemian) would do, you need to:

  1. Pour the desired absinthe dose (generally about 3 cl) into a glass.
  2. Place a perforated spoon with a sugar lump on the glass and slowly pour ice water over it, so that the sugar dissolves and falls into the absinthe.
  3. It is important that the water is added very slowly, and it must be as cold as possible; only in this way we can appreciate the progressive unfolding of the various aromas which will appear first on the nose, and then on the palate.
  4. The amount of water to be added is subjective (generally 3 to 5 parts per part of absinthe are recommended), even if you must at least allow the liqueur to complete the louche (the numbness that makes it milky as you pour water), because otherwise it is possible that not all the aromas will be appreciable in the tasting. Once the absinthe has completed the louche you can add water according to your personal taste.

Tips for the perfect absinthe drink

The quantity of sugar to be used is totally subjective and provides the first element of personalization: some drink absinthe with a whole lump, others with half, others with a quarter or even without sugar at all.

Generally, if you are new to drinking absinthe, I recommend you to start with a 1:3 ratio and then evaluate more or less water. The beauty of dilution is that you can also taste absinthe as you pour water to see how the flavour changes as the dilution varies. Once the dilution is complete, you can mix the absinthe with the spoon to better melt the sugar on the bottom, or simply put the spoon aside and start to smell the absinthe and drink it in small sips.

As you see, when it comes to absinthe, preparation can really make a difference. The only way to know how you like it better, is to try different ways!

Ideally you should pour water drop by drop. Because it can be difficult, you could opt for an absinthe fountain, whose nozzles can be adjusted to release water drop by drop.

Finally, the choice of water is not excessively important, as long as it is good mineral water, not too heavy, but at the same time not too flat.

Last but not least, it is important to drink your absinthe calmly but at the same time do not wait too long, because absinthe is good cold.