Gorgeous, green, and sorely misunderstood, absinthe is a wonderfully unique tipple for the sophisticated traveler, especially if you’re exploring Paris, London, or New Orleans. The powerful spirit is also more mainstream than it’s been for the past century. With the mysterious liquor becoming much more popular, why not educate yourself on some its the finer points? Here are some facts to know before ordering it.
1. It’s medicinal
The key ingredient of absinthe is Artemisia absinthium, aka Wormwood, so named for its ability to kill and expel intestinal worms from the human body (gross). Absinthe the drink derived from traditional health tonics meant to encourage digestion and stimulate the appetite.
2. It’s Swiss
Though largely associated with 19th century Parisian bohemians, absinthe was first distilled in the village of Couvet, Switzerland back in 1792. The Swiss distiller La Clandestine still makes a clear variety based on local recipes.
3. It’s legal in the United States
Kinda sorta. The prohibition-era ban on absinthe was lifted in 2007, with the caveat that all imports be thujone-free. A chemical compound that may cause convulsions or seizures, thujone can appear in very small amounts in some varieties of absinthe. Not to worry, the well-known commercial brands offered in European and American bars are totally safe, as long as you drink responsibly (which you always should).
4. It’s not Hallucinogenic
No, you will not start seeing little green men dancing around when you drink absinthe. A lot of myth, lies, and bad behavior have been tied to absinthe instead of the real culprit of severe alcohol poisoning.
5. It’s highly alcoholic
True absinthe ranges from 45-90% alcohol, compared to whiskey (around 46%) or gin (up to 50%). The Parisian absinthe brand La Fée contains 68% alcohol, while Hapsburg Premium Reserve is 89.9% alcohol. Hence the tendency to dilute with 4 to 5 parts water (more on that later).
6. Beware the fake stuff
The late-90’s backpacker surge on Prague paralleled the absinthe revival, sparking a steady market of cheap and nasty knockoffs that are still pawned off to ignorant tourists. Many of the green liquors sold as “absinthe” are laced with THC, extra thujone and god knows what. Do your homework—know the most reputable brands and where they are served. Mixologists tend to disregard Czech and German absinthe, preferring more traditional French, Swiss and American varieties.
7. There’s a right way to drink it
More than most drinks, absinthe demands the whole experience. Venues like Green Bar at the Café Royal in London (a favorite drinking spot of Oscar Wilde) offer the full ritual, complete with crystal pontarlier glasses, slotted, silver spoons for holding the sugar cube and antique fountains that dribble a steady stream of ice water into the glass, causing the louche, or clouding of the absinthe into its ready-to-drink form. Lighting absinthe on fire is a recent fratboy party trick—and the telltale sign of inferior absinthe. Opt for the traditional approach instead, or try a classic cocktail like Hemingway’s favorite “Death in the Afternoon” (Absinthe + champagne).
Andrew Evans Andrew Evans is an author, travel writer, and TV host.