Words by: Simon Difford
Nicknamed the ‘Green Fairy’, Absinthe is a bitter, aniseed-flavoured green liquor distilled with anise, fennel and wormwood. It has a reputation to challenge that of a Class A drug and for nearly a century was thought by most to be illegal in the UK and it was indeed banned across most of Europe and North America.
Traditionally absinthe is based on Artemisia absinthium wormwood. There are some 180 different varieties of the compositae, of which Artemisia absinthium (grand wormwood) is a member, all have an extremely bitter flavour. These include Artemisia pontica (Petite wormwood), Artemisia dracunculus (tarragon) and Artemisia vulgaris (mugwort), the latter being used in some modern day absinthes.
Many Artemisia varieties have insecticide properties but wormwood is the most potent, its name originating in the Middle Ages due to its bark being used to rid tapeworms in the abdomen of human hosts. Wormwood is a shrub-like perennial, native to Europe and Asia, with greenish-yellow flowers.
Artemisia absinthium or 'Grand Wormwood' contains an essential oil or neuro-toxin, thujone, which is hallucinogenic in large doses and fatal in very large doses, though wormwood leaves are fairly innocuous. Sage actually contains more thujone than wormwood.
The way thujone acts on the brain is not fully understood but high doses will induce hallucinations, convulsions, brain damage and renal failure. Thujone also occurs naturally in many other plants with culinary uses: not just sage, but rosemary, cedar, saffron, tarragon and lavender.
No modern, or indeed original, absinthe brand contains any more than trace amounts of thujone and nothing like the quantities required for it to be a hallucinogen. EU laws (European Council Directive No. 88/388/EEC enacted 1988) limit thujone content to a maximum of 35 mg/L in absinthe and any other alcoholic beverageS flavoured with Artemisia. Other alcoholic beverages in the EU are limited to 10 mg/L, as is the case in the United States where less than 10 mg/L is considered "thujone-free" so permissible.
There is little scientific evidence about thujone and its alleged side effects, short term or long term, but it is certain that consuming large quantities of absinthe will render an imbiber drunk. And over-consumption will damage your health, if only due to absinthes high alcohol content (historically ranging from 55 to 75% alc./vol.). It is probably not surprising that the symptoms of absinthism are not unlike those of alcoholism: hallucinations, sleeplessness, tremors and convulsions.
It could be that, at the turn of the 20th century, absinthe was simply the fall guy for other types of alcohol disorders, mental illness, epilepsy, and in some cases, even syphilis. Hardly surprising it was banned across most of Europe and North America.
Some modern-day drinkers claim they experience a so-called 'Secondary Effect' in the form of a stimulating buzz when drinking absinthe, which some claim is due to the combination of herbs, particularly fenchone from fennel and anethol from anise. There is no scientific evidence to support this. Consequently, these effects are likely to be purely wishful thinking.
Launched in June 2016 as part of a range of spirts designed to represent good value-for-money and branded to sit alongside NV Absinthe, established in 2007. Other products in the range include: Caribbean White Rhum, London Dry Gin, Scottish Blended Whisky and Triple Distilled French Vodka. Pungent, clean and fresh. Fennel, coriander, anise and liquorice. Strong peppermint aromas emerge with water.
A Californian absinthe made by Crispin Cain and based on a spirit distilled from apple cider and honey mead in the original Germain-Robin pot still. In this spirit Crispin infuses rose geranium, lemon balm, wormwood, hyssop, lemon verbena, star anise, fennel seed, lemon peel and mint for one week.. Pungent star anise and fennel with wormwood, lemon verbena and very faint rose blossom. Water reveals potpourri and herbal complexity.
The first legal American absinthe released after the U.S. ban was lifted in 2007, St. George say their Absinthe Verte is made with brandy, star anise, mint, wormwood, lemon balm, hyssop, meadowsweet, basil, fennel, tarragon and stinging nettles. And it has a monkey on the label. Pungent, star anise with eucalyptus and wormwood. Christmas tree spruce, green leafiness and anise with water.
Made by macerating herbs in neutral alcohol in Martin Sebor’s Czech distillery. In addition to Artemisa absinthium, the main herbal ingredients are anise and fennel, followed by camomile, coriander, mint and lemon balm. Aniseed, liquorice, mint, eucalyptus, fennel and angelica.
Grande Absenté is made with alcohol, sugar (approximately 35g of sugar per litre), infusions and essences of absinthe, wormwood and star anise, green anise alcoholates, lemon balm and mint. Brilliant blue FCF and tartazine is added to produce the vibrant green colour. Pungent, aggressive peppery spirit, fresh fennel, aniseed and liquorice.
This Swiss ‘white’ or ‘blanche’ absinthe is distilled in the Swiss town of Couvet by Claude-Alain Bugnon using locally grown Grande wormwood. Clean aniseed, liquorice and fresh fennel with faint white flowers.
This clear absinthe is made by the only female Swiss distiller, Gaudentia Persoz using hand-picked herbs from the Jura. Pungent new-make spirit with distinct yeasty and malty notes and gentle liquorice, becoming grassy when hydrated.
Distilled by the only female Swiss distiller, Gaudentia Persoz, Green Velvet VAL. 340 obtains is green colour and flavour from the herbs of Jura, including aniseed, fennel and a dash of lemon balm. (hydrated) Mellow nose (despite the abv) with old fashioned liquorice sweets, anis and fennel seeds.
Duplais Blanche is named after and based on a recipe from a 19th century French distiller’s manual 'Traité des Liqueurs et de la Distillation des Alcools' by P. Duplais. The botanicals used to make it are sourced from a Swiss plantation reserved exclusively for the finest pharmaceutical-grade herbs. Slight seafood note – think crab meat. This fades with water to anise and fennel.
Duplais Verte is named after and based on a recipe from a 19th century French distiller’s manual 'Traité des Liqueurs et de la Distillation des Alcools' by P. Duplais. The botanicals used to make it are sourced from a Swiss plantation reserved exclusively for the finest pharmaceutical-grade herbs. Clean, fragrant fennel and wormwood.
Launched in July 2007, Mansinthe is the result of a collaboration between Markus Lion from Absinthe.de, American shock rocker Marilyn Manson and the Matter-Luginbühl family owners of a Swiss absinthe distillery. Aniseed and fennel with peppermint freshness. Water releases barky herbal notes.