Parisian Correspondent Christine Miksis has been soaking up the Belle Époque lifestyle of her adopted city, and (like Alice in Wonderland) imbibing a few curious drinks in the process. Today she gives us the skinny on the mysterious green potion absinthe, and assures us the only addictive properties we’ll find are the spirit’s complex herbal flavors. Dare we trust her?
You’ve probably heard the stories about hallucinations of green fairies and the rumors behind why Van Gogh really sliced off his ear. It wasn’t just plain artistic insanity—they used to blame it all on that green mystical elixir called absinthe, so much so that it was even outlawed until recent times.
I decided to get to the bottom of all the fuss, set the record straight about absinthe, and dream up an absinthe-inspired cocktail while in the process.
To really appreciate the flavor of this anise-flavored spirit, it helps to know that it’s made from distilling a macerated mix of wormwood, fennel, and green anise, although other ingredients can be added in different varieties as well. After the distillation, a final round of herbs can be steeped into the batch, which lends it that distinctive green color; however, clear, amber and even blue versions exist as well.
The mid-to-late 1800s were absinthe’s heyday, when the price of wine skyrocketed due to a few bad crops of grapes and when the French Army along with creative geniuses like Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec took a liking to its mystique. They immortalized the spirit in words and visuals, and contributed to the lavish drinking myths and stories that surround absinthe to this day.
As a result of the building hysteria that a compound called thujone, present in wormwood, caused wild hallucinations, seizures, and even death, absinthe was banned in the U.S., France, and other European countries in the early 1900s. Nowadays, science has proven thujone doesn’t make it past the distillation process and even if it did, the very small traces present are completely harmless. France lifted the ban in 1988 and the U.S. followed suite only three years ago this month in 2007.
In honor of the third anniversary of absinthe’s re-legality and the cometh of warm weather, I encourage you to recreate the cocktail I’ve dreamed up below. The flavor of the anise is rounded out nicely by the sweetness of strawberries and basil.
The drink only uses a small amount of the liquor, but to make use of the rest of your absinthe, you can also try drinking it the classic French way by method of louching. Pour an ounce of absinthe into a glass, set a sugar cube on a slotted spoon and slowly drip three to five ounces of water over top the sugar.
As for recommended brands, I used Un Émile Pernot in my cocktail, and Eric Asimov of The New York Times suggests Kubler, Grande or Pernod absinthes. You can purchase absinthe at DrinkupNY.com, a Brooklyn-based wine and spirits store that ships anywhere in the U.S.
Whichever way you choose to sip it, let me know if you meet any green fairies along the way.
Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Makes 1 drink
- 3 strawberries, hulled and quartered
- 3-4 medium leaves of basil, minced
- 1/2 oz. simple syrup
- 1/2 oz. lemon juice
- 1/2 oz. absinthe
- 1/2 oz. vodka
- 1 1/2 oz. water
- 1 sprig basil for garnish
Muddle strawberries, basil, simple syrup, and lemon juice in a shaker. Add absinthe, vodka, water, and a few ice cubes and shake well. Strain over 2-3 ice cubes into a rocks glass. Add a sprig of basil for garnish. And please, drink in moderation!