The Green Faerie

La Fee Verte
“L’heure Verte” The Green Hour

What is the fascination with absinthe? Last night the Culinary Historians of NY hosted a talk and a tasting of absinthe, presented by Dr. David Weir.  The event was oversold. Can you imagine scalping tickets to an absinthe lecture?

Quickie absinthe history:
1792 Henri Pernod develops the liqueur absinthe.
1797-1805 Pernod Fils is  commercially distilling the liqueur in Switzerland.
1840: French soldiers in Algeria are issued absinthe to combat tropical fever, dysentery, general infections and for restoring energy.
French soldiers bring home a taste for absinthe.
1863-turn of the century: phylloxera epidemic wipes out upwards of 2/3’s of Europes vineyards, causing the price of wine to skyrocket
1875-1913: French consumption of absinthe increases 15 fold
1900: Absinthe is the drink of choice of the art crowd, the bohemiams, women are known to adore and consume it, along with those who are decadent, immoral and bums. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this in-crowd? Manet, Degas, Lautrec, Mary Shelly all sing the praises of absinthe.
There is a secret society of wicked, wild French women, known as the Sisterhood of la Fee Verte.
1905: Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer, murders his entire family. Instead of the ‘twinkie defense’ he uses the absinthe defense. “Absinthe made me do it!”  Lanfray, along with his 2 glasses a day of absinthe, was also said to consume on a daily basis: crème de menthe, congnac, 2 to 5 liters of wine and some brandy.  But it was the absinthe that made him murder his family.
With the high price of wine, cheap alcohol alternatives show up, including absinthe adulterated with all sorts of nasty things like grain alcohol, solvents, and dyes. Think of bathtub gin or moonshine and how safe and healthy that was.
1910: absinthe is banned in Switzerland
1913: 10.5 million gallons of absinthe are consumed in France
1915: absinthe is banned in France and the U.S.

Anti-absinthe literature is hysterical in nature, not unlike “Reefer Madness” hysteria. 

What’s in absinthe?
The signature ingredient is wormwood or “Artemisia Absinthium”. Some Greek translations say “Absinthium” translates as undrinkable, perhaps due to the extreme bitterness of wormwood.  Apparently in Sanskrit, ‘absinthium’ translates as pleasant.
Wormwood’s mystical component is ‘thujone’. Current research about thujone indicates that it modulates the neurotransmitter GABAA which plays a role in cognitive thought. Thujone is also a naturally occurring element in sage and Vick’s Vapo-O-Rub.  Hemingway thought it made him a better writer.
Absinthe’s kick ass component is alchohol. Absinthe registers somewhere around 136 proof.  6 glasses of absinthe is the recommended dosage for hallucinations, this is folklore, and I’m sure testing has been done, but I can’t vouch for it.
Along with wormwood, there are various other herbs added to the mixture, these can include hyssop, angelica seed, anise, fennel, angelica seed, Melissa, coriander. In their own right, this is a list of very powerful herbs and essential oils. Hyssop seems to be the one herb that shows up consistently in the blend.  Hyssop will also cure worms, raise low blood pressure and relieve menstrual problems.
Absinthe can be distilled or an infusion. If it’s a distillation, it seems to eliminate the thujone altogether. So, if you want bang for your buck, seems you need to drink the infused variety.

The ‘louche’ effect.  When water is added to the green colored absinthe, it turns milky white, this is known as the louche effect.
The common definition of louche is: dubious, shady, disreputable.

Absinthe drinkers have their own rituals for the drink, and their own reasons for imbibing. This article that appeared in “Modern Drunkard Magazine” sums it up much better than I can.  Now is that a name for a magazine or what?

End of lecture? Questions?? Yes, you can buy absinthe in the U.S. You can buy it online. Its legal to own it, just not to sell it or distill it at home. 

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