Absinthe is a notorious alcoholic spirit popularised by an antiquated reputation for causing hallucinations. In this guide, we’ll clarify the rumours and teach you everything you need to know about absinthe including how its made, its ingredients, how its served, and the best brands to buy:
- What Is Absinthe?
- What Are The Effects Of Absinthe?
- Is Absinthe Legal In The USA?
- How Absinthe Is Made
- Different Types & Varieties Of Absinthe
- How To Serve & Drink Absinthe
- Popular Absinthe Cocktails
- Similar Drinks & Substitutes
- Benefits Of Absinthe
- Where To Buy Absinthe
- Top 10 Absinthe Brands
Simply use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read out entire detailed guide.
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What Is Absinthe?
Absinthe is a strong alcoholic spirit with a distinctive anise flavour produced using a process very similar to gin. It is typically distilled from white wine eau-de-vie and undergoes several macerations with a variety of botanicals including grand wormwood, green anise, and Florence fennel.
During its short but colourful history, absinthe has experienced unparalleled acclaim as well as an international ban that spanned nearly a century. Today, absinthe continues to be produced predominantly in France and Switzerland as well as the Czech Republic.
The History Of Absinthe
Although the medicinal use of wormwood can be traced back to Ancient Egypt as well as an Ancient Greek wormwood wine called “absinthites oinos”, the first production of absinthe was recorded as recently as the 18th century.
The development of absinthe is often credited between Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, the Henriod sisters, Major Daniel-Henri Dubied, and Abram-Louis Pernod. In most cases, absinthe is associated with the Swiss Val-de-Travers region, which is also famous for watchmaking.
Specifically, documents suggest that absinthe production began in the village of Couvet as “extrait d’absinthe” during the second half of the 18th century. Dubied Père et Fils is supposedly one of the earliest commercial distilleries, which opened in 1797 using a recipe by the Henriod sisters.
Meanwhile, Pontarlier just across the border became an absinthe production hub in France with distilleries like Pernod Fils opening as early as 1805.
Absinthe was issued to French troops as a malaria treatment during the 1840s before it was eventually replaced by quinquina. However, this launched malaria’s popularity when returning officers ordered it in cafés.
Indeed, absinthe became so prevalent that it even had its own 420! 5pm was often referred to as l’heure verte or “the green hour”. When the production of absinthe industrialised by the second half of the 19th century, its demand boomed.
Before it was banned, France consumed 35 million litres per year compared to only 5 million litres of wine.
Absinthe’s Relationship With Art & Literature
During the Belle Epoque, absinthe became associated with the Parisian artistic bohemian subculture. As a result, it often inspired or was even featured in the works of a variety of artists, including the following:
- Charles Baudelaire
- Émile Cohl
- Aleister Crowley
- Edgar Degas
- Ernest Dowson
- Paul Gauguin
- Vincent van Gogh
- Ernest Hemingway
- Alfred Jarry
- Édouard Manet
- Guy de Maupassant
- Amedeo Modigliani
- Pablo Picasso
- Arthur Rimbaud
- Erik Satie
- August Strindberg
- Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
- Mark Twain
- Paul Verlaine
- Oscar Wilde
- Émile Zola
Depictions of absinthe by the bohemian crowd were usually of affection. However, some artists and authors, including Degas and Zola, illustrated its addiction and supposed psychological effects.
References to the “green fairy” were popular by both its advocates and its opponents in the press. However, the green fairy didn’t appear in the film or literature until much later.
Indeed, absinthe’s mysterious lawlessness and seductive bohemian imagery has persevered and often plays a reoccurring theme in film and literature. For instance, it played an essential role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Interview With The Vampire (1994), and From Hell (2001).
In most cases, absinthe represents the dark forces of seduction, addiction, and delirium. However, it also has more lighthearted representations such as Moulin Rouge! (2001) and EuroTrip (2004).
Absinthe’s association with bohemian culture likely made it a target for social conservatives and prohibitionists. After all, bohemians were often the subject cause of controversy, and the period was experiencing growing crime and anti-social behaviour.
For instance, Vincent van Gogh allegedly cut off his ear during an absinthe hallucination. Similarly, the relationship between the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine dramatically ended when the latter was imprisoned for shooting the former in the hand.
