Happy Halloween everyone! Each year, as spooky season comes along, I think of all the spooky treats and drinks that I enjoy. Today I wanted to share with you a little about one that happens to be a favorite of my husband’s, Absinthe.
What is Absinthe?
Basically, Absinthe is a botanical spirit that is predominately anise flavored. In short, it tastes like black licorice (eew), but don’t let that stop you from trying it. Each brand of Absinthe has it’s own botanical blend and can vary, quite widely, in taste depending on what herbs are used in it’s creation.
There are three herbs that make up the “Holy Trinity” of Absinthe; Green Anise (Pimpinella anisum), Florence Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and Grand Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Most people would not consider it a true Absinthe if it is not made with these three herbs as a base. Other herbs that Absinthe may be made with include; Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Petite Wormwood (Artemisia pontica), Coriander (Coriandrum sativum), Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), Angelica (Angelica spp.), Star Anise (Illicium verum), and Veronica (Veronica spp.). Because of the complexity of flavors in all of these herbs, a good Absinthe is a mysterious flavor. Quite like a good wine. As you taste it, the flavor will evolve. You’ll notice a hit of something hidden behind a wall of flavor, and each stage of your “tasting” may reveal more than you might expect.
Traditionally, the herbs used in Absinthe make the spirit turn a bright green color. However, there are un-colored, or white, Absinthes that forgo the added green herbs, as well as red or yellow Absinthes that use herbs such as Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) or Saffron (Crocus sativus).
Absinthe is a strong spirit, reaching up to 75% ABV, or 150 proof on the strong end of things. And some Absinthes tend to include more than a few bitter elements from the herbs. So the tradition of adding cold water and/or sugar to the spirit came about as a way to address both of these issues. These additions dilute the strong Absinthe and unlock some of the depths and flavor characteristics while adding a bit of sweetness via sugar. Not to mention the really neat effect of Louching. When you add water to an anisette (anise flavored liquor or spirit) it will turn cloudy. Absinthe does this and it’s a beautiful and intriguing reaction.
What is the deal with the Green Fairy?
Medical potions and decoctions made from wormwood date back to at least Roman times, the invention of Absinthe as we now know it is traditionally credited to one Pierre Ordinaire, a Hugenot doctor who fled France for Switzerland in the mid 1700’s and set up shop in the remote Val de Travers near Neuchâtel. He sold a green medicinal potion as a remedy for a number of ailments ranging from digestive issues, to kidney stones, to worms, and even gout. His potion was soon nicknamed ‘La Fée Verte” or “The Green Fairy” both for its beautiful color and for it’s supposed magical qualities.
The reign of Napoleon III (from 1852 to his downfall with the Prussian invasion in 1870) was the height of popularity for Absinthe. It was primarily a drink of the military and the fashionable bourgeoisie due to it’s relatively high expense. By the early 1870s, it had become common practice to begin a meal with an apéritif, and of 1500 available liquors, absinthe accounted for 90% of the apéritifs drunk because of the belief that it would “sharpen the appetite.” This lead to the hour of 5 p.m. being deemed L’Heure Verte, or the Green Hour (where our modern Happy Hour comes from) in almost every café. The cafés were an extremely popular place to socialize, since most of Paris’ citizens were living in cramped apartments, often in poverty.
During the years of 1880 – 1910, Absinthe’s price dropped down low enough that made it accessible to every tier of society. Artists and performers would crowd into the cafés and partake of a little bit of “The Green Fairy” to help gain inspiration. This is where we get the common myth of Absinthe causing hallucinations and even bouts of insanity, as artistic types are not known for abstaining from strong drinks, and Absinthe is one of the strongest (typically being bottled from 45-75% ABV or 90-150 proof). I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen people acting crazy when they’ve had a bit too much vodka or tequila, of course drinking Absinthe to excess would cause insanity.
Another reason for the myth about hallucinations is a compound that is contained in Wormwood. It contains a chemical compound called thujone, which was thought to be a hallucinogen and rumored to cause transformations in the mind. True, there is a level of toxicity inherent to thujone at extremely high doses. But not in the dose one would encounter by consuming Absinthe. In the U.S., thujone levels in absinthe are capped at 10 milligrams per liter, while absinthe in Europe may have 35 milligrams per liter. Modern science has estimated that a person drinking absinthe would die from alcohol poisoning long before he or she were affected by the thujone.
What are the Medicinal Properties?
Absinthe gets it’s medicinal properties from the herbs that go into it’s creation. Most of these herbs contain compounds that help with digestion and reduce inflammation. Since each Absinthe recipe varies on which herbs it uses, I’ll just go over the three main herbs and their benefits here.
Grand Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) – Wormwood has a reputation as an extremely bitter herb, and indeed it is. But the same compounds that make it bitter also serve to help our digestion. Improving bile secretion and flow to ensure that our food is properly digested and nutrients are properly absorbed. It also helps to get rid of any parasites that may have moved in, which is where it’s common name comes from. It’s also a great anti-inflammatory herb, helping to provide relief from chronic inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and gout.
Florence Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) – Fennel is used throughout the world as a culinary herb. The plant is often cooked as a vegetable and the seeds are used to flavor a wide range of dishes. However, most people don’t know that it’s also a great carminative. Helping to eliminate flatulence and expel gas. It’s also a great source of potassium, which can help regulate blood pressure and blood sugar. Fennel seeds are also great to help treat asthma symptoms, as well as to relieve sinus pressure and cough associated with upper respiratory conditions.
Green Anise (Pimpinella anisum) – Anise is another herb used, throughout the world, as a culinary herb. It imparts a sweet, licorice-like, flavor to dishes made world wide. But it is also a medicinal powerhouse, particularly for digestion as it’s a great carminative, helping to relieve flatulence and improve digestion in general. It’s super rich in Iron, and other vital nutrients needed for the production of blood cells. This makes it a great herb to help treat anemia. It also helps reduce the symptoms of depression. It also is a great anti-inflammatory, helping to reduce pain caused by chronic inflammatory conditions. And it also helps to regulate blood sugar.
I hope I have helped to dispel rumors and peak your interest in this traditionally, medicinal Spirit. Now go out there and get spooky with some Absinthe!
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Absinthe: Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/absinthe-history/
Absinthe – 10 Facts and Myths About the Green Fairy: Pickled Plumb: https://pickledplum.com/absinthe/
Absinthe a Deadly Potion: Medicine Net: https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=7277
Absinthe and Medicine: The Absinthe Blog: https://www.alandia.de/absinthe-blog/absinthe-and-medicine/
Does Absinthe Really Cause Hallucinations?: How Stuff Works: https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/absinthe.htm
Effects of Absinthe: Absinthe 101: https://www.absinthe101.com/effects.html
The Devil in a Little Green Bottle – A History of Absinthe: Science History Institute: https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/the-devil-in-a-little-green-bottle-a-history-of-absinthe
The Sauvage 1804 Distillation: Absinthes: https://www.absinthes.com/en/themag/news-absinthes/the-sauvage-1804-distillation-emile-pernot-345
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