Absinthe

We’ve all seen Dégas’s young lady, sitting in a café, paralyzed with ennui, staring at her glass of green elixir. For most of us, that’s about the extent of it. Few of us have ever seen absinthe much less tasted it. But times are changing and absinthe is newly legal in places it was once forbidden—it’s legal in most of Europe, America, Asia, and Canada. Authentic absinthe should taste of anise but with a bitter background. In old pictures, such as the Dégas, a pierced spoon is set over a glass. A piece of sugar is put in the spoon and water poured over to sweeten the absinthe. Absinthe is always drunk with water, which it immediately clouds in the same way as Pastis (see page 000).
Absinthe’s formidable (or some would say, notorious) reputation may have come about as a result of a series of murders that happened in Eastern France in the early part of the 20th century. To make a long story short, the murders were eventually blamed on the effects of absinthe and its tendency to drive one mad. Experts have argued whether there’s any truth in this and whether absinthe’s active ingredient, wormwood and its alkaloid, thymol, causes hallucinations or other mind altering experiences.
My own experience began one afternoon in Sicily when I passed a wine and liquor store and noticed in the window an ancient bottle labeled “Thymol Liqueur.” I took this to be a barely cloaked reference to the active ingredient in absinthe. After buying the bottle for 30 Euros and tasting it, everything about it was consistent with descriptions of absinthe—it was green, 130 proof, and tasted like a bitter version of Pernod. It turned cloudy white when mixed with water. The stuff knocked a wallop but failed to produce anything resembling a hallucination. Either absinthe’s reputation is unwarranted or I got sold a fake.
There are recipes that call for absinthe, but because of its bitter notes, Pernod or other kinds of Pastis (such as Ricard) are used instead to give an anise note to certain dishes, especially fish dishes. In the south of France, fish are forever being flambéed in pastis, a brutal treatment for a delicate fish.

6 Responses to Absinthe

  1. david blackstock says:

    hellow Jim, with referance to absinthe, Iwas cooking on the island of Ibiza in the late 60’s and came across a local liquor called absenta that was said to be made by local women-(witches?!!). It was Light amber in colour and tasted slightly sweeter and spiceyer than pastis, and when consumed without the addition of water it certainly produced strange effects night blindness being one of them.
    I do so like your style and aproach to your craft and have spent many hours happily reading your work– thank you David B

  2. Jim says:

    Thank you David

  3. Lars says:

    Hi James, I just wanted to point out a few corrections. First, it looks like you have thymol confused with thujone. Thymol and tymol liquor comes from the herb thyme. (check wikipedia)

    Thujone is what is associated with absinthe, and wormwood. And the reputation of thujone has been totally disproved. In fact, any brand that touts thujone content is a sign of spurious product. I wont go into a long explanation, but just point out a link where you can find articles about the history and reputation of absinte: wormwoodsociety.org. Also check the brand reviews for a good pick.
    Pastis can be an ok substitute for many recipes, but it has sugar, and uses star anise and licorice, so it will impart more of a ‘black jellybean’ flavor. Absinthe main flavors are aniseed, wormwood and fennel, and a true absinth has no sugar. Many products are sold as absinthe and bear no resemblance to what is historic absinthe, again check the reviews from wormwoodsociety.org. The forum section has a few recipe ideas as well!

  4. Jim says:

    Hi Lars,
    I didn’t get the full message. The “thymol liqueur” was most likely absinthe. It looked like it was from the ’10s or the teens.

  5. Lars says:

    What you have is an interesting mystery. ‘thymol’ products from the early 2oth c are patent medicines, dental rinses, and antiseptics. (Lysterine for example) It is possible that you bought an as yet unrecorded amari based on Thyme. You say you bought it in Sicilly? When, and can you post a picture of the bottle? Best case, you have an early (and unkown) absinthe substitute from the 20’s or later, that can still be quite valuable even as empty bottle.
    Absinthes from the ’10s go for thousands of dollars. You can get a 5cl sample for about $20o , So even a rumor of a preban era absinthe will get someone’s attention. So I would disagree that the Thymol Liqueur was likely absinthe, as all know absinthes from that period were clearly labeled absinthe, extrait d’absinthe, absenta, assenzio, and such.

  6. Jim says:

    Thanks for your help even though it has left me very disappointed. I don’t know why it was listed as “thymol liqueur” as it had no resemblance to thyme and tasted more like 130 proof pastis. But you’re no doubt right.

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