As they were both known heavy drinkers of absinthe, the drink was blamed by the press.
Absinthe Effects & Hallucinations
Likewise, a string of other alcohol-related murders and violent crime was blamed on absinthe in particular. As a result, conservatives regarded what they referred to as “absinthism” as a more severe form of alcoholism.
Meanwhile, French psychiatrist Valentin Magnan studied alcoholism and experimented with wormwood oil during the 19th century. In his observations, he discovered that the pure oil caused seizures in animals.
As absinthe contains trace amounts, he concluded that it was the cause of the hallucinations and violent behaviour in alcoholics. This lead to the discovery of thujone, a chemical compound found in wormwood oil.
Indeed, it was then believed that absinthe contained around 300 milligrams per litre of thujone. Yet, more recent studies indicated that pre-prohibition bottles contained only trace amounts with an average of approximately 25 mg/l.
Indeed, it’s more likely that the few recorded cases where absinthe was to blame may have been caused by producers using copper salts to artificially create absinthe’s green colour. Similarly, butter of antimony, a known toxin, was sometimes used to cheaply reproduce the louching effect when adding water.
Therefore, it was first banned in France and Belgium in 1906 as well as Switzerland by referendum in 1908. Numerous European countries followed as well as the USA in 1912.
Is Absinthe Legal In The USA?
Although absinthe production continued illegally in parts of Switzerland and France, it was still legal in a few countries such as Spain and the Czech Republic. Indeed, Spain initially continued to make absinthe, but a fall in demand caused production to cease.
Meanwhile, Czech absinthe persisted. In the 1990s, the UK started importing absinthe as it had never officially banned the spirit. Over the following years, the renewed interest in absinthe grew and prompted a slow revival.
Initially, only Czech, Spanish and Portuguese absinthe was imported, but they often left enthusiasts wanting. At the turn of the century, France was the first to repeal the ban and begin producing it again. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland soon followed between 2004 and 2005.
Eventually, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau partially lifted the ban in 2007. However, it came with certain caveats that apply to domestic liquor stores and bars.
While thujone content in absinthe is limited to 35 mg/l in the European Union, the FDA’s new thujone content regulations require absinthe to be “thujone free”. Needless to say, this is technically impossible for genuine absinthe even with a 10 mg/kg threshold.
Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that this legislation only strictly applies to liquor stores and bars. Indeed, the importation of genuine absinthe for personal use is now perfectly legal!
How Absinthe Is Made
Interestingly, the manufacturing process for producing absinthe is very similar to gin. Indeed, it is produced by using botanicals that are steeped or macerated in a distilled alcohol base and then redistilled.
Although some cheaper brands will use grain or potato-based alcohol, traditional absinthe is redistilled from white grape spirit or eau de vie. After the distillation, the resulting distillate is colourless. Occasionally, it is immediately bottled, which produces clear or white “blanche” absinthe.
That said, it is often steeped with botanicals during a secondary maceration. This additional process will use the herbs’ chlorophyll to impart the distillate with a green tint. However, it also provides a rich and harmonious herbaceous complexity, which is a characteristic of premium absinthe.
Furthermore, the chlorophyll is still chemically active. Therefore, the added chemical compound may perform like oak tannins to age the spirit. After this ageing process is completed, the absinthe is then diluted with distilled water to the desired concentration and bottled.
Interestingly, a hallmark of naturally-coloured absinthe is its sensitivity to light. If exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods, the chlorophyll’s green hue will slowly turn brown.
Referred to as “feuille morte”, this process used to regarded favourably. However, long-term storage and ageing should take place in a dark environment. Similarly, absinthe should never be stored in a refrigerator as this may cause the anethole to polymers, which creates a sediment that affects the flavour.
Absinthe Herb & Ingredients
Almost all premium absinthe will use what is referred to as the Holy Trinity of botanicals:
- Grand Wormwood/Artemisia Absinthium
- Green Anise
- Florence Fennel
As mentioned above, artemisia absinthium is the infamous herb that experienced a long period of vilification. Interestingly, absinthe is also one of the main ingredients for producing vermouth.
