People are still hung up on absinthe’s supposedly illicit past. We get it: Movies and TV won’t let the high-proof spirit live down its muddied reputation, and misinformation surrounding the green fairy is constantly being spread by those who were brought up thinking the stuff caused everything from hallucinations to psychosis.
But it’s time to clear up this smear campaign once and for all.
Will Elliott from the lauded absinthe bar Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, New York, says this dated perception of absinthe is slowly on its way out—at least in the city. “I think that word has spread slowly over the last five to seven years that there’s this honorable way to drink absinthe,” he says. “So there’s a lot less frat house ideas of lighting it on fire and its psychotropic tendencies.” (Which are false, anyway.)
He says he’s had to have “that discussion,” in which he dispels the myths surrounding absinthe, far less than he did five years ago, but admits that falsities persist. If you still haven’t gotten past the silly rumors about the high-proof spirit, here are three reasons why you should.
It Isn’t Actually Licorice Flavored
Despite the common notion that an absinthe drink is going to taste just like that dreaded black Jelly Bean, the spirit isn’t actually made from licorice root. It does, however, often have twinges of anise and fennel, which are similar in flavor to licorice but more subtle. Quality bottles of absinthe are typically flavored with a variety of other herbs and botanicals as well, including everything from lemon balm and coriander to spearmint and dried flowers. So if you’re afraid of taking a gulp of a liquified black Twizzler, don’t be. Good absinthe is much more nuanced than you might expect. “Absinthes run the gamut of bitters and dusty herbs. Others are more bright and floral,” says Elliott.
There’s More Than Just the Bright Green Stuff
While cartoons and filmdom depict absinthe as neon-green, we don’t recommend reaching for a bottle that matches, say, a kiwi—it’s probably chockfull of dye. Though much absinthe is a more tasteful shade of green—or vert, as they say in this style of absinthe’s native France—there are also a number of other styles to consider. Blanche absinthe is Swiss and, when prepared in a traditional Drip, has a milky white cast.
“Basically, the French style is made with a longer maceration process. It extracts more from all the botanicals and absinthe herbs, so it becomes deeper, darker green,” says Elliott, adding that it “makes sense” considering the longer maceration is leeching more chlorophyll out of the plants. “The Swiss style is a shorter maceration process, usually a single distillation, and so it tends to be more vegetal—there’s almost something candied about the anise in the French style.”
He adds that there are also plenty of outlier styles, including barrel aged absinthes, red absinthes flavored with hibiscus, and Germain-Robin, which he calls a “really distinctive outlier absinthe” that’s “really beautiful, super minty and floral, and almost gives way to tea tannins.”
You Don’t Have to Drink It Straight out of the Bottle
In fact, you shouldn’t. Absinthe, as Elliott notes in his tips on how to best enjoy the spirit, is meant to be mixed and diluted. On its own, absinthe is just too potent at 130-plus proof to glean any flavor nuance or enjoyment out of it. But he won’t push the point too much when people visit the bar. “I kind of get hands off in the sense of pushing it,” says Elliott. “The way I like to encourage it is through creating a context where it would be OK to enjoy absinthe.”
To do that, he says he makes a point to not put the focus directly on absinthe. Instead he starts inexperienced drinkers on a cocktail that uses minimal amounts and won’t scare anyone away with the flavor. “A classic absinthe cocktail is the Rattlesnake—it’s a Whiskey Sour with a little bit of absinthe,” he says. “I know that’s going to appeal to a certain kind of person—even though they may not like absinthe. They like rye whiskey. They’ve told themselves a million times they love sours. So you make them a Rattlesnake.”
Before you know it, you might just be an absinthe lover.