The Truth About Absinthe
This National Absinthe Day we chat with Ben Cooper – drinks expert and Creative Operations at the New Orleans themed Lulu White bar – about the fabled spirit.
Celebrated by artists and aristocrats alike for centuries, absinthe has long been associated with the creative, the debauched and the bohemia where they meet. It’s reputation for infamy and a history of being banned across the world might add to its boho credentials, however the truth is that this herbal spirit has often been misunderstood.
National Absinthe Day was devised in the USA on 5th March 2007, when the ban for absinthe was lifted and the first batch was sold to the country. The ban itself was due to a surplus of studies fabricating and exaggerating the psychoactive properties of absinthe. In 2007, absinthe was declared no more harmful than any other spirit (except for having a higher ABV).
In honour of this and to shed some light on absinthe’s true character, we spoke with bartender Ben Cooper ( Lulu White ), who guided us through some facts and fictions surrounding this evocative spirit.
FIRST THING’S FIRST: TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF & HOW YOU CAME TO LULU WHITE?
I’m originally from Texas, but I learned how to bartend in New York. I started out as a back bar back (the bar back’s bar back) and climbed the ladder. After moving to Paris, I had a few different gigs before starting on with the Bonomy Group. Initially, I ran a summertime popup called Summerhouse, where I got to create new drinks daily and weekly. I am now the head bartender of Lulu White where we specialize in New Orleans energy, absinthe, and dancing.
WHAT IS ABSINTHE?
There are a number of layers to that question, but at its heart, absinthe is a very specific botanical spirit flavored with (at least) Wormwood, Green Anise, and Fennel.
HOW AND WHERE IS IT MADE?
Traditionally, absinthe is from the area around the Franco-Swiss border. These days, however, it’s made all over the place; Japan, Sweden, Canada, even Texas. The process is much the same as other botanical spirits (gin, genever, aquavit, for example) where a base spirit is soaked in a proprietary blend of plants. In the case of absinthe, this is wormwood, anise, fennel, and many times angelica root. This boozy tea is then distilled, which renders a colourless spirit. This is called white absinthe. If you soak Absinthe Blanche (white absinthe) in more aromatic plants such as mint, hyssop, lemon balm, etc. you will wind up with Absinthe Verte (green absinthe).
HOW STRONG IS IT?
Absinthe Blanche is such because there is not an extra “soak” of plants, and therefore no residual green color. Absinthe Verte does include this secondary soak, and so contains natural green chlorophyll. For this reason, Green absinthe typically goes higher in ABV in order to preserve the green. The range for absinthe can be as low as 45% ABV (like a typical whisky or gin) and as high as 72% ABV. There do exist some higher proof absinthes, but the quality typically drops off past 72%. However, it is not meant to be drunk at proof.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE TASTE?
If you’re like me when I was younger and first tried it without knowing what it was, the predominant flavor is blinding hot alcohol. If you try it correctly, which is with water, the true flavors will be more pronounced: bitter floral wormwood, sweet anise, vegetal fennel, and usually secondary flavors such as mint, liquorice, coriander.
HOW IS IT TRADITIONALLY DRUNK?
With a lot of water added. Some whisky drinkers like a few drops of water to “open up” the booze, while with absinthe, the ratio is more like three-five parts water to one part absinthe. This brings out the essential oils in the drink (which is what causes it to become cloudy) and lowers the alcohol level to a manageable level. It is really only as strong as a glass of wine when prepared properly.
HOW DID IT COME TO FIND ITSELF IN NEW ORLEANS?
As with much in New Orleans, the French community brought their culture when available. This is no different with absinthe, and it was able to take hold in New Orleans as quickly as it was taking over France.
DOES ABSINTHE MAKE YOU HALLUCINATE?
Only if you’re into the placebo effect. There was much involved with the development of the myths and legends, but I’m afraid none are true.
WHY WAS IT BANNED IN EUROPE?
This is a huge subject, but a few things happened in conjunction. When something is wildly popular, it spawns a craze. This happened with gin in London in the 18th century, and absinthe in Paris in the 19th century.
The devastation of the vineyards by phylloxera in Europe created somewhat of a wine-vacuum that absinthe filled readily. It became the de facto aperitif during the Belle Epoch of Pigalle, Moulin Rouge, Impressionists, etc. As its popularity grew out of control, the quality dropped, and corner stores made very questionable booze they labeled “absinthe.” At best, this would be rubbing alcohol and spinach (for color); at worst, it could have oxidized copper (the stuff that makes pennies turn green) or other hard-to-pronounce things like antimony trichloride.
Once the wine industry got back on its feet, they needed to regain their position in French culture, and so they lobbied campaigns against absinthe. True frenchmen drank wine, not absinthe. Only dirty bohemians and women with loose morals drank absinthe, and to excess; a Swiss farmer killed his family because of absinthe etc etc. Here is where the dirty myths came to develop.
HOW IS IT DRUNK NOWADAYS?
There is a revival of the traditional method of pouring water slowly into a serving of absinthe, sometimes with sugar. This revival happened at the same time as the cocktail revival and so there was a renewed interest in absinthe cocktails as well.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE ABSINTHE COCKTAIL?
I’m partial to Juleps, and so an Absinthe Frappe always satisfies. Take some beautiful absinthe, sugar, mint, and crushed ice, and pass the whole lot back and forth between two tins until your hands are numb. Then transfer everything into your chosen glass, or julep tin, or just keep it in your mixing tin. Top with some more crushed ice and enjoy. Some coffee-stirrer straws and a bunch of mint on top won’t go amiss.
WHAT’S THE CONNECTION BETWEEN LULU WHITE AND ABSINTHE?
Lulu White is a New Orleans themed bar located in Pigalle. We can’t help but be all about absinthe! We enjoy talking about absinthe, and dancing about absinthe. We will help newcomers to a tasting, or we’re always excited to whip up a cocktail as well, such as a Frappe, Suissesse, Green Beast, or Yellow Parrot.
WHAT ABOUT FLAMING ABSINTHE?
The flaming service (where you soak the sugar cube and set it alight) is mostly for show, but it has a cool history. The technique was originally used for coffee, soaking a sugar cube in brandy and setting it on fire, then extinguishing it with coffee. I imagine it was taken and applied to absinthe during a time when many drinks were being set on fire: between the 70’s and 80’s.
This service will damage “proper” absinthe with its delicate anise flavor; however, the Czech absinthes – which contain no anise – use this technique to reverse-dilute the absinthe. Instead of adding water, they remove alcohol by burning it off. I’ve spoken to a few Czech bartenders and many of them would refuse to do this service to proper French absinthe.