The Art Of Drinking Absinthe, The Liquor Of Aesthetes
There's something romantic about absinthe — that naturally green liquor derived from wormwood and herbs like anise or fennel. Vincent Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde drank it. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso filled the glasses of cafe patrons with absinthe in their paintings. Absinthe was a drink of aesthetes.
Yet it was not art, but necessity that first helped popularize absinthe: It was included in the rations of French soldiers who marched off to colonize Algeria in the 1840s. As Betina Wittels and Robert Hermesch write in Absinthe: Sip of Seduction, French army doctors issued absinthe to soldiers "for the prevention of fevers and treatment of dysentery."
Soon, the soldiers were drinking the beverage for nonmedicinal purposes, too. Wittels and Hermesