“After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world. " Oscar Wilde
Absinthe is a strong liqueur distilled with herbs like anise, licorice, hyssop, veronica, fennel, lemon balm, angelica and wormwood. The resulting liquor has an extremely high alcohol content. It’s traditionally served with ice water and a cube of sugar to help take the bitter edge from the Absinthe and turn the liquid milky greenish-white.
In France Absinthe is known as “La Fée Verte“, or The Green Fairy, which is a reference to its often dazzling green colour which varies depending on the brand. The color comes from the chlorophyll content of the herbs used in the distillation process.
Wormwood, thought to be the “active" ingredient, had been used medicinally since the Middle Ages. Although considered a lethal poison if taken in high doses, by the end of the 18th century people were using small amounts to get high despite its extreme bitter taste. A Frenchman, Dr Ordinaire, mixed the Wormwood with other herbs and alcohol into a liqueur with a licorice flavour and Absinthe was born.
Absinthe quickly found popularity with the Bohemian and Artisian set in Paris and New Orleans, but by the turn of the century many heavy drinkers had developed “Absinthism" – a form of alcoholism with a tendancy towards madness and suicide. Absinthe became seen as a toxic drug and so was outlawed in the Western World. It is now considered the ban had more to do with the market being flooded with cheap, poor quality and toxic Absinthe with high levels of Wormwood. Another well known alcohol, Vermouth, the prime ingredient in Martinis, gets its name from Wormwood, but the concentrations we’re talking about here are tiny enough to ensure no hallucinatory tomfoolery.
When properly distilled Absinthe has some secondary effects over and above the alcoholic effect, which at more than 60% proof can be significant itself. The combination of herbs, rather than the Wormwood alone, is what gives one a heightened clarity of mind, a warming effect and buzzing feeling. Whilst Absinthe is a highly potent liqueur, not all Absintheurs (lovers of the spirit of the green fairy) cut off their ears like Vincent Van Gogh.
The liqueur has been the rig du jour of many celebrated artists and writers like Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Manet and Earnest Hemmingway who wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls under the green fairy’s influence.
Absinthe is still available in many parts of Europe, including France, Spain, and Portugal and has drifted back into popularity due to its reference in films like Moulin Rouge and Van Helsing.
Peter Shuttlewood is the author of webzine freshread which contains articles on Popular Culture with an Australian slant. Freshread - the everyday in a fresh way.