Long before absinthe was used by French poets to evoke the muse, or to forget the fact that they couldn’t, it was an ancient cure-all, a “vivifying elixir” prescribed by Pythagoras and Hippocrates. The word itself is derived from the Greek “apsinthion,” which means “undrinkable,” so-called because the main ingredient, wormwood, has such a bitter taste.
Modern absinthe was thought to be developed in 1792 by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, who stumbled on Artemisia absinthium—grand wormwood—mixed it with herbs to kill the taste, and eventually created a popular local remedy. We now know that decades earlier the Henriod sisters, in the same Swiss canton, were already selling the potion. One day they sold the secret recipe to a visiting Frenchman, Major Dubied, whose son-in-law—named Pernod—distilled the first mass-marketed, widely distributed absinthe.
The drink was a favorite among fin de siècle artists and ne’er-do-wells (and contemporary urbanites who dress like them). However, in August of 1905 Jean Lanfray, a Swiss laborer, began his day with an absinthe, downed a cognac and a crème de menthe after work, then went home to murder his wife and two daughters. It was never proven that absinthe was to blame, but, because of a powerful winemaking lobby, the drink was outlawed across America and most of Europe. (To be fair, there were also a few incidents involving axe-wielding absinthe drinkers, and a steady stream of drunk bohemians littering the Champs-Élysées.)
Growing up during the absinthe prohibition era, whenever real absinthe was available, I drank it. In Tokyo during the 90s, I lived across the street from Red Bird, a rockabilly bar where sculpturally-coiffed, chain-smoking, sullen bartenders would serve Red Stripe and absinthe. Several years later, after I moved to Brooklyn, the drink was relegalized in 2007. Just down the block, Barbès, a French bar and performance space, began selling the beloved green fairy.
The story of absinthe is all well and good, you might say, but how do I prepare the drink? Good question. If you dress like a 19th-century painter—with bowler hat, monocle and waistcoat—and enjoy parking your penny-farthing “high-wheeler” bicycle in front of the liquor store, you don’t want to look silly by fumbling over the traditidional technique; known as the French Method or la louche.
Buy some genuine absinthe. Don’t let the snoots and poseurs fool you. Genuine means lots of alcohol—typically 120-150 proof—and Artemisia absinthium.
Pour yourself two fingers. A fancy reservoir glass might make you feel like a real boulevardier, or Rimbaud’s cousin, but it won’t make the drink taste any better. I use a promotional Jim Beam glass with a chipped rim, and it works just fine.
Get a perforated spoon. Lay it across the top of the glass.
Put a sugar cube on the spoon, directly over a perforation. Don’t get cute here. Honey, stevia or light agave nectar just won’t cut the moutarde. You need to go all in. Would Van Gogh have skimped and only cut off a little elbow skin? No, because it wouldn’t be the same. Use a real sugar cube.
Slowly—very slowly; eyeball-surgery slowly—pour iced water over the sugar. You don’t need to invest in an absinthe fountain—an ornate, old-fashioned, multi-spigotted water dispenser—but they do look pretty cool. An eyedropper or pipette will do the trick, but I use an old beaker.
As the sugar dissolves and water mixes with the absinthe, your drink will become milky, yellow, iridescent. The nuance and herbal essences will be unveiled. La louche is also a good way to make a volatile drink less potent—use as little or as much water as you like.
That’s it. You’re now ready to sip—absinthe isn’t for chugging.
Originally published for Five O' Clock, a Harry's Magazine. Words by Andrew Madigan. Illustration by Tim Lahan.