Absinthe (also known as “la Fee Verte” or “the Green Fairy”) is the most famous distilled spirit in the pastis family. Similar to ouzo and ojen (also in the pastis family), absinthe’s main flavoring element is licorice or aniseed (even blanche’ or clear absinthe have a slight licorice taste) but other herbs are also involved, including, though not limited to: star anise, fennel, hyssop, and juniper. What separates absinthe from other pastis however is the main ingredient Artemisia absinthium from which the green fairy derives its name. Wormwood (as Artemisia a. is commonly known) contains the chemical thujone, which is believed to have psychoactive properties. This, along with its unusually high alcohol content (while your average vodka is about 40% ABV, your average absinthe is around 55% ABV) made it very unpopular with social conservatives. By 1915, absinthe was banned in the United States and most European countries.

The precise origin of absinthe is unclear. Medicinal use of wormwood dates back to ancient Egypt and wormwood was used for remedies and even in a flavored wine in ancient Greece. According to legend, Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, living in Couvet, Switzerland, gave it to patients as an all-purpose remedy. His recipe was passed on and when a certain Major Dubied acquired it, he opened the first absinthe distillery with his two sons (one who’s last name, Pernod, was on the bottles of one of the most popular brands during the spirit’s peak).

Very similar to the increase in heroin use post Vietnam, absinthe’s popularity grew after French troops, who were given the spirit as a malaria treatment, brought their taste for the green fairy home with them. By 1860, absinthe had become so popular in France, cafes and cabarets across the country had “l’heure verte” (or “the green hour,” very similar to “happy hour” that we have today) between five and seven p.m. Between increased production and the wine shortage in the country during the latter part of the 19th century, absinthe became the drink of choice in France.

Unfortunately, for the French and other absinthe drinkers around the world, temperance movements by prohibitionists stopped “l’heure verte” dead in its tracks. In addition to being associated with bohemian culture and notorious characters’ of the day, (such as Baudelaire, Wilde, and Aleister Crowley) absinthe consumption was blamed for everything from murder, mental illness and general social disorder. Though some European countries never banned the spirit, France (where it was the most popular) eventually succumbed to social pressure. In the United States, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act (though it must be said this law was actually created for opium) rendered absinthe (along with cocaine and opium as mentioned) illegal.

Unlike those drugs however, though much slower than any other spirit, the moratorium on absinthe was eventually lifted in most European countries. Later, the United States allowed several brands of the spirit for sale that have passed strict testing. This is likely in reaction to the increased interest in absinthe. Fans of van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Moulin Rouge’ (which is largely based on the Belle Epoque’ era where the green fairy was enjoyed by artists, bohemians, etc.) or just curious about the spirit’s psychoactive properties, have sought it out.

Though the taste is a bit unpleasant (even high quality absinthe I’ve had do not taste that great), the absinthe experience is one any spirit connoisseur should indulge in. I can confirm, as a frequent consumer, that it does not make you crazy, though I can also confirm if you spend enough time with the green fairy (i.e. drinking half a bottle straight with another person in a few hours) she may show you a few things you hadn’t planned on seeing. For those of you not as excessive as I can be, absinthe does supply a clearer’ sense of inebriation than other spirits I’ve enjoyed. It should be mentioned, especially considering its high alcohol content, you can be impaired without even fully realizing it. So, add the amount of water and sugar you consider necessary and enjoy carefully.


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