Absinthe

(n.) This boldly-flavored spirit is flavored with a distinct mix of herbs and botanicals, most often anise, fennel and wormwood. It is thought to have been created in France or Switzerland as a medicinal elixir, and was first commercially produced in 1797 by what would become the Pernod company.

Most often associated with a bright green color, absinthes can be made in a range of shades, often correlated to geographical preferences. Green absinthes are typically French, resulting from an extra maceration that draws chlorophyll from hyssop or other herbs, while the Swiss versions are typically white and have less alcohol because they skip that step. American absinthes, sometimes made with mint and verbena, tend toward a more natural brown-green color because distillers typically forgo stabilizers that preserve the hue.

With the distinctive flavor and vivid green color of the French version, absinthe became a signature component in certain classic cocktails such as the Sazerac and the Death in the Afternoon. It developed a larger-than-life reputation in the late 19th century for its supposed hallucinogenic properties, which would later be debunked as bad reactions to its super-high alcohol content. Perhaps by association to its perceived illicitness, absinthe (nicknamed “the green fairy”) was adopted by the Parisian Bohemian set in the 1800s, and became so popular in the mid 19th century that happy hour became known as “l’heure verte” (the green hour). Nevertheless, a long ban in France, the United States and other countries helped fuel its mystique and give rise to the absinthe-substitutes, including Pastis (France) and Herbsaint (New Orleans).

In 2007, absinthe became legal again in the United States, with new regulations, the most important of which is the regulation of amounts of thujone, the wormwood extract with the supposed hallucinogenic properties. Ritual vestiges from the 19th century still haunt the spirit, such as serving it with water dripping over a sugar cube into the glass, which was necessary perhaps with the roughly-made absinthes of the past, but not now as the quality has improved. If not serving it in a cocktail, though, do consider diluting it with water as most notch well into 60 percent ABV. Producers to seek out include Vieux Pontaillier, St. George Absinthe Verte, Kübler and Pernod.

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