I’m not sure how many people are familiar with absinthe. It’s not a very popular or common drink these days, especially since it was illegal to produce for most of the 20th century (the ban was lifted in recent years). For those of you who have never heard of it, I will explain.
Absinthe is a spirit made from the herbs anise, fennel and wormwood. It is usually green in color, altho there are clear versions. It has a bitter, black liquorice flavor due to the anise and fennel. It has a very high alcohol content, usually between 60% and 80%, and is diluted with water before drinking. The water is poured over a sugar cube to help combat the bitterness. It was originally created as a health elixir in Switzerland, but became very popular with the art and literary crowd in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was nicknamed “The Green Fairy” and was considered an inspirational muse of sorts. Absinthe was thought to cause hallucinations and was blamed for many cases of insanity, death and violence.
Being the big fan that I am of 19th and early 20th century literature, I was fairly familiar with it. I’ve read about it in books, seen it in period films, found information about it on the internet. A few years ago we were on vacation in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, and I saw it for sale in a liquor store. I very much wanted to try it, but it was expensive and not knowing if I would even like it, I didn’t want to risk spending the money. But, last weekend, we were out there for a weekend getaway, and at one of the restaurants we went to they had absinthe listed on their drink menu. As you can imagine I was thrilled. Not only as a fan of the time period, but as a writer, this is something I’ve waited years, decades even, to get a chance to try.
So the owner of the restaurant, who is an absinthe connoisseur, came over to our table with the glass, the sugar cube, the absinthe spoon (a slotted spoon designed to sit on the rim of the glass) and a small pitcher of ice water. She puts the spoon on the glass and the sugar cube on the spoon and shows me how to dribble the water very slowly over the sugar to dissolve it without using too much water and diluting the absinthe too much. She warned me never to use regular sugar cubes from the grocery store. They’re too hard and take too much water to dissolve. She advised going to a gourmet food store and getting softer sugar cubes imported from Africa. You can also find special “absinthe” sugar cubes at a specialty bar supply or liquor store.
It’s a very aromatic drink. As the water is mixing with it, the scent of the herbs are released and are very pleasant. The flavor is quite unique in comparison to other forms of alcohol. It still does retain some of its bitterness even with the sugar, it’s not sweet at all, but you can definitely taste that black liquorice flavor. Like most spirits with a high alcohol content, you feel the burn as it goes down.
Needless to say, I went to the liquor store and bought the bottle before we went home.