e About absinthe in New Orleans


And what does it have to do with New Orleans?

FIRST OFF... if you want to learn Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Absinthe (* but were afraid to ask), visit two superb sites: The Wormwood Society and La Fée Verte. If you'd like to learn more of absinthe's history and how real, properly-made absinthe such as the ones of old are now being made again, read this article from New Orleans' Gambit Weekly and this article from Wired magazine. To acquire the finest absinthes now being made, visit Absinthe Online (Jade Liqueurs makes some of the brands referred to in the above link). To avoid the worst absinthes now being made, do not buy anything advertising itself as a "make your own absinthe" kit, and do not buy anything called "absinth" (without the final "e") that originates in the Czech Republic (unless you like drinking mouthwash or window cleaner).

If you want a little general background on the subject and its relation to New Orleans culinary and drinking history, plus a few wacky tales of very silly and uninformed people drinking poison and thinking (quite incorrectly) that it's absinthe ... read on.

Absinthe is a strong herbal liqueur distilled with a great number of flavorful herbs like anise, licorice, hyssop, veronica, fennel, lemon balm, angelica and wormwood (the flavor of anise and/or licorice, at least in contemporary forms of the liquor, tends to predominate). Wormwood, the one that's gained the most notoriety, is Artemisia absinthum, an herb that grows wild in Europe and has been cultivated in the United States as well. Much of the liquor's legendary effect is due to its extremely high alcohol content, ranging from 50% to 75% (usually around 60%), plus the contribution of the various herbs. It has been assumed by many that the so-called "active ingredient" in absinthe is wormwood, although that is apparently not really the case.

It was traditionally served with ice water and a cube of sugar; the sugar cube was placed on a slotted "absinthe spoon", and the water was drizzled over the sugar into the glass of absinthe (typically in a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio). The sugar helped take the bitter edge from the absinthe, and when the water is drizzled into the the liquor it all turns milky greenish-white (the effect is called "louche").

The drink was referred to in France as "La Fée Verte", or The Green Fairy, which is a reference to its often dazzling green color (depending on the brand). The color usually came from the chlorophyll content of the herbs used in the distillation process; however, some disreputable manufacturers added toxic chemicals to produce both the green color and the louche (or clouding) effect that in reputable brands was caused by the precipitation of the essential oils of the herbs. It is quite probable that the bad reputation absinthe developed was due to these low-grade and perhaps quite poisonous version of the real thing.

Wormwood had been used medicinally since the Middle Ages, primarily to exterminate tapeworm infestations while leaving the human host uninjured and even rejuvenated by the experience. At the end of the 18th century -- the age of revolution and skeptical humanism -- the herb developed a recreational vogue. People discovered they could get high off it. The problem was the means of delivery, as it was unacceptably bitter in taste.

A French expatriate living in Switzerland by the name of Dr. Ordinaire found the answer by inventing absinthe, which delivered both the herb and alcohol in a stunningly tart beverage, with a flavor resembling licorice. The most well-known maker of absinthe was French distiller Henri-Louis Pernod, who was impressed with Dr. Ordinaire's beverages and purchased the secrets of its distillation and manufacture. Absinthe would eventually enjoy its greatest popularity in fin-de-siècle Paris, with Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Verlaine, Alfred Jarry and Oscar Wilde among its most ardent imbibers.

Given the French character of the Crescent City, absinthe achieved quite a bit of popularity in New Orleans as well, where it was widely consumed by people from artists to musicians to Storyville madams. Visitors to New Orleans can still check out the beautiful, ornate spigot at the Old Absinthe House bar on Bourbon Street; it was used to drip cold water over the sugar into the beverage. (Note: I haven't been to that bar in a while, but I understand it was recently sold and gutted; I'm not sure the original spigot is still there.)

