Absinthe derives from the French word for wormwood (artemisa absinthium), which is the main source for the toxic chemical known as thujone.
Although the cultivation of wormwood for medicinal and religious purposes dates back as far as 1550 B.C., it wasn't until the late 18th century, in France and Switzerland, that the modern recipe of this herbal-based liqueur was distilled by legendary booze merchants such as Henri Louis Pernod.
By the late 19th and early 20th century, absinthe was the drink du jour in Paris, as well as the spirit of choice for luminary writers and artists such as Picasso, Van Gogh and Hemingway.
Many artists claimed to draw inspiration from the drink and made their own homegrown varieties from ingredients such as star anise and artemisa absinthium, which were cultivated in fields and backyards. It was rumored to have hallucinogenic effects on those who drank it, and purportedly even drew some out of their minds. Or perhaps it was the opium that was often mixed with it.
Although this anise-flavored liquor was ultimately banned throughout the world and is still illegal in the United States, it is now becoming fashionable again in the chic cocktail circuit of 21st century Europe.
From hip clubs in Brixton (London) to avant-garde bars in former East Berlin to underground style salons in Vienna, this exotic drink is undergoing a romantic rebirth throughout Europe.
What started this trend? In 1998, Prague-based Hills Absinthe, makers of the original Bohemian absinthe, began distilling this forbidden libation once again. Although their lime green version tasted and felt like rocket fuel as it fired its way down the drinker's throat, it became a trend in London clubs soon thereafter.
Now, dozens of different varieties are being made throughout Europe, from Bulgaria to Spain to Germany and France. Due to improved production techniques and strict European Union regulations of thujone, practically every single European country has now legalized it.
Absinthe is usually green in color and has a slightly bitter taste. To enhance the flavor, the fermented wormwood is accented with mint and anise and other herbs. It was traditionally consumed in a shot glass with a slotted spoon over it, upon which a sugar cube was placed while water was poured over it, so the sugar would melt and sweetly dilute the absinthe, while instilling an opalescent cloudy glaze over the green liquor. Another drinking ritual involves a shot glass and a spoon full of sugar with a splash of absinthe in it, which is then lit on fire and stirred into the absinthe once the flame dissipates into caramelized sugar.
However, many flavors of absinthe actually are quite drinkable and do not require diluting for taste. Here's a lowdown of the brands making the Bohemian beat through Europe:
The best is Serpis (Spain); the red-colored variety is 55 proof and has an herbal almost cinnamon-like flavor. Rank: 10/10.
Look for the bottle with the 66 proof silver label. Heralding from Magdeburg, Germany, the bottle itself is a work of art, and looks like it belongs in an antique shop.
The Plantes Saveurs (France) is 55 proof and tastes more like licorice. Rank: 8/10.
Mata Hari (Austria), otherwise known as the "Green Fairy," is 60 proof strong and comprises a recipe dating back to 1881. No aniseed is added and it claims to have the "highest possible legal thujone content (as bitter spirit maximum 35 mg/liter)," and a high concentration of wormwood oil. Rank: 7/10.
Absinthe Hapsburg (Bulgaria) smells like licorice but tastes like a strong Sambuca. It has two labels, the red label is 80 proof and the green label is 72 proof. Rank: 7/10.
Trenet (France) comes in an Arc de Triomphe-shaped bottle. With a milder aroma, it is well flavored with a medicine-like herbally smooth taste. Rank: 8/10.
La Fee (France) has a bottle with an eyeball on it that claims to be a traditional French recipe. It is 68 proof and smells more like rocket fuel, but actually tastes a lot better, with a bit of licorice and light herbal aftertaste. Rank: 7/10.
Mari Mayans (Ibiza, Spain) dates back to 1880, is 45 proof and quite excellent. It is yellow in color and has a light and sweet taste. Rank: 8/10.
Espirituoso Anisato (Portugal) is 57 proof, but tastes much stronger with not much aroma and clinical taste. Rank: 5/10.
Staroplzenecky (Czech Republic) is 70 proof with a strong but sweet flavor. The inscription on the bottle claims to follow a traditional recipe from Napoleonic France and distilled in the forests of Bohemia, with ingredients of wormwood, star anise, pure grain alcohol and spring water.
Further instructions on the bottle inform the drinker that small particles of sediment indicate quality and authenticity and to add water slowly and wait for opalized milk color to clear or serve on the rocks. Rank: 5/10.
Premium Trenet (France) is 60 proof with a spicy herbal yet strong taste. The bottle reads that the infusion of wormwood gave "Artistic genius of Quartier Latin." Rank: 6/10.
Hapsburg (Czech Republic) is 30 proof has a very sweet and light taste. The bottle has an 1898 Fruko Label with a crown. Rank: 7/10.
Absinthe Dedo (Italian) is 75 proof with a strong kick but a flavorful licorice taste. The inscription on the bottle claims artistic inspiration for "Dedo," the nickname for the Italian painter Amadeo Modigliani, whose mistress brought him his favorite drink from the artemisia absinthium plants in Abruzzo, where fields of star anise flourished. Without his cherished "pallinis assenzio" drink (as it was then called), "he feared loss of artistic inspiration." Rank: 8/10.
Any alcohol one consumes has its pleasures and its risks. There are holes in wormwood, and some people would suggest that absinthe will put holes in one's brain. But, if you are in Europe where it's legal and you want to give it a try, don't waste your experience on the cheap stuff. For your own sake, don't overindulge, because this stuff is really strong.