What is Absinthe?
Absinthe is an anise-flavored distilled spirit derived from herbs, including the flowers and leaves of the herb Artemisia absinthium, commonly referred to as "grande wormwood". It has a high alcohol content, usually between 55 to72 percent, or 110 to 144 proof. (Whiskey is usually around 40 percent alcohol, or 80 proof.) Absinthe is intended to be diluted with water, usually in a proportion of three to five parts water to one part absinthe. It's also used in small proportions, like bitters, as an ingredient in cocktails. Traditionally absinthe has a natural green color, but it can also be colorless.
Some people describe the flavor as bitter, but Ted Breaux, master distiller of Lucid absinthe, claims that "bitter" is not really a good description. He says it's more of an aromatic flavor, with strong notes of fennel and anise.
Here's the traditional method of serving absinthe:
1. Pour a shot of absinthe into a special absinthe glass. (See photo above.)
2. Place a sugar cube on top of a specially designed slotted spoon.
3. Place the spoon on the glass.
4. Pour or drip ice-cold water over the sugar cube so that the water is slowly and evenly displaced into the absinthe until the drink is diluted to a ratio between 3:1 and 5:1.
During this process, the non-water soluble components in the absinthe (mainly those from anise, fennel, and star anise) come out of solution and cloud the drink. The resulting milky opalescence is called the louche, a French term for "opaque". Adding the water is important because it causes the herbs to "blossom" and brings out many of the flavors originally over-powered by the anise. According to Ted Breaux, the sugar is not absolutely necessary, but it will balance some of the strong herb flavor.
Click here to watch a video of making an absinthe cocktail.
Much about what is unique and fun about absinthe is that you get to use special absinthe glasses and absinthe spoons. These specialized spoons are used to hold the sugar cube over which ice-cold water is poured to dilute the absinthe. The slot on the handle of the spoon allows it to rest securely on the rim of the glass.
Another way to appreciate absinthe is in a cocktail. It's one of the key ingredients in a Sazerac, one of the oldest known cocktails in the United States, originating in New Orleans in the 1800s. Click here to find recipes for other popular absinthe cocktails.
• Start with a quality brand rather than one with a lot of additives so that you can experience the true taste of the spirit.
• Look for a brand that does not have "liqueur" on the label because that means it's been bottled with sugar. True absinthe is not bottled with sugar.
• Read the ingredient list on the bottle to make sure that only the herbs used in the distilling mix are listed and not artificial colors or additives. The principal herbs are grande wormwood, anise, and fennel, but other herbs may be used as well, such as petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica or Roman wormwood), hyssop melissa, star anise, angelica, sweet flag, dittany, coriander, veronica, juniper, and nutmeg.
Absinthe can be classified as "distilled or mixed" and distilled absinthes are generally better in quality. However, just because it's distilled doesn't mean that no color additives were used, so you still need to look carefully at the list of ingredients printed on the bottle.