History of Absinthe

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At Smokestack, we love our wall of spirits, especially sharing this collection with guests whilst educating and dispelling myths. Being heavily influenced by New Orleans we have dealt out our fair share of absinthe inspired cocktails over the years. The city has always had a substantial French influence in its culture, from where it originates.  

When we found out there’s an International Absinthe Day, we thought we would take this opportunity to share some of our favourite stories and answer some common questions about the so-called Green Fairy.

Most people’s experience of this infamous spirit comes from either doing shots for a ‘dare’ or tacky luminescent gift packs brought back by friends after their trips to Europe. It’s hard to imagine it being the trending drink of choice for every Parisian in the 19th Century but that’s mostly because we don’t drink it how we should! 

Where does it come from?

The first record of Absinthe dates back to 1790 when Dr Pierre Ordinaire began developing medicine in Switzerland. A lot of alpine or herbaceous spirits started this way, primarily for medicinal use before it was drunk for pleasure (this includes things like gin!). 

It wasn’t until Henri Louis Pernod obtained the recipe in 1797 that the spirit started to become more prevalent in Europe and by 1805, Pernod opened the very first Absinthe distillery in Pontarlier, France. 

Why is it called Absinthe?

Absinthe takes its name from one of its main ingredients, the plant Artemisia absinthium. Which in turn is named after the Goddess Artemis, Goddess of the moon and protector of women

What does it taste like?

Every recipe is different but the most common dominant flavours you will detect are star anise, fennel and green anise. You may also find hyssop and coriander seed aplenty. 

Why is it green?

The green colour from quality absinthe is completely natural and stems from the chlorophyll contained in the wormwood and hyssop. Some bottles are opaque for this reason to protect against light damage. 

Who is the Green Fairy?

La Fee Verte, or Green Fairy, was one of the more popular nicknames for Absinthe. It was attached to the bohemian lifestyles of those who drank the liquid and represented a symbol of artistic expression. 

Why does it turn white when water is added?

This is a term called ‘louche’ and happens due to a chemical reaction with anethole, a compound found in star anise, fennel and aniseed. 

Does it make you go mad?

Probably one of the biggest myths is that Absinthe can make you go crazy. This was a vicious rumour started by wine unionists who had seen a massive slump in sales due to Absinthe’s popularity. Wormwood contains a hallucinogenic compound called thujone which in high doses can be lethal, but nothing this high would ever be found in Absinthe and sage contains a higher concentration! 

Favourite absinthe story?

In 1901 the distillery was struck by lightning causing a fire in the cellar where the spirit was kept. To prevent further disaster two employees emptied over a million litres into the Doubs River turning it milky white.

What is the difference between Pernod pastis and Pernod absinthe?

When absinthe was banned, Pastis was frequently drunk instead – unlike absinthe, it has no wormwood in and instead gets its flavour and sweetness from liquorice.

How do I drink it?

The most important part! Absinthe is typically high strength and unsweetened; this is because it’s supposed to be diluted and sweetened by the person enjoying its contents. Part of the ritual is to use special slotted spoons and ‘fountains’ to create the perfect serve. 

A sugar cube is placed on top of the spoon which rests over the absinthe glass or ‘Pontarlier’, allowing cold water to drip over via the fountain. As the glass slowly fills up the sugar dissolves into the Absinthe. Around 5 or 6 parts water to spirit is usually right. 

Can you put it in cocktails?

We insist! In small amounts, absinthe can add a great amount of complexity to a mixed drink. Some of our favourites include the Sazerac, the Corpse Reviver no.2 and the prefect serve (mentioned above) with cucumber-infused water, sometimes called the Green Beast. 

Any celebrity drinkers?

Ernest Hemmingway was a big fan and even had a cocktail named after him called, Death in the Afternoon, a potent mix of absinthe and champagne. Oscar Wild also frequently wrote about Absinthe, 

“A glass of Absinthe is as poetic as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of Absinthe and a sunset”.

We hope this has answered some questions you may have had about this historic spirit. 

Next time you find yourself at the bar why don’t you indulge in something different?