Absinthe, an anise-flavoured cousin of gin, was once thought hallucinogenic. Sorry, it isn’t, but it is available again, a classic spirit enjoying a deserved renaissance.
It’s the newest old spirit.
Absinthe, the opalescent, anise-flavoured elixir, intemperate muse of 19th century writers like Oscar Wilde and Paul Verlaine, was banned nearly 100 years ago over its alleged hallucinogenic properties.
Legal once again, and available at the LCBO, the “green fairy” of the Belle Époque still struggles to define itself.
It was never dangerous, says Ted Breaux, a New Orleans-based chemist and absinthe historian now invested in making the drink at an old distillery in France.
In 2000, he examined sealed, vintage bottles to determine the levels of thujone, the so-called psycho-active compound found in wormwood. His analysis debunked many long-standing myths.
“None of the bottles contained thujone in any significant concentration. These vintage bottles would pass modern regulations.” Thujone is also found in sage and mint.
A century ago, many bars in Europe offered this artisanal herbal drink. It was a category onto itself, a cousin to gin because of its similar re-distillation process.
Kate Simon, editor-in-chief of Imbibe magazine and author of Absinthe Cocktails: 50 Ways to Mix the Green Fairy, calls absinthe “a complex, nuanced spirit, on par with the top-shelf cognacs and fine whiskeys.”
Before the ban, which occurred in various countries between 1909 and 1914, it was popular in North American port cities like New Orleans, home of the Sazerac cocktail, which calls for a wash of absinthe, 2 ounces of rye, sugar and several dashes of Peychaud’s bitters.
“The French drank absinthe with ice water and an optional piece of sugar. In America, we were all about fancy cocktails,” says Breaux. A dash of absinthe was a common ingredient, called for in 104 recipes in the 1930 edition of the Savoy Cocktail Book, from the Savoy Hotel in London, England, where it remained legal.
Why did this popular drink vanish? The supposed harmful effects of thujone sparked the ban. Meanwhile the European wine industry, recovering from a 19th century phylloxera outbreak which destroyed many vineyards in France, seized on the negative press the high-proof spirit sometimes received and aligned itself with the temperance movement. Breaux says “those leagues wanted to ban all alcoholic beverages, but the wine lobby successfully painted absinthe as the true villain.”
By 1915, anti-absinthe sentiment was rampant, even in Toronto. In the Daily Star, O’Keefe Breweries advertisements announced that unlike “poisonous” absinthe, its beer was a “pure beverage.”
Barriers began to be removed in the late 20th century, and Eastern European companies released absinthe-like spirits — now trading on its past reputation as a hallucinogen.
But Breaux felt the public was being misinformed. What was being sold, he says, “had no connection to the genuine spirit of the 19th century.” Breaux and his colleagues produce absinthe in a 19th century French distillery whose still room, according to the company’s website, has an iron interior designed by Gustav Eiffel. (Eiffel must have had absinthe — a sorbet made from it was served at a dinner honouring him when the Eiffel Tower opened in 1889, says the Virtual Absinthe Museum). Breaux says the Combier distillery, located in the Loire Valley south of Paris, uses natural ingredients and no colour additives. He and others would like governments to adopt an official legal definition for absinthe similar to Canada’s for whisky, to set quality standards. The European Commission recently proposed amending a law on spirit drinks to create standards for absinthe.
“We’re making some headway in the EU, but it’ll be a multi-structured thing, because when you’re battling some big liquor conglomerates who put up a lot of opposition, it’s a bit of a challenge,” says Breaux.
“Negotiations on spirits regulations tend to take a long time,” adds Simon in an email. “The battles are always hard-fought. And perhaps even more so with absinthe because there’s still so much myth and mystique surrounding it, even as more and more people become educated about it.”
Simon’s first encounter with the spirit involved a bottle of “fake, mouthwash-green” absinthe. “It was the early days of the Web, and I actually paid $100 for it on a shady foreign website. What a disappointment! It was essentially coloured vodka.”
In 2007, she finally tried the real deal. “One sip and I was hooked.”