Charming the disreputable, sordid, and rakishly appealing green fairy.
Follow these steps, and keep the firearms locked up.
Long before absinthe was used by French poets to evoke the muse, or to forget the fact that they couldn’t, it was an ancient cure-all, a “vivifying elixir” prescribed by Pythagoras and Hippocrates. The word itself is derived from the Greek “apsinthion” or “undrinkable.”
Modern absinthe was thought to be developed in 1792 by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, who stumbled on Artemisia absinthium—grand wormwood—mixed it with herbs to kill the taste, and eventually created a popular local remedy. We now know that decades earlier the Henriod sisters were already selling the potion, and eventually the secret recipe itself, to a visiting Frenchman, Major Dubied, whose son-in-law—named Pernod—distilled the first mass-marketed absinthe.
The drink was a favorite among fin de siècle artists and ne’er-do-wells. However, in August of 1905 Jean Lanfray, a Swiss laborer, began his day with an absinthe, downed a cognac and a crème de menthe after work, then went home to murder his wife and two daughters. It was never proven that absinthe was to blame, but, because of a powerful winemaking lobby, the drink was outlawed across America and most of Europe. (To be fair, there were also a few incidents involving axe-wielding absinthe drinkers, and a steady stream of drunk bohemians littering the Champs-Élysées.)
Growing up during the absinthe prohibition era, whenever real absinthe was available, I drank it. In Tokyo during the 90s, I lived across the street from Red Bird, a rockabilly bar where sculpturally-coiffed, chain-smoking, sullen bartenders would serve Red Stripe and absinthe. Then several years later, after I moved to Brooklyn, the drink was relegalized in 2007. Just down the block, Barbès, a French bar and performance space, began selling the beloved green fairy.
But how do you prepare the drink? Good question. The traditional technique is known as the French Method or la louche…
1. Buy some genuine absinthe. Don’t let the snoots and poseurs fool you. Genuine means lots of alcohol—typically 120-150 proof—and Artemisia absinthium.
2. Pour yourself two fingers. A fancy reservoir glass might make you feel like a real boulevardier, or Rimbaud’s cousin, but it won’t make the drink taste any better. I use a promotional Jim Beam glass with a chipped rim, and it works just fine.
3. Get a perforated spoon. Lay it across the top of the glass.
4. Put a sugar cube on the spoon, directly over a perforation. Don’t get cute here. Honey, stevia or light agave nectar just won’t cut the moutarde. You need to go all in. Would Van Gogh have skimped and only cut off a little elbow skin? No, because it wouldn’t be the same. Use a real sugar cube.
5. Slowly—very slowly; eyeball-surgery slowly—pour iced water over the sugar. You don’t need to invest in an absinthe fountain—an ornate, old-fashioned, multi-spigotted water dispenser—but they do look pretty cool. An eyedropper or pipette will do the trick, but I use an old beaker.
6. As the sugar dissolves and water mixes with the absinthe, your drink will become milky, yellow, iridescent. The nuance and herbal essences will be unveiled.
That’s it. You’re now ready to sip—absinthe isn’t for chugging.