Other common ingredients include coriander, veronica, peppermint, angelica, lemon balm, and hyssop. Occasionally, star anise may also be used to produce absinthe. However, this ingredient is best associated with pastis and ouzo.
Absinthe Alcohol Volume
Given that there are no global standards for the production of absinthe, its alcohol volume can significantly vary between producers and different countries. Typically, absinthe will be somewhere in the 45 to 75% ABV range. Meanwhile, Bohemian craft brands pride themselves in strong absinthes of between 85% to 30% ABV.
Different Types Of Absinthe & How They Taste
Arguably, there are only two types of absinthe as well as a potential third variety:
- Absinthe Verte: Green Absinthe
- Absinthe Blanche: White or Clear Absinthe
- Rosinette: Red Absinthe
Overall, the most popular types of absinthe by far are either green or clear absinthe. These are initially produced by following the same method as described above where clear absinthe is simply bottled earlier in the process.
Interestingly, clear absinthe became popular among clandestine “Hausgemacht” distillers in Switzerland during its prohibition. Referred to simply as “la bleue”, it was easier to hide from the authorities and has even survived green asbinthe’s reintroduction.
Nevertheless, absinthe can be produced in a variety of colours. For instance, red absinthe or “rosinette” was introduced during the early 20th century and is slowly making a comeback. Similarly, amber absinthe is another variety that is produced using herbs and spices such as saffron.
As long as the resulting colour is naturally achieved through a secondary maceration, the spirit can be considered genuine absinthe no matter the resulting colour. However, it’s essential to be wary that the colours weren’t artificially produced.
Finally, another modern variety of absinthe is “Bohemian-style absinth.” This Czech-style absinthe omits the final letter to differentiate itself from the original product. It bears little resemblance with absinthe as it does not use anise, fennel or other herbs aside from wormwood.
How To Serve & Drink Absinthe
When diluted with water, absinthe becomes cloudy due to the presence of anise oils called terpenes. As terpenes are soluble in a liquid of above 30% ethanol, they are initially clear in appearance. However, when diluted below the 30% threshold, the oils produce a cloudy precipitate.
Indeed, this phenomenon is referred to as “the louche” and plays an important role when serving absinthe.
What Is An Absinthe Spoon?
During the late 19th century, several accessories were introduced to Parisian cafés for serving absinthe. One of the most commonplace is a unique slotted spoon, which is used for louching, a process that we describe below.
Meanwhile, absinthe fountains are used for storing large quantities of ice water with taps for serving it into a glass. Similarly, specially-designed glasses are occasionally utilised for absinthe, which have bulges to indicate the recommended quantities of spirit and water to add.
French Absinthe Serving Method
Traditionally, absinthe is served in a small glass with a sugar cube, a spoon, and a carafe of ice water. Usually, the spoon is slotted as described above, but the rear of a regular teaspoon can be used too.
The spoon is then fixed onto the glass thanks to a small ridge that helps it sit securely in place. Afterwards, the sugar cube is added on the spoon, and the water is carefully poured over it. The spoon can then be removed and used to stir the contents if desired.
Like adding droplets of water to whisky, louching releases the absinthe’s aromatic compounds and reveals its complex subtleties.
Both the decision to add the sugar cube and the quantity of water used are a matter of personal preference. Generally, a typical absinthe preparation will consist of one part absinthe and between three to five parts water.
Bohemian Absinthe Serving Method
Although it provokes romantic imagery, the Bohemian method is quite recent and is Czech in origin. Since Bohemian-style absinth doesn’t louche, the French method serves little purpose.
However, Bohemian absinth is very strong in alcohol. Therefore, the infused sugar cube is set alight with a match, which causes it to melt into the glass. This process is often discouraged with traditional absinthe; it presents a fire hazard and can damage the absinthe’s flavours.
Popular Absinthe Cocktail Recipes
Despite absinthe’s ban, it was the focus of attention in many bartending publications and a popular cocktail ingredient. Rarely a main ingredient due to its strength, it’s often enjoyed as a splash to add an extra layer of complexity to a concoction.
