The Absinthe Ritual
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Absinthe is a liqueur distilled from wormwood, an extremely bitter tasting plant, and flavored with a variety of herbs. Traditionally it was proofed very strong, at 136 proof (or around 68% alcohol), and is legendary in history for inspiring such famous artists as Van Gogh or writers like Hemingway. (It is unproven that Van Gogh cut his ear off because of Absinthe, but he was a renowned consumer of the potent liquid, and a manic depressive, which is never a good combination.)
The Traditional French Absinthe Ritual
Absinthe, because of it's bitterness, is traditionally served with a sugar cube. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, it was fashionable to serve the sugar cube on a flat, slotted spoon that held the sugar in place over the glass of absinthe. Water was slowly dripped on the cube, and the resulting syrup dripped through the holes in the spoon and mixed with the absinthe. As the composition of the absinthe liqueur changed, the alcohol percentage dropped, forcing the anise and other essential herbal oils to precipitate out. This caused the absinthe to take on a milky appearance, if it was made properly. (Poorly made absinthe may not show this effect. Additionally, poor absinthe often has color added to it to make it appear an unnatural emerald green.)
The Modern, or "Bohemian" Absinthe Ritual
A new method of sweetening Absinthe has recently become popular. Once the absinthe is poured (now as a shot), a small amount of sugar in a spoon is dipped into the glass, soaked, and withdrawn. The sugar is then set on fire until it melts and caramelizes, and then is stirred into the drink. Cold water is then added to the drink to put out the alcohol fire.
Modern Drinks which are related to absinthe
Pernod is basically absinthe without the wormwood. It is named after Henri-Louis Pernod, an individual who ran an absinthe factory in France in the early 1800s. As a substitute for wormwood, the modern drink Pernod uses increased amounts of aniseed. Ricard is the name of another modern wormwood-less absinthe.
Also, vermouth, chartreuse, and benedictine all contain small amounts of thujone. In fact, vermouth, which is made using the flower heads from wormwood, takes its name from the german "wermuth" ("wormwood").
Absinthe (made with wormwood) is still available in Spain and reportedly in Denmark and Portugal as well.
Wormwood is popular as a flavoring for vodka in Sweden.
How is Absinthe Made?
Simon and Schulter's Guide to Herbs and Spices tells us that Henri-Louis Pernod used aniseed, fennel, hyssop, and lemonbalm along with lesser amounts of angelica, star anise, dittany, juniper, nutmeg, and veronica. These ingredients were mascerated together with wormwood plants. After leaving the mixture to sit, water was added and the mixture was distilled. Dried herbs, including more wormwood, were added to the distillate, which was then diluted with alcohol to give a concentration of about 75% alcohol by volume (8). Different absinthe manufacturers used slightly different ingredients, sometimes using calamus, which has been purported to have psychoactive effects.
In addition to these ingredients, manufacturers sometimes added other ingredients to produce the drink's emerald green color. Normally, this color was due to the presence of chlorophyll from the plants. However, in the event that the product was not properly colored, absinthe makers were known to add things like copper sulfate, indigo, turmeric, and aniline green. Antimony chloride was also used to help the drink become cloudy when added to water. Presumably modern makers of Pernod and absinthe use safer ingredients for their concoctions!