The word "absinthe" is derived from the Latin term "absinthium", also the Greek term "apsinthion", which means wormwood. This is the main, and most essential ingredient in this liquor. Due to wormwood's properties as a psychoactive substance (the chemical presence of thujone is declared to cause hallucinations), absinthe both benefited and suffered from a notorious reputation, at first becoming the drink of choice of the artistic community of Western Europe, drunk to excess and causing chaotic drunkenness, and then feared and reviled by the temperance movement, resulting in a ban starting in the Congo Free State in 1898, with Belgium and Brazil following in 1906, Switzerland in 1907, Netherlands in 1909, USA in 1912 and France in 1915.
Absinthe has acquired a notorious reputation for being a psychoactive substance. Van Gogh is famously said to have cut off his own ear while under the effect of Absinthe, which became known as the "Green Fairy".
Crimes of the era were attributed to this widespread absinthe craze and public outlook saw it as a dangerous and addictive drug. In fact the quantities present in absinthe mean it is not hallucinogenic and in fact the high strength alcohol would be more likely to finish off the drinker long before the thujone could have an effect.
Absinthe was embraced by the artistic community for its perceived bohemian action on the brain. The ritualistic method of drinking no doubt added to its similarity to a narcotic, having its own apparatus such as absinthe spoons and fountains. Absinthe's origin lies in Switzerland, where it was created by Dr Pierre Ordinare, a travelling physician fleeing the French Revolution, in the Neuchâtel, where he developed his mixture of anise and herbs in 1792 (the exact date is sometimes disputed). He gave his formula to the Henriod sisters who sold the liquor as a medicinal elixir. The formula passed into the hands of Major Dubied and in 1797, with his son, Mercellin, and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod, they opened the first absinthe distillery, in Couvet. Thirteen years lates, in 1805, they opened second distillery in France in Pontarlier, this time naming the product Pernod et Fils, which became one of the leading absinthes and remained so up until the French ban in 1915.
Absinthe is made by macerating grand wormwood, mint, lemon balm, green anise, fennel and calamus in once distilled eau-de-vie. The steeped spirit is then redistilled (with the botanicals), leaving the still at about 72 degrees ABV. While this clear spirit can be bottled as absinthe, it is more common for the spirit to undergo a second maceration with petite wormwood and hyssop, where it picks up its distinctive green colour from the chlorophyll present in the herbs. The absinthe may now be diluted with water to the required strength and bottled.
Absinthe is made in 5 different styles:
Bleue or Blanche This style has no second maceration with botanicals, therefore it has none of the colour of the botanicals, and is clear. La Bleue is a term used to denote Swiss absinthe.
Verte Verte is absinthe that has been either coloured artificially, or (as is more traditional) has undergone a second maceration with the botanicals from which it takes its colour.
Absente Absente is Spanish absinthe and is sweeter is style.
Bohemian style Bohemian style is usually extremely strong with wormwood being the most prominent flavour. It has less of the aniseed and aromatic associated with absinthe. It is a modern style that is made in the Czech Republic (although other styles are still made there).
Hausegemacht Absinte (Homemade Absinthe) Originally made illegally during the period of the Absinthe ban, Hausegemacht absinthes can be of high quality and are artisan absinthes, with some HG absinthes having moved back into the legal market by regaining a licence. HG is a common absinthe style in Switzerland. The mixture of botanicals can be very specific and individual meaning it is a diverse style.
When consumed it is often mixed with water and sugar (frequently using specially crafted absinthe spoons). The water acts upon the absinthe, clouding it from clear green to opaque, in an action called "louching". The water makes the botanicals that had previously been soluble in the liquid become suspended. The water also dilutes the absinthe to a palatable level (many absinthes being incredibly strong) and accentuates many of the more delicate flavours.
Absinthe has only recently has managed to revive itself, the revival begun by the realisation that there were countries where the ban on absinthe had not been enforced. The market was opened by Hill's Absinthe which was imported by BBH Spirits. The last ten years have seen sales dramatically increase, with high quality absinthes becoming readily available, and countries removing their absinthe laws.
The US market lifted the ban on absinthe in 2007 and has a newly thriving absinthe category.