Death In The Afternoon
Also referred to as the “Hemingway” or “Hemingway Champagne”, it was concocted by the author himself and named after his 1932 novel. To enjoy his iconic cocktail, simply pour 1 part absinthe into a coupe glass and top it up with four parts champagne!
Alternatively, you can follow Hemingway’s original instructions for a more authentic experience:
“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”
Thanks to New Orlean’s francophone heritage, it became culturally associated with absinthe and is credited with inventing the Sazerac. This cocktail was served in iconic venues like The Old Absinthe House, which was renamed the Absinthe Room in 1874.
You will need two tumbler glasses to make this cocktail. In the first one, pour in a splash of absinthe and swirl it until it leaves a thin coating inside. In the second glass, stir a double shot of cognac, a few dashes of bitters, and a sugar cube with ice then strain into the first glass.
McKinley’s Delight is another fantastic historical cocktail that was created in 1896 to celebrate the 25th president’s election. Shake two parts rye whiskey, one part vermouth, one part Kirschwasser, and a teaspoon of absinthe with ice. Shake or stir and then strain into a martini glass.
Absinthe Substitutes & Similar Drinks
If you’re looking for a similar experience to absinthe but are still concerned about thujone, there are several possible substitutes.
For instance, pastis is a French spirit that was developed following the absinthe ban. Pastis is produced using star anise and liquorice root, which results in a distinctive herbal flavour. Like absinthe, it is typically diluted with water.
Meanwhile, ouzo and sambuca are two other anise-flavoured spirits from Greece and Italy, respectively. Otherwise, akvavit is a Scandinavian spirit that occasionally uses anise during the maceration process.
Are There Health Benefits To Drinking Absinthe?
Despite the controversy, wormwood does have some benefits in small doses. Indeed, excites the central nervous system and has several therapeutic uses. For instance, it can help with digestion problems such as intestinal spasms and loss of appetite.
Similarly, it has been known to help treat fevers, liver disease, and memory loss.
Otherwise, you needn’t be worried about its thujone content. Indeed, studies indicate that you would have to consume over half a litre of EU regulation-level absinthe in order to experience any impairment due to thujone.
At that point, the thujone is the least of your worries!
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Absinthe
Authentic absinthe is gluten-free, so those with a sensitivity to the protein can happily enjoy it. However, be mindful that cheaper absinthe often uses added flavourings and ingredients so there may be some exceptions.
Additionally, wormwood is occasionally used to treat Crohn’s disease as well as a kidney disorder called IgA nephropathy.
Otherwise, a typical shot of absinthe contains about 103 calories and no carbohydrates. Just remember not to use the sugar cube if you’re watching your weight!
Where To Buy Absinthe
Some modern brands of absinthe is cheaply manufactured through a cold mix process, which simply consists of blending artificial colouring and flavouring in alcohol. As absinthe has no legal definition outside of Switzerland, this inferior product is frequently marketed alongside authentic absinthe.
Therefore, great care must be taken in ensuring that the absinthe you buy is genuine. Additionally, real absinthe with levels of thujone above 10mg/l cannot be sold in stores in the USA.
However, it can legally be imported for personal use. Therefore, merely the best place to buy authentic absinthe is online. Although a few absinthe brands we enjoy are available on Drizly and Reserve Bar, our favourite absinthe specialist is appropriately called Absinthes.com.
Based in Germany and operating under the name Rueverte GmbH, which means “green road” in French, Absinthes.com is a legitimate exporter of alcoholic spirits.
Their site specialises solely in genuine absinthe spirits and accessories with some of the largest ranges we have seen yet! Additionally, they also stock a variety of sampling sets for newcomers who wish to try the product for the first time.
Top 10 Best Absinthe Brands
As mentioned above, we will now cover the top 10 best absinthe brands that you can buy online:
- Emile Pernot Roquette 1797 [France]
- A. Junod Clear Absinthe [France]
- Artemisia-Bugnon La Clandestine [Switzerland]
- Jade Esprit Edouard [France]
- François Guy Absinthe Pontarlier [France]
- Svensk Absint Grön Opal
- Emile Pernot Vieux Pontarlier [France]
- Martin Zufanek St. Antoine [Czech Republic]
- Matter Luginbühl Mansithe [Switzerland]
- Artemisia-Bugnon Butterfly [Switzerland]
Scroll down to see them all or jump ahead using the links above.
