Guide: How to buy Absinthe

Legend has it that a taste of this sinful concoction will leave one in dreamy hallucinations or a terrifying end, but the myth of Absinthe is arguably, just a myth...

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Illicitly intoxicating, the mythical Absinthe provides for an enchanting experience. Indeed, the true origin of the scintillating ‘Green Fairy’ is shrouded in great mystery -- one that far surpasses its astonishingly high alcoholic content. Its moniker is no happy accident either; the anise-flavored spirit is distinguished easily by its glistening green hue, which is also its natural derivative.

Often depicted as a dangerous psychoactive drug and a highly addictive hallucinogen, one might say this high-alcohol distilled spirit, which usually contains between 53 – 74% abv, is simply misunderstood. Despite its reputation, however, studies show that the psychoactive influence of Absinthe is merely an exaggeration.

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Know Your Absinthe

Allegedly born of Switzerland in the late 18th century, the precise beginnings of Absinthe remain unknown. At the turn of the 19th century, the Green Fairy grew immensely popular amongst Parisian artists and writers, where notable Absinthe lovers include Charles Baudelaire, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust.

The spirit is derived from green anise, sweet fennel, herbs and the flowers and leaves of grand wormwood, amongst other botanicals. Faint traces of the toxic chemical thujone found in wormwood, one of the derivatives of the anise-flavored spirit, have been blamed for causing ill, despite a lack of proper evidence that confirms that vilification. Despite so, the spirit was completely banned in the U.S. and across a majority of European countries. It was only recently that the bans for Absinthe have loosened, and the spirit saw a revival of sorts.

There are, of course, no lack of ways to appreciating a good glass Absinthe, if only one knows how...

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Ways to drink Absinthe

- The traditional way of drinking Absinthe was to dilute it with water and add a touch of sugar. One would place a sugar cube on a perforated spoon, rest it over a glass of the neat spirit, and pour chilled water slowly over the sugar until it dissolves.

- A popular variation of the traditional way is soaking the sugar cube in absinthe, before lighting it on fire. The idea is to carmelize the sugar, but be careful not to burn the sugar or the spirit’s flavor will be ruined. Given the high alcohol content of absinthe, one should also note that it is very flammable.

- A final, though non-customary way to appreciate Absinthe is to simply have it straight up. Given its alcohol content, it is an uncommon way, but having neat Absinthe allows one to unravel some nuances of the spirit.

- Despite its inherent bitterness, however, sugar is not actually necessary and rather depends on one’s taste.

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The Louche Effect

- The pour of the spirit is what makes it charming – indeed, it is the mystical clouding effect from adding water to Absinthe that gave rise to its nickname ‘Green Fairy’.

- Upon the addition of water, a soft glow should emanate in a “louche effect”, describing an opalescent quality that is neither milky nor too thick.

- The louche is often an important indicator of the authenticity of the Absinthe, and top-of-its-range, authentic Absinthe is expected to louche.

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Buying Absinthe

- Among the many variations and styles of Absinthe, the most enduring ones remain its original Swiss/French version and the Czech/Bohemian interpretation, spelled as ‘Absinth’ without the e.

- Go vintage – original bottles like Pernod Fils are widely considered among the finest bottles of Absinthe you can find, if you are lucky.

- Look out for a good color, a natural bright green and not an artificial looking neon green

- Make sure the spirit was distilled with real herbs and not by an inferior ‘oil mix’ involving flavor essences.

- Never store Absinthe in the freezer or out in the cold, and remember to keep out of direct sunlight. The recommended temperature for storage is around a cool 13 – 18 degrees Celcius.

- Some good bottles of Absinthe to consider are Pernod Absinthe, La Clandestine Absinthe Blanche, Tenneyson Absinthe Royale and St. George Absinthe Verte.

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Further Reading

- The Absinthe Encyclopedia by David Nathan Maister

- A Taste for Absinthe by R. Winston Guthrie with James F. Thompson

- Absinthe: History in a bottle by Barnaby Conrad III

- Hideous Absinthe, a history of the devil in a bottle by Jad Adams

- L'Absinthe, Art et Histoire by Marie-Claude Delahaye

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