The green muse. The green torment. La fée verte. The green fairy. Absinthe’s many names reflect its sordid past and questionable reputation. The vibrant green, anise-flavored spirit first gained popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it was widely enjoyed by some of the time’s greatest creative minds not only for its taste but also its reportedly hallucinogenic side effects. But was it really the driving force behind making them do crazy things like chop off an ear or commit murder? Not exactly.
Absinthe gets its hallucinogenic reputation from thujone, a component in grand wormwood, which is one of the spirit’s main ingredients. In very high doses, thujone can be toxic. If ingested in copious amounts, it blocks GABA receptors in the brain, which can cause epileptic-type seizures. But there’s not enough of it in absinthe to actually hurt you. In fact, there’s no scientific proof thujone actually causes hallucinations, even in high doses. While it might not make you see pink elephants or melting walls, absinthe is still seriously potent. It has a very high alcohol content—around 45% to 74% ABV, or 90 to 148 proof—which is double that of most spirits. So you’re actually more likely to get alcohol poisoning than experience any type of psychedelic visions if you drink too much of the stuff.
The History of Absinthe
Originally produced in late 19th-century Switzerland for medicinal purposes, absinthe quickly moved across the border into France where it experienced a surge in popularity. It was such a hit that bars instituted l’heure verte, or “green hour,” dedicated to absinthe consumption. In time, absinthe became even more celebrated than wine, and diners often shared a bottle of the green stuff with dinner instead of the traditional Bordeaux or Burgundy.
That all sounds perfectly civilized. So where exactly did it all go wrong for absinthe? In short: a perfect storm of absinthe opposers and alcohol-fueled murders. French winegrowers, unhappy about declining sales, started a smear campaign by creating propaganda linking absinthe’s purported hallucinogenic properties to murders. At the same time, temperance supporters were blaming absinthe for widespread alcoholism in Europe. In reality, absinthe was nothing more than a scapegoat, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the anti-absinthe campaigns worked, and by 1915, it was banned in America and most of Europe. Which is when pastis slid into the market — sort of.
Pastis didn’t actually see a surge in popularity for some 17 years, as France banned not only absinthe but all anise-based spirits. The government believed these aromatic liquors were sabotaging the war effort. When the prohibition of milder anise-based spirits (aka everything except absinthe) was finally lifted in 1932, Paul Ricard (who would eventually become the Ricard half of Pernod Ricard) was ready to fill the absinthe-fountain-sized hole in France’s heart with his pastis. Made and marketed in France as an absinthe replacement, the less potent spirit omitted the infamous wormwood and included a different type of anise.
Almost a century after absinthe was outlawed, lawmakers came to their senses and realized the green spirit was no more harmful than any other liquor, and the ban was lifted.
How Are Absinthe and Pastis Made?
Absinthe gets its signature color and flavor from green anise, fennel, various additional herbs and flowers, and grand wormwood. (Absinthe is actually the French word for grand wormwood.) Most traditional absinthes start with a neutral base spirit, though some nouveau brands have experimented with all types of bases. Absinthe has been made from things like Chardonnay grapes, Chilean pisco and even neutral bases infused with botanicals commonly found in gin, such as juniper and coriander.
After creating or sourcing a neutral base, a distiller infuses it with fennel, anise and wormwood. Then, he or she distills the aromatized mixture, and the resulting liquid is diluted. At this stage, the absinthe is clear. Many brands add herbs to the mix after distillation to color the liquid its signature green. Some less reputable producers will add artificial colorings, but that’s not real absinthe, if you ask us.
Pastis production is similar to that of absinthe with a few differences in ingredients. Whereas absinthe is made with green anise and wormwood, pastis gets its flavor from star anise, fennel and licorice. Pastis makers macerate those ingredients with other aromatic plants, depending on the recipe, and distill the mix. Then, they add sugar, making pastis a liqueur rather than a spirit.
Where Is Absinthe Made?
Val-de-Travers: Absinthe’s 18th-century birth place, Val-de-Travers is a region of Switzerland that extends from Lake Neuenburg to the French border. In spite of the prohibition and a onetime, worldwide ban of the spirit, distillers in the region continued to produce absinthe through the 20th century. Many distilleries made it without the final step (adding plants to color it green) so they could pass it off as a different (legal) spirit, which kicked off Switzerland’s tradition of making clear absinthe. This colorless version of the spirit is often called blanche or bleue. Val-de-Travers is also home to some of the best wormwood in the world.
Pontarlier: A town in Eastern France where the primary industry is herbal liquor distillation. It’s also considered the birthplace of the classic style of French absinthe made only with grand wormwood, anise, fennel, hyssop, melissa and petite wormwood.
Besançon: A French city east of Dijon. Historic distiller’s manuals say absinthes from this region were heavier on the fennel.
United States: Distilleries is the United States have come into their own since the absinthe ban was lifted in 2007. Some focus on making ultra-traditional versions, while others experiment with indigenous herbs like stinging nettle, meadowsweet and lemon thyme to create new, uniquely flavored domestic absinthes.
Czech Republic: The absinthe made in the Czech Republic is called bohemian-style absinth (no “e”) and often set on fire when served. It’s possible that some legitimate bohemian absinths exist out there, but typically, absinth is full of artificial colors and flavors instead of natural herbs and fruit extracts.
Is Absinthe Legal?
Absinthe has a long and storied history of being an illegal spirit. Popular culture often depicts absinthe as such, attributing hallucinations, psychosis and green fairy visions as being caused by the liquor. None of this is true, but that didn’t stop the United States from banning the spirit in 1912.
Absinthe was outlawed when the government declared that all food and beverages must be thujone-free. Thujone can be found in trace amounts in Artemisia absinthium, the wormwood from which absinthe gets its name. Therefore, imports were forbidden. Later tests of the green spirit found that the thujone levels in absinthe are extremely low. So low, in fact, that people would die of alcohol poisoning before ever feeling the effects that thujone can have on the brain. In October 2007, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued new guidelines on absinthe. From that day forward, any absinthe containing thujone is legal, as long as it contains less than 10 parts per million. Most absinthe was and is already under that threshold, so the law clarification essentially made all absinthe legal again for the first time since 1912.
Where Is Pastis Made?
Marseilles: Marseilles is the home of Ricard, which is perhaps the most famous brand of pastis, and it is the spirit’s primary production region. Marseilles pastis is usually made with an array of Provençal herbs like thyme, rosemary, savory and sage.
Forcalquier: Travel about 90 minutes northwest of Marseilles, and you’ll come to the commune of Forcalquier, where high-end pastis brand Henri Bardouin is produced. This and other bottlings from the area tend to be even herbier than their coastal brethren.
Absinthe and Pastis Styles
There are countless ways of making absinthe, mostly depending on whether distillers follow a traditional recipe or opt to utilize more modern ingredients and methods. But there are two main styles of absinthe: verte and blanche.
Verte: Traditional French absinthes get their green color by steeping the final distillate with chlorophyll-packed herbs.
Blanche: Blanche, sometimes called bleue, absinthe is made without the final coloration step, saving time and leaving the spirit as is — completely clear. During the absinthe ban, Swiss bootleggers kept their absinthe clear in order to pass it off as a different spirit. The clear version is now considered the country’s traditional style.
Pastis: Pastis is typically transparent amber, a color often created by the addition of caramel. But there are some brands creating clear (Charbay) and sky blue (Janot, P’tit Bleu) versions.
What are the Best Absinthe Brands to Buy?
Vieux Pontarlier: Citrusy and herbal with a strong fennel note, this absinthe tastes as traditional as it gets. It’s similar to what big absinthe fans like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were sipping in Paris back in the day, not like what you’ll get at a cheap dive bar.
Pernod Absinthe Original Recipe: This absinthe is made using a brandy base and wormwood from Pontarlier, France. It’s based off of a recipe from the 1800s and tastes slightly vegetal with black liquorice and lemon zest notes. You can find it in liquor stores and bars across the country, and it’s one of the best commercial absinthes that you can buy.
St. George Absinthe Verte: The first American absinthe made after the production ban was lifted in 2007. It’s infused with botanicals from around the Alameda, California distillery, and has a bit of a savory flavor to go along with the licorice and anise notes.
Leopold Brothers Absinthe Verte: Leopold Brothers makes their absinthe in Denver using a base of Chilean pisco. It’s infused with anise, fennel, grande wormwood, lemon balm and hyssop (a relative of the mint family). It’s fine to drink on its own, while a little water and sugar will add candied flavors of cinnamon, lime and licorice.
Delaware Phoenix Meadow of Love: Hailing from the Catskills in upstate New York, Delaware Phoenix’s absinthe uses ingredients sourced by hand by the distiller. It’s delicate and floral for an absinthe, and works well both in an absinthe drip and in cocktails.
How Do I Drink Absinthe and Pastis Straight?
To prepare absinthe in the traditional way, mix it with cold water, which not only helps dilute its potency but also creates a cloudy effect called le louche, or “the clouding.” This visual effect turns French absinthe’s deep green color to a milky, iridescent hue and turns the Swiss clear version into a liquid fog. During absinthe’s turn-of-the-century heyday, bartenders used drip fountains to dramatically showcase the louche. Don’t own an antique absinthe fountain? Simply drizzle water into the absinthe from a glass or carafe to recreate the effect at home. Both Swiss and French traditionalists add about three parts ice cold water to one part absinthe.
French-style absinthe is sometimes sweetened with a cube of sugar, but the Swiss usually skip this step. Place the sugar on a slotted spoon balanced on the rim of a glass. Then, slowly pour the water over the sugar, melting it into the liquor. Why not just use a fork? In the 1800s, sugar came in lumpy rocks rather than perfect cubes. The curvature of a spoon helped keep the sugar from falling into the glass and also added to the drink’s visual spectacle. This piece of absinthe paraphernalia, known as absinthiana, became a symbol of status. Cafes would use simple designs, while the wealthy commissioned engraved specialty sets from a silversmith.
Like absinthe, pastis is also diluted with water to balance its bitterness — typically five parts cold water to one part spirit. This too creates the louche effect and changes pastis’s appearance from a dark, transparent amber to a soft, milky yellow.
Notable Absinthe Cocktails
Corpse Reviver #2: A celebrated member of the Corpse Reviver cocktail series, originally created as a hangover cure, #2 is perhaps the most popular, as it’s equally strong and refreshing.
Rattlesnake: Similar to a whiskey sour, this cocktail gets extra kick from an absinthe rinse in the glass.
Brunelle: Some people add gin to this classic cocktail, but we prefer the original, using absinthe as the sole spirit.
Sazerac: Another drink made with an absinthe rinse, this rye-based cocktail is a New Orleans favorite and has experienced a resurgence in recent years.
Chrysanthemum: This deliciously complex classic mixes dry vermouth, Bénédictine and absinthe.
Remember the Maine: Featured in the writing of the great Charles H. Baker, this take on the Manhattan gets some sweetness from cherry liqueur and a bite from absinthe.
Absinthe Frappe: This simple, refreshing cocktail mixes absinthe with crushed ice, soda, mint and a touch of simple syrup.
Notable Pastis Cocktails
Death in the Afternoon: Ernest Hemingway is credited with inventing this cocktail with absinthe, but it quickly became one of the most popular pastis libations during the ban.
Pastis can be used as an absinthe substitute in almost any classic cocktail, so go ahead and experiment with a few!
Absinthe in Culture
- Absinthe was a notorious drink among artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in Paris. Baudelaire wrote poems about it, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso featured it in their paintings. Vincent van Gogh in particular loved absinthe and drank it to excess frequently. Toulouse-Lautrec even painted him drinking it, and once, van Gogh threw a glass of absinthe at Paul Gauguin. While some credit van Gogh’s signature proto-psychedelic painting style to his absinthe intake, it’s much more likely he was inspired by pre-existing mental conditions. Van Gogh suffered from an array of mental illnesses ranging from manic depression to epilepsy and even schizophrenia, so any hallucinations he may have experienced probably weren’t from absinthe at all. But his abuse of the high-proof spirit certainly didn’t do any favors for his psyche.
- Pastis and the French game petanque are a classic match. Players of the leisurely sport are often portrayed drinking the libation in artwork and literature because it happens so frequently in real life.
- "Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives... and to the ‘good life’, whatever it is and wherever it happens to be." - Hunter S. Thompson
- “After the first glass of absinthe 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. I mean disassociated. Take a top hat. You think you see it as it really is. But you don’t because you associate it with other things and ideas. If you had never heard of one before, and suddenly saw it alone, you’d be frightened, or you’d laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad. Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe, and thinking that I was singularly clear-headed and sane. The waiter came in and began watering the sawdust.The most wonderful flowers, tulips, lilies and roses, sprang up, and made a garden in the cafe. ‘Don’t you see them?’ I said to him. ‘Mais non, monsieur, il n’y a rien.’” - Oscar Wilde
- “The most powerful ingredient in pastis is not aniseed or alcohol but ambiance, and that dictates how and where it should be drunk. I cannot imagine drinking it in a hurry.” - Peter Mayle