Absinthe was the legendary drink of Bohemians such as Baudelaire, Van Gogh, Rimbaud, Toulouse-Lautrec and Oscar Wilde. Although it originated in Switzerland, it reached the height of its popularity among the artistic community of Paris. As the temperance movement of the early 20th century spread, it was banned in the United States in 1912, and finally legalized again in 2007.
However, don’t go cutting off your ear just yet. To be sold in the U.S., Absinthe must contain less than 10 ppm of thujone, the substance that supposedly caused the drink to inspire hallucinations. There’s actually little evidence that this was the case, despite the fact that Absinthe contains wormwood (which in turn contains thujone). Thujone does not suvive the process of distillation, and the small amounts that may be added by botanicals during the flavoring stage are insignificant.
Hallucinatory or not, Absinthe has been one of the hottest spirits in this country since its legalization. The liquor was traditionally consumed as follows: a sugar cube was placed on top of a specially designed slotted spoon; the spoon was then held over a glass which held a shot of Absinthe, and ice water was poured over the sugar and into the glass. As the water was added, the Absinthe changed color from bright green to milky white.
According to spirits experts, there’s little evidence that Americans are drinking Absinthe according to the classic method, but the liquor is definitely showing up in a host of cocktails. It is a key component in the classic Sazerac of New Orleans. Others include Death in the Afternoon (Absinthe and Champagne), Chrysanthemum (Benedictine, dry Vermouth and Absinthe) and the Corpse Reviver (gin, Cointreau, white Lillet, lemon juice and a dash of Absinthe). To sample the complete range, check out North America’s first Absinthe bar, Sarah B., located in Montreal’s Hotel Intercontinental.
The first Absinthe released in the U.S. after legalization was Lucid, marketed by Viridian Spirits. It has become popular among America’s top craft distillers, including Pacific Distillery (Pacifique Absinthe) and St. George Spirits (St. George Absinthe Verte). It’s also the rage with celebrities—Madonna is a fan of San Francisco’s Le Tourment Verte, and Marilyn Manson has his own brand called Mansinthe. There is life after rock and roll, after all.