EASTON, Md., March 8, 2012 —Degas, Manet, Wilde, and Hemingway. Each of them enjoyed quaffing the alluring absinthe.
Some think absinthe caused homicidal rages, vivid hallucinations, and even drove Vincent Van Gogh to cut off his ear.
So, is this spirit the inspiration for genius or fast track to madness?
Turns out, probably neither. As absinthe makes a comeback, now’s a good time to sift fact from fiction.
A distilled spirit with a distinct taste of licorice, absinthe is made from a variety of herbs like anise, fennel, and grande wormwood.
Originating in Switzerland, it is often green and always strong — measuring between 50 and 75 percent alcohol. Sometimes called “the Green Fairy,” absinthe was even more popular than wine in the trendy cafés of Paris during the late 19th century.
In the early part of the 20th century, governments around the world banned the sale of absinthe in what was seen as an effort to protect public health.
It was widely believed that grande wormwood, one of the herbs used to flavor absinthe, caused hallucinogenic effects. Grande wormwood contains a chemical called thujone, which was once thought to create erratic behaviors.
Science has come a long way, baby. After extensive study, it was determined by the modern scientific community that absinthe—although strong—posed no risk beyond that of comparable alcoholic drinks. Tests now show that both vintage and modern versions of absinthe contain trace levels of thujone. In 2008, absinthe was once again made available in the U.S.
Since absinthe is turning up in retail shops as well as trendy restaurants like Central Michel Richard in Washington, D.C., it makes sense to take another look at how to best enjoy it.
Absinthe can be used as either an aperitif or digestif. The most traditional way to serve absinthe is to add cold water, ideally in drips, which turns the spirit from green to milky white. This is called the louche effect.
The color change is a result of the herbal oils’ insolubility in water. Use about 1.5 ounces of absinthe and dilute with 3 to5 ounces of water. The water can be poured over a sugar cube on a slotted spoon, which will lessen the bitter finish.
Ideally, absinthe should be served in Pontarlier glasses, which are named after the town in the Loire Valley where the Pernod Fils, one of the most famous producers of absinthe in the 1800s, built their factory in France. These glasses look a lot like standard water glasses, except they have a little bulge or indentation, indicating just how much absinthe should be added.
Now that absinthe has made a comeback and is not only legal, but also trendy, give it a try. While you may not see any green fairies, you just may find a spark of genius.
Laurie Forster, The Wine Coach®, is a wine educator, author of the award-winning book The Sipping Point and host of a weekly radio show by the same name on WBAL 1090AM. Her specialty is delivering wine edu-tainment for corporate events, group tastings and team-building seminars. She is also a sought after guest expert on radio shows across the country, including Martha Stewart Radio. You can reach her on twitter @thewinecoach or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/winecoach.
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