Around the turn of the century, after observing a subset of alcoholism referred to as "absinthism", and noting that heavy absinthe users had a propensity toward madness and suicide, by the second decade of this century it became banned in the Western world, unfairly lumped in with opiates, cocaine, and marijuana when it is, in fact, just another alcoholic beverage (although one with unique properties). Although the effects of thujone can be toxic when consumed in very large quantities, this substance is found in properly made and distilled absinthe in only the smallest trace amounts. The most popular misconception about absinthe is that it is a drug. "Not so!" says the Fée Verte FAQ. As for the so-called "secondary effect", we refer you again to the FAQ:

[Q]uality absinthe, properly distilled, does have a different effect over and above the results of alcohol, though at up to 70%, the effects of the alcohol alone can be considerable. Absinthe's effects, despite popular conception, are not due to the wormwood (Artemisia Absinthia) alone. Absinthe's constituents consist of a very delicate balance of various herbs, most of which contribute in one way or another to its intoxicating effects. [Chemist and absinthe expert] Ted Breaux once explained it that it is a push-me, pull-you effect of the various herbs, as some are of an heightening effect, and others are lowering. The effect on the individual is subjective, and can best be described as a kind of heightened clarity of mind and vision, mildly ponderous and sparkling, and warmed by the effect of the alcohol. This seems to wear off after 20 or 30 minutes, leaving one with an alcohol buzz. 2-3 glasses seems to do the trick. More than that, depending on the proof of the alcohol, will just make you very drunk.

But saying all that, 'secondary effects' seem to be quite subjective. Some have never felt them at all. Some say one brand works for them, others another. Many absintheurs ... have placed absinthe's 'effects' low on their priority list when it comes to judging modern commercial absinthes, preferring to focus on actual herbal constituents, manufacture and historical detail.

When considering why the temperance groups were so keen to ban absinthe in the last century, one must also consider the contribution of the high alcohol content to "absinthism", as well as the flood of cheap and adulterated products in the market at its heyday (many unscrupulous absinthe manufacturers added toxic chemicals to the brew to achieve the green color and the "clouding" effect when the water is added, both of which came from wholly natural and herbal sources in proper absinthe). When someone consumes 20 or more glasses a day of a 120-150 proof alcoholic beverage (which were possibly contaminated with toxic metals as well), it can tend to have a deleterious effect on them.

Whether it was a bad rap or not, absinthe, in New Orleans, as well as in the rest of the United States, was banned in 1912. Interestingly, however, the current U.S. Customs restrictions on the importation of absinthe only date to 1958. The USDA and FDA regulations also ban the sale or importation of any beverage containing wormwood.

Unlike other proscribed drugs, however, absinthe failed to attract alternative entrepreneurs. As a liquid, the risk and cost of smuggling it made it far less attractive a product than a powder or dried leaves. It's also relatively mild in comparison to truly dangerous drugs, so for the most part nobody bothers with any active efforts to go after the few absintheurs there may be.

After its banning, imitations, using anise and other legal herbs in place of wormwood, appeared. The most well-known is contemporary Pernod, which was originally the best and most famous brand of absinthe; it's still made today but the similarity is only in color and brand-name. Pernod now has very little of the very floral, herbal content of the Pernod Fils Absinthe of old, is now a pastis with a strong anise flavor, and by all accounts is an entirely different beverage today. In New Orleans, the preferred absinthe substitute is Herbsaint, a locally-made anise liquor which is used in cocktails as well as in cooking. It's an absolutely lovely-tasting pastis drink, at 90 proof, and has a flavor that I believe to be superior to Pernod. It's also used in making the superb local cocktail called The Sazerac.

Regarding the issue of thujone content in absinthe (which some less than scrupulous makers tout as a reason to buy their brand) ... thujone from wormwood herb is present in absinthe, but in such trace amounts that by the time you consumed a toxic dose you'd be dead of alcohol poisoning, many times over. Apparently the distillation process removes most if not all of the toxicity of the wormwood in well-made absinthe; that, plus its trace amounts in the elixir, make absinthe -- consumed responsibly, as any strong spirit -- perfectly safe. Additionally, wormwood is also one of the herbs used (in trace amounts) to make that flavored wine and essential Martini ingredient that we all know as vermouth. The name of the drink comes from the German wermuth, which means wormwood.

Also, the truth is ... you can kill a rat by giving him the same amount of essential oil of coriander as essential oil of wormwood.

Learned experts on the subject of absinthe also assert, after careful chemical study of the original recipes and processes, that the storied effects of thujone in absinthe are highly overrated. Any elusive "secondary effect" above and beyond the alcohol in absinthe is due to the multiple effects of the myriad herbs found in real absinthe -- some do this, some do that, some bring up, some bring down. It's a combination of the herbs that does it (whatever "it" is, if anything).

However, there are a lot of really stupid and misinformed people out there who think that wormwood is The Key to Everything, and seek pure essential oils of wormwood in an extremely misguided attempt to "get high". It has been shown that consuming pure essential oil of wormwood, a poisonous concentrate containing high amounts of thujone and with neurotoxins intact, can cause renal failure and death if consumed. Pure essential oil of wormwood is not absinthe. IT IS POISON.

The New England Journal of Medicine, in reporting a case of renal failure in a man who drank as little as 10ml of wormwood oil, notes that French research in the 1860s in which small doses of pure wormwood oil were administered to dogs and rabbits led to "convulsions, involuntary evacuations, abnormal respiration and foaming at the mouth." Gee, sounds pleasant, doesn't it? You don't want to be drinking this stuff in some lame attempt to get high. Most essential oils are highly concentrated and not meant for internal consumption in this manner.

It was reported in the early 20th Century that patients hospitalized in Paris for absinthe intoxication were noted to suffer "epileptiform activity (seizures), chest effusion, reddish urine and kidney congestion", and while patients did experience alterations in consciousness, auditory and visual hallucinations, they also suffered terrible seizures and kidney problems. This seems to have been another big reason for its being banned, although these effects are much more likely to have been due to the contaminants and metals in the cheap absinthes consumed by the poorer classes, and not from any of the well-made products. Absinthe seems to be more of a victim of a zealous prohobitionist and temperance movement than being a victim of its ingredients.

If one obtains true, well-made absinthe it is perfectly safe if consumed in reasonable moderation, as with any other alcoholic beverage with a similar content of alcohol. Getting drunk on it all the time is at least no worse than getting drunk on anything all the time, so there's no need for all this fuss. Also, it goes without saying that anyone who voluntarily drinks pure essential oil of wormwood is as stupid and suicidal as anyone who drinks from a container of poison.

Absinthe is still available in many parts of Europe, including France, Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic and the U.K., where in the late 1990s it became the trendy thing amongst patrons of bars and coffeehouses. A word about Czech-made absinthes, usually spelled "absinth": During my Spring 1996 trip to Eastern Europe, I sampled what I thought to be a modern iteration of The Green Fairy for the first time in the form of locally-made Hill's "Absinth" at the Globe Coffeehouse and Bookstore in Prague. I was quite curious, and in the interests of taking a dip into New Orleans history, I ordered some. It was bluish-green, and was served neat -- not in the old traditional manner, with an absinthe spoon and sugar cube. I don't think tradition would have helped. I thought it tasted ... quite vile, actually; I found it almost completely unpalatable.

It had a powerful kick, due to its high alcohol content, and my travelling companion opined that it smelled to him rather like turpentine. Unfortunately, its flavor wasn't far from his description, and was nothing like the Herbsaint pastis that I had come to enjoy so much, or the historically accurate French and Swiss absinthes I had come to enjoy later. That night, I did not order another.

There was no louching, and a very artificial-looking color. I've since learned that this Czech brand, Hill's, has been described as tasting like a cross between mouthwash window cleaner by absinthe connoisseurs, which is not surprising. (In fact, I've never sampled a Czech-made absinthe that I liked, and I recommend caution with most Czech-made brands. They are made to cater to Czech tastes, and not to those who seek historically accurate French- and Swiss-style absinthes.)

If you plan to sample absinthe in reasonable, moderate quantities, I can recommend a few. The rage among absintheurs in the know is currently the brands made by New Orleanian Ted Breaux via Jade Liqueurs. Jade's Absinthe Nouvelle-Orléans is a spectacular product, beautifully made, sophisticated in flavor and, according to Ted's painstaking researches, absolutely authentic with regards to historical absinthe at its finest as consumed in New Orleans during la Belle Époque. Jade also produces Absinthe Edouard and Verte Suisse 65, which I have yet to try but are reputed to also be perfect examples of the very highest distiller's art.

Also well-regarded is French absinthe "Un Emile 68", which I have yet to try. Among the more anise-heavy Spanish brands, Deva and Mari Mayans are fairly good. Deva has more of a bitter edge to it and benefits from the addition of a sugar cube, while Mari Mayans has a nice sweetish flavor not unlike my own beloved Herbsaint pastis, making the additional sugar optional. According to legend, the best absinthe was the world is the elusive Swiss elixir usually called "La Bleue". Absinthe was highly illegal in Switzerland (the first country to jump on the absinthe-banning bandwagon), but it was recently re-legalized and Swiss-style absinthes are becoming available again.