Named after Dr. Pierre Ordinaire’s horse, Roquette’s recipe is based on an unpublished and hand-written manuscript from 1797. The result is richly herbaceous with a velvety marriage of the three celebrated herbs.
If you’re looking for a traditional green absinthe that’s faithful to the pre-prohibition concoction, this is an authentic specimen.
"An authentic Pontarlier absinthe produced with a rich, velvety mouthfeel that's loyal to the spirit's heritage."
Another creation from the Emile Pernot distillery, this particular creation is named after Auguste Junod, a famous distiller and pioneer aviator of the Belle Epoque. Today, Junod continues to travel and his absinthe has toured a number of film festivals including Cannes and the Academy Awards.
Eight botanicals are macerated to produce its distillate so it’s surprisingly herbaceous for a clear absinthe. Furthermore, it features a beautiful label by the Colombian artist, Randy Mora.
Claude-Alain Bugnon was the first clandestine distiller to receive a legal status from the Swiss government in 2005. Therefore, his refreshing yet mellow flagship concoction is truly aptly named since he had been producing absinthe since 2000!
This clear absinthe is delivered in a distinctive blue bottle in reference to the Bleue he used to produce. Additionally, the name Charlotte on the bottle pays homage to the woman who created the recipe in 1935.
Esprit Edouard is a carefully reproduced replica of the historical absinthe by Edouard Pernod based on perfectly-preserved bottles that were discovered a century later. Edouard Pernod was one of the most popular absinthes during the Belle Epoque so it’s a significant production!
From what we hear, it isn’t an exact copy of the original. However, it delivers a rich character with an aromatic complexity of spices and green anise.
François Guy was the first distillery to relaunch absinthe production and had planted 55,000 wormwood plants by the following year. Awarded a gold medal at both the prestigious Concours Général Agricole on two occasions, François Guy’s absinthe is a celebrated classic.
It was developed based on recipes that are over a century old and uses traditional processes to produce its time-tested aromas. The result is a polished and anise-forward product with lavish herbal flavour.
Founded by Mikael Norell and Tomas Runnquist in 2009, Svensk Absinth produced the Sweden’s first ever clear absinthe. Some time later, they surpassed themselves with a small-batch green absinthe using quality ingredients that are harvest by hand.
Grön Opal produces a vibrant emerald hue that beautifully louches with a velvety thickness. Its aromas of wormwood are remarkably vivid but is restrained in its balanced level of bitterness.
Emile Pernot’s Vieux Pontarlier is a celebrated historical concoction that is faithful to its tradition. Since 2008, it has received over 10 awards and is a favourite of many absinthe enthusiasts.
Its slightly yellowed jade hue locuhes with thick clouds and a clean surface. Meanwhile, its aromas are generous with anise with a light presence of spices and a creamy herbal edge.
Martin Zufanek launched his distillery in 2000 to initially produce liqueurs. However, just a few year later, he transitioned to absinthe. Although the Czech Republic is known to make Bohemian absinth, St Antoine is faithfully based upon a French recipe.
Therefore, it’s a wonderfully authentic experience and very well-priced too. Furthermore, the abinsthe is delivered in brown bottles to protect the liquid from sunlight.
Creatively named Mansinthe, Marilyn Manson’s absinthe is also distributed at 66.6% ABV. Does that make this the tipple of the beast? Indeed, Marilyn Manson has been very fond of absinthe ever since sixth album, “Eat Me, Drink Me”. In fact, Johnny Deep introduced him to the drink in 2000.
Therefore, he teamed up with Matter Luginbühl to produce his own product, which is strikingly labelled with his artwork “When I Get Old I Would Like a Drink”. It was released in 2007 and delivers a surprisingly earthy flavour, which evokes liquorice over aniseed.
Absinthe Butterly is another creation by Claude Alain Bugnon. It was inspired by American absinthe that was produced by P. Dempsey & Company in the early 20th century before the ban in 1912.
As a result, it has a distinctively yellow “feuille morte” hue. The flavours are full-bodied and offer a citrus sweet herbaceousness that is extended by creamy honey suckle.