Absinthe has been legal in the U.S. since 2007, yet myths about the spirit's ability to cause hallucinations and even death have long haunted this complex and sophisticated drink. Absinthe’s portrayal in popular movies, like EuroTrip and Bram Stoker's Dracula, have made many curious, but these films have also engrained a false belief that the spirit causes hallucinations, says Brian Robinson, absinthe review editor for The Wormwood Society, a nonprofit that debunks myths about the spirit.
Today there is a renewed interest in absinthe, fueled in part by the rise of craft distilleries across the country, a few of which have started producing their own absinthe. Ted Breaux, a scientist and the founder of Jade Liqueurs, had a significant hand in the U.S. renaissance of absinthe, Robinson says. Breaux performed a molecular analysis of absinthe to show it doesn’t cause hallucinations, allowing the drink to be legally sold in the U.S., after it had been banned for 95 years.
Absinthe's mystique can be traced back to France’s Belle Époque. The drink, often called the "Green Fairy," was popular with the masses from the 1870s until 1915, when absinthe was banned throughout Europe and much of the world, giving it immediate cool capitol. Artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh, and writers Oscar Wilde and James Joyce were absinthe drinkers, adding to the drink's reputation as a muse and possible hallucinogenic.
The spirit is made by soaking six herbs — grande wormwood, anise, fennel, Roman wormwood, hyssop, and lemon balm — in base alcohol and then distilling it to remove thujone, a toxic chemical compound found in wormwood, which was falsely believed to be a hallucinogenic. Ingesting too much thujone will cause epileptic-like seizures but it won’t make you hallucinate, says Distiller Peter Ahlf, who distills absinthe at Mt. Defiance Cidery & Distillery in Middleburg, Virginia. Today, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulates absinthe and, as long as thujone isn't detected, the spirit can be legally sold in the U.S. About 120 brands of absinthe are certified for sale in the U.S., and at least 50 brands are made here, Robinson says.
While you might not trip, the stuff can get you really drunk. Absinthe is a a highly alcoholic drink, most bottles will read between 125 and 145 proof. One ounce of absinthe should be diluted with four to five ounces of water before it is drunk. "The goal is to get the alcohol level to 30 proof or less so that it is enjoyed like a glass of wine," Ahlf says. A traditional way to do that is to fill an absinthe fountain with ice water and allow it to slowly and steadily drip into a glass containing one ounce of absinthe with a slotted spoon holding a sugar cube perched on top of the glass. The dripping of the water creates a "louche," which releases the oils from the herbs and changes absinthe from its lime green color to an opalescent milky white color.
The same affect actually can be achieved by using a sports bottle to drip a slow and steady stream of ice water into the glass of absinthe and, instead of using a slotted spoon, use a fork to hold the sugar cube or add agave nectar, Robinson says. Although absinthe is often associated with the taste of licorice, its flavor is much softer than Sambuca or ouzo because anise is sweeter and not as bitter.
Robinson recommends that first-time absinthe drinkers try the spirit at a restaurant, and possibly in a cocktail. Popular cocktails include a Sazerac, made with absinthe and whiskey or cognac; a Monkey Gland, made with absinthe, gin, and grenadine; a Chrysanthemum, made with absinthe, dry vermouth and Bénédictine; or an Arsenic and Old Lace, made with absinthe, dry vermouth and gin. If you want to try absinthe at home, Robinson suggests picking up a half-bottle of Lucid or La Clandestine. Other brands to try are Leopold Brothers, Pacifique, and Vieux Carré — all made by U.S. distilleries.
"Not all absinthes are the same," says Ahlf, who uses nine herbs instead of the traditional six herbs in his absinthe recipe. "Try different ones and find the one you like best."