The Absinthe Ritual

Absinthe is distilled from a mixture of whole herbs in alcohol. These herbs include grande wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), green anise, sweet fennel and other culinary plants.

Created as a medicinal elixir by a French doctor living in Switzerland around 1792, it achieved great popularity as an alcoholic drink in late 19th- and early 20th-century France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers where the drink was said to act as an aphrodisiac and stimulate creativity.

The Absinthe Fountain
“Rimbaud’s Poison”
“The emerald hour when the poet’s pain is soothed by a liquid jewel held in the sacred chalice, upon which rests the pierced spoon, the crystal sweetness, icy streams trickle down. The darkest forest melts into an open meadow. Waves of green seduce. Sanity surrendered, the soul spirals toward the murky depths, wherein lies the beautiful madness – absinthe.”

The bar at Chaya Downtown in Los Angeles, and our Absinthe Guide (bartender) Victor.

He pours ice water into the absinthe fountain.

Then pours 1 oz. absinthe into the special glass. Places a sugar cube over an absinthe grille or spoon in a saucer and soaks the sugar cube with absinthe.

Traditionally, the sugar cube is not ignited, as purists believe the caramelized sugar detracts from the herbal flavors. Apparently the use of fire in the absinthe ritual is a newer phenomenon was not a part of the custom during the Belle Époque. Sugar is used to cut the bitterness of the strong herbal spirit.

The spoon is placed over the glass and the sugar is lit on fire. As the sugar begins to caramelize, the absinthe water drip is begun.

Ice water from the absinthe fountain spigot slowly drips over the sugar into the glass, extinguishing the flame and melting the sugar and sweetening the absinthe.

L’Absinthe
Edgar Degas
1876
Oil on canvas

The cold water releases the oils from the absinthe, unlocking the powerful anise bouquet, and causing it to louche or cloud up into a light opalescent green. Absinthe is usually diluted in a 1:3 or 1:5 ratio to water. La louche has a symbolic meaning as well – As the water transforms the absinthe, so will the absinthe transform the mind.
La Fee Verte
The Green Fairy is the affectionate French nickname given to absinthe.

Can you spot the green fairy?

Absinthe had been portrayed as a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug. The chemical thujone, present in small quantities, was singled out and blamed for its alleged harmful effects. By 1915, absinthe had been banned in the United States and in most European countries.
Although absinthe was vilified, no evidence has shown it to be any more dangerous than ordinary spirits. Its psychoactive properties, apart from those of alcohol, have been much exaggerated.
Absinthe’s popularity grew steadily through the 1840s, when absinthe was given to French troops stationed in North Africa as a disease preventative. When the troops returned home to Paris, they brought their taste for absinthe with them. It became so popular in bars, bistros, cafés, and cabarets that, by the 1860s, the hour of 5 p.m. was called l’heure verte (the green hour).
A revival of absinthe began in the 1990s, when countries in the European Union began to reauthorize its manufacture and sale. In 2007 French absinthe “Lucid” was the first authentic absinthe brand to be legally imported to the US since the ban in 1912. The absinthe must contain less that 10 mg/kg of thujone to be legally imported. Also that year, the first batch of legally produced absinthe was made in California.

Absinthe produced for consumption outside the US can contain up to 100 mg/kg thujone, like Century Absinth. Some aficionados claim that this is the true absinthe which creates the “effects” cherished by famous absinthe drinkers of the day: Edouard Manet, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemingway.
(some information for this post from wikipedia.com)

29 thoughts on “The Absinthe Ritual”

  1. I love this post! Every time we are in France, we contemplate partaking of this drink, but have abstained so far. DO like to be in control…ha ha This is one of my very favorite Degas paintings. The expressions are priceless.

  2. I have had friends who tried it and said the same thing, that it was not all what they had heard, but I would be willing one day to try this…how intriguing to watch the whole process…sounds romantic in a way!

  3. I am with the chef … wish that I knew where I could be served a glass of absinthe! Whether or not it is psychoactive, it SOUNDS like it is!

