Drinks

Absinthe Minded

It's time to set the record straight on this storied spirit, hallucination myths and all
It's Time to Learn the Truth About Absinthe
Photo: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

Let's get one thing out of the way: Drinking absinthe will not drive you to cut off your ear. Yes, Vincent van Gogh was a known imbiber, but that's not the whole story.

Admittedly, the green fairy gets a bad rap. It was banned in the U.S. from the early 1900s until 2007, and you don't survive a nearly 100-year ban without getting something of a reputation. But it's no longer the stuff of Ernest Hemingway tales. With craft distillers turning out quality bottles and cocktail bars putting this maligned spirit in the limelight, absinthe has officially come of age after its long hiatus. We tap the experts to bust the five biggest myths about the drink and show you why it's time to show absinthe some love.

① If you don't like licorice, you'll hate absinthe.

Saying you don't like absinthe is like claiming you don't like cheese: There are too many varieties out there for such a blanket statement. The craft absinthes that surfaced post-ban all have nuanced flavors of their own, and places like Brooklyn's celebrated Maison Premiere even have entire menus devoted to absinthe-based cocktails. Don't even try to resist Maison's absinthe colada, a twist on the tropical classic featuring none other than Marilyn Manson's absinthe. Or the Porto Seguro, an herbal sage drink that's reminiscent of a mint julep (see the recipe) and perfect for spring.

Anise-flavored liqueurs are beloved around the world. There's sambuca in Italy, Pernod and pastis in France, and the ouzo that flows freely throughout Greece. The New York Times goes so far as to call anise-heavy raki "a potent, anise-flavored distillation of the Turkish soul." Absinthe might not receive the same praise in the U.S., but with more craft options on the market, that's likely to change.

② It'll make you hallucinate.

Wormwood—one of absinthe's main ingredients—does contain thujone, which is technically a hallucinogen. But oregano contains the compound as well, and you don't see pasta sauce subjected to a 100-year ban. It's only dangerous in large amounts, and there's nowhere near enough of the stuff in absinthe. So, no, a serving of absinthe will not make you hallucinate.

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Sure, too much of any alcohol will make you do wild things, but Mic likens the absinthe craze of the late 1800s to the recent rise and fall of Four Loko. Still, Brenton Engel of Chicago's Letherbee Distillers admits there's "something seemingly different about an absinthe drunk vs. a red wine drunk." Perhaps that's because most absinthe clocks in at around 120 proof (or more), meaning four to five times more alcohol by volume than that in a glass of wine.

③ It's illegal.

Not anymore at least. It was banned from 1912 to 2007 in the United States—with similar restrictions in Europe—thanks to a combination of hype and hysteria. As absinthe became increasingly popular, the French wine industry pushed for a ban to protect its sales. Add in absinthe-related stories of murder, madness and crime, and the liquor quickly became the scapegoat.

You could still find absinthe, with haunts like the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans turning into speakeasies. And Parisians knew to find it under aliases, like Anis Delloso.

Now that it's legal, bars and restaurants are opening with a hyperfocus on the spirit. Maison Premiere evokes the New Orleans atmosphere, and its absinthe fountain is actually a replica of the one from Old Absinthe House. Seattle welcomed the opening of Absinthe Brasserie last summer, and Absinthe in San Francisco is proud of its namesake spirit as well.

 

#HappyValentinesDay from Absinthe Brasserie & Bar �#AbsintheMakesTheHeartGrowFonder

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④ All absinthe is green.

Though the color depends on multiple factors, the traditional green comes from chlorophyll in the herbs used to make the alcohol. The original trifecta is anise, fennel and wormwood, but Brooklyn-made Doc Herson's has a bottle that's tinted red from the addition of hibiscus. And Letherbee's absinthe takes on a caramel tone after spending six months in new American oak casks.

⑤ You have to light it on fire.

You definitely don't have to play with matches here. In fact, you shouldn't. The Maison Premiere team says that lighting absinthe up is just a gimmick and that introducing fire will burn off the herbal subtleties. "Give people simple, pleasant experiences," Engel suggests. But there's really no wrong way to drink it.

When in doubt, listen to Engel, who advises not to "let any absinthe snobs tell you you're doing it wrong." After all, green means go.

Now that you've given absinthe the green light, here are five bottles to try:
• Doc Herson's
• The Green Villain
• Marteau
• Letherbee
• Meadow of Love

During In Good Spirits month, we're going behind the bar to find out what separates aperitifs from digestifs, which It cocktails the world's top bartenders crave and how to turn your home into the hottest speakeasy in town.

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