If you're seeking sources of European and other absinthes, follow the above links, be resourceful and do web searches. Remember that everything you think you know about absinthe is most probably wrong. Read the FAQ.

I am not an expert or authority on absinthe, I know very little about it other than what's here and what I've read, and from having sampled some fairly good quality product here and there. I originally put this article on my web site solely because of the historical relevance of absinthe to New Orleans, where it was once widely consumed, and the use of absinthe substitutes (Herbsaint, Pernod) in the contemporary cuisine. Along the way, I learned more and more and corrected many of my own misconceptions about this mysterious and elusive elixir (and have rewritten this article about a thousand times).

For a while after that NEJM article ran, I started getting numerous and incessant emails from people who are not interested in historically proper versions of the liquor, but who instead seem hell-bent on acquiring information on how to use poisonous chemicals to make it themselves, no matter how many times such a thing is described as harmful (yeah, right ... you can make true absinthe just as well as you can make single-malt Scotch, or good champagne; leave it to knowledgeable distillers). It's apparently oh-so-trendy these days, and there have been numerous idiots who emailed me on the subject of finding it seem only to want to get stoned in a new way, rather than to enjoy a good, well-made European absinthe for its flavor, to recapture a bit of history and ritual from the Belle Epoque, and to enjoy its effects as with any other spirit.

Why all this ranting on my part? Primarily because got sick of all the silly email and the unwanted and unwarranted notoriety I've gotten because of this little web page (see below).

I have a historical interest in this subject, and I'm a fan of pastis liquors (especially my beloved local Herbsaint). I'm not a teetotaler, and I'm not a temperance crusader. Although I believe that a glass or three here and there is just fine and perfectly safe (if you can get it), the problem with all this nascent absinthe interest is not in drinking the real stuff that's made by reputable distillers, but in drinking the stuff people make in their bathtubs, or by steeping dried wormwood in vodka or Pernod (which I've sampled and which tastes absolutely horrible; it needs to be properly distilled, people, from a complex formula) or by doing something monumentally stupid like quaffing pure wormwood oil.

All you would-be home absinthe-makers should be aware that the New England Journal of Medicine reported that some extremely ill-advised individual ended up in the hospital and nearly died because he drank essential oil of wormwood, a pure form of the toxic ingredient in absinthe described below, after having allegedly read this very article on The Gumbo Pages. (Turns out he had never been to my site at all.) Read all about it, with my comments and disclaimers. Anyone who doesn't really know what he or she is doing should really leave the essential oils alone.

As I've mentioned before, there's a superb site called La Fée Verte, which has been described as "the nexus of all online absinthe activity". This beautifully-designed site has everything you might want to know, including the best, most informative and most well-researched absinthe FAQ available anywhere.

You may come across various "recipes" on the net that purport to be for making your own "bathtub" absinthe at home, and almost off of which involve steeping dried womrwood and various other herbs in vodka or grain alcohol. I don't really recommend this. It'll probably taste terrible, unless you have a professional still (better watch for them revenooers) and lots of skill in making herbal liquors. And DO NOT DRINK ESSENTIAL OIL OF WORMWOOD, EVER, unless you want to end up in the hospital or dead.

As I've said, I've gotten a lot of mail on the subject -- some of it really interesting and informative, some of it stupid, and a great deal of it mind-bogglingly stupid. Wanna read some of it?

I do a web site that's mostly about New Orleans, and all that hoo-hah was my punishment for being nice enough to include an article about how absinthe figured into New Orleans' culinary history. If you want the stuff, do a web search or see the above links. I welcome friendly, informative, inquiring, misconception-correcting and intelligent email on the subject. If you send stupid email, I'll either trash it, publicly ridicule it, or both. Sorry to be so brusque, but you'd be sick of it all too, believe me...

(This article was originally based on a short article by Vicki Richman, who contributed it to the site in 1995. Since then, I have substantially rewritten and expanded the original article to the point where the original article basically no longer exists, but still wish to acknowledge the inspiration for this article.)

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Chuck Taggart   (e-mail chuck)