  4. Fantastic post. I've always been interested in the stuff. I would love to try it sometimes. That's good to know that there's a brand we can get here in the US now.

    ps. I love that photo os all the hanging bottles and glass. It's like a kaleidoscope of colors

  5. I loved this post! All your posts leave me swimming in my own drool but this one left me fascinated to the core. I don't even drink alcohol!

  6. Hi LL,
    There is a nice restaurant in NYC called L'Absinthe.
    It's traditional French and beautiful. Maybe when you visit, we can meet there for some worm wood!
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. I've always wondered about absinthe since I first saw that Degas painting. She looks despondent more than anything. I've never tried drinking absinthe, but I'm presuming it tastes a little like pernod, is that right?

  8. I just found your blog and am enjoying my tour! I love your absinthe post…so enjoyed the history, art and the photos of the ritual. How fun!

  9. I ate at Chaya in March: great restaurant. And a great blog too.

    As pointed out on the blog, there is nothing traditional about burning sugar with absinthe. Most absinthe distillers would be rather sad to see how the taste of their creations is affected when caramelized sugar is added. Most bars wouldn't do that with XO Cognacs or 18 year old single malts (some absinthes can be at the same price level).

    "Absinthe produced for consumption outside the US can contain up to 100 mg/kg thujone. Aficionados claim that this is the true absinthe which creates the "effects" …"

    The legal limit for absinthe in Europe is 10 mg/kg, although products labelled as bitters can contain up to 35 mg/kg. Anything over that is illegal and tests have shown that some products claiming levels of 100 mg/kg do not in fact do so. Most absinthe "aficionados" recognise that real absinthe does not need to have such high levels; most absinthe "aficionados" drink for taste, and not for effect. And even high thujone products won't give an effect.

    Readers might also like to read views of other aficionados here:

    http://wormwoodsociety.org/
    http://www.feeverte.net/
    http://www.absinthe-review.net/

  10. Great post!!! I had a rather unfortunate encounter with the green fairy myself at my going away from Paris party (as if I wasn't beside myself enough already!) so can't cope with event the smell of it

  11. I'm in St Augustine FL and we now sell Absinthe and let me tell you, it's Great! I love the traditional drip cocktail but will trying some of the new drinks over Thanksgivings… looking forward to a Wolf's Bite Shooter!

    Good day to all! The Green Fairy Rulz!

  12. Thank you for putting together such an interesting post! I have to check if there's Absinthe available here! 😉

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and your loved ones!
    Our daughter is in Las Vegas today with friends rather than weathering Thanksgiving alone in S!

  13. This is such an informative and well-written post. I'm now seduced by curiosity, and will have to try this elusive drink.

  14. Oh, wow! Not for me, but I was impressed by the history and the experience. And it looks like such a ritual!
    (I hope by the end of it you didn't look as depressed as the painting 🙂

  15. I had no idea of the ritual that goes along with the drinking of The Green Fairy ~ thanks for my 'something new' for the day, Lori Lynn! Your photos are beautiful, too. {Love those shaped sugar cubes.} And thank you for dropping by and saying, "Hello."

  16. Lori Lynn, I am amazed at this history behind absinthe. I have yet to taste it but, I am feeling inspired by your blog post to take the leap. Thanks for sharing.

  17. america takes out the freaking wormword so no green fairies. damn it! i had some of the real stuff that was smuggled in by someone i know and i was never so wasted in my life. gotta have the sugar b/c otherwise it would be pretty hard to get down! nice post.

  18. Fun post! The ritual is everything. Too bad absinthe gets such an unjustified bad rap (I would like to try it full strength, a sip, anyway), yet legend will continue that it's the thujone, and not the laudanum all those *artistes* were addicted to b/4 they even arrived at their watering holes.

  19. I am soon going to Amsterdam and I will definiatly have The Green Fairy visit Me! What is the BEST of The BEST to purchase?

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