Hot Topic: Absinthe
Updated April 12, 2010
Absinthe is an alcohol made from a number of different herbs, most notably wormwood – Artemisia absinthium. It was very popular among the artist and writer crowd in the 19th and early 20th centuries and was known for its mild hallucinogenic properties. It was banned in most Western nations by the 1920s and remained virtually unavailable until a widespread revival in the 1990s following its re-legalization.
Absinthe has a very bitter taste on its own, a result of absinthine, a substance found in wormwood. For this reason, sugar is often added to absinthe as it is being prepared for consumption to take some of the bitterness away. Most connoisseurs consider the need for sugar to be a sign of a poorer quality absinthe, with the best absinthes needing only water to be added.
There are many different recipes for absinthe, particularly now that it is once again becoming internationally popular. Most recipes contain at least the “holy trinity” of herbs, however – wormwood, fennel, and anise. Other herbs added depending on the recipe include star anise, coriander, nutmeg, juniper, hyssop, and dittany. Many of these herbs are known for their psychoactive properties – for example, from the anethole in both fennel and anise.
When first distilled, a mixture of wormwood, fennel, and anise leaves a clear spirit of about 80% alcohol. This mixture is usually dyed green either with artificial dyes or by leaving hyssop and petite wormwood in the liquor to leech out the green chlorophyll. At this point, the absinthe is usually diluted somewhat, leaving a drink with anywhere between 50% and 75% alcohol content.
The ritual of drinking absinthe is perhaps one of the most ornate surrounding any alcohol, with special glasses and slotted spoons made exclusively for its consumption. The slotted absinthe spoon is placed resting over the glass, and if sugar is being added, it is placed in the spoon. Cold water is then poured or dripped slowly over the sugar and into the absinthe itself. When the water reacts with the drink, non-soluble parts emerge and cloud the absinthe, turning it a milky white.
One of the main reasons absinthe was banned in so many countries during the early part of the 20th century was a widespread belief that it was incredibly harmful and could cause serious mental problems resulting in violence. While undistilled wormwood does contain a substance called thujone that can cause serious problems, properly distilled absinthe appears to pose no greater risk than any other alcohol, and a number of contemporary studies seem to show that absinthe is as safe as other high-alcohol spirits.
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