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Absinthe

‘After the first glass of Absinthe’, wrote Oscar Wilde, ‘you see things as you wish they
were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally, you see things as they
really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world’. Despite quotes such as
these and urban myths such as absinthe’s blame on Van Gogh’s ear slicing episode,
absinthe is not (and never was) the class A downfall of society that it was perceived to
be 100 years ago.

The word absinthe comes from its main ingredient the perennial plant artemisia
absinthium, commonly called wormwood. The chlorophyll of the leaves gives absinthe
its vivid emerald green colour and bitterness. Wormwood contains medicinal properties
which were used by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans who used it as an antiseptic,
prescribed it for fevers and menstrual pains, jaundice, rheumatism and to aid digestion.
It was also used to expel intestinal worms, hence its English name.

The classic way to drink absinthe is the drip method. A special perforated spoon is
balanced across the rim of a small stemmed glass and a sugar cube is then placed
centrally on the spoon. A measure of absinthe is poured over the sugar cube and into
the glass. The Absinthe soaked sugar cube is then lit which drips molten sugar into the
glass setting fire to the absinthe below. Once the sugar has all been dissolved, plain
water is used to extinguish the flames and to dilute the potency of the spirit. During the
late 1800’s in a belle époque Paris, this magical and ritualistic method of serving
helped cast a spell on the creative minds of artists such as Manet, Degas, Van Gogh,
Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine. It was
due to the flamboyant visual and literate depictions of the effects and the
personification of the ‘Green fairy’ (as depicted by Kylie Minogue in Baz Lurhmann’s
film Moulin Rouge) which due attention to one of the compounds contained in
wormwood, thujone a neurotoxin with a similar molecular structure to cannabis. In 1905
after a long battle by the growing temperance movement the French government
banned absinthe followed close behind by Belgium, Italy and the US.

Absinthe has been largely forgotten about until 1997 when a small UK company picked
up the distribution rights from a Czech made absinthe called Hill’s - turns out absinthe
was never actually banned here! Since then we have seen the UK market flooded with
brands from around the world with differing styles and alcoholic strengths (all with an
EU guideline thujone content of under 10PPM – about 6 times weaker that the stuff
Oscar was drinking).

Although the most famous cocktail which contains a dash of absinthe is the classic
New Orleans Sazerac, we need to thank Ernest Hemmingway for this month’s featured
cocktail, which possibly has the best name for a drink in the world, ‘Death in the
afternoon’. In the Papa’s own words, ‘Pour one jigger absinthe into a champagne glass.
Add iced champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five
of these slowly.’

Cheers!

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