Absinthe, the potent green spirit that symbolizes the Bohemian movement of late 19th-Century Paris, has a complex and controversial history. The birthplace of modern absinthe, as we know it today, is the Val de Travers, a valley just west of Lake Neuchatel, western Switzerland. While the drink's precise origins are hard to pin down, there is evidence that Artemisia absinthium was used to make beverages in Egypt and Greece as far back as 1500 BC.
Artemisia absinthium is absinthe's defining ingredient and is a member of the large Asteraceae family, which includes daisies and sunflowers. Through its associations with absinthe, Artemisia absinthium has a certain mystique, but it is in fact a close relative of the popular household herb, tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus). Commonly known as Wormwood, Artemisia absinthium was historically used to make Vermouth, the flavored wine to which it gave its name. (Wormwood, Wermut and Vermouth share a common etymology).
Several other botanicals add to the drink's distinctive flavor. Anise and fennel, close relatives in the Apiaceae family (which includes coriander, caraway, cumin, fennel and celery) are the two best known of these but, as there are very few rules governing absinthe production, the list of potential ingredients is quite broad. The precise combination of herbs used is dependent on the producer and in some cases can vary from batch to batch.
There is no sugar added in the absinthe production process, which means it is a spirit rather than a liqueur, as it can be erroneously classified. Contrary to popular perception, not all absinthe is green – it can also be colorless, or tinged red with the pigment of hibiscus flowers.
The psychoactive properties that have made absinthe both famous and infamous have been widely exaggerated over the years, both by the drink's detractors and proponents. Celebrated artists Vincent Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec did much to raise absinthe's profile, as did Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde, who once allegedly hallucinated that tulip heads were brushing against his legs as he swayed out of a Paris bar.
The drink's supposed hallucinogenic qualities were once thought to be a result of thujone, an organic compound found in Artemisia absinthium as well as in such commonly used herbs as sage, oregano and juniper, but it has now been shown that thujone is not a hallucinogen.
Because of its associations with alcoholism, depression and anti-social behavior, absinthe was banned in the early years of the 20th Century in various countries. Switzerland was among the first to make it illegal, followed soon after by the Netherlands, the United States and finally France. Significantly, because absinthe had not been taken up with any great enthusiasm in the U.K., the British government took no such action. It was this that permitted the re-emergence of absinthe in the 1990s, a wave of interest that started in Britain. Brands like Kubler (Switzerland) Lucid, La Fée Verte (both French) and St George Absinthe Verte (from California) are now distributed all over the world.
Absinthe Drip – with sugar and water
Sazerac – with rye whiskey and bitters
Chrysanthemum – with vermouth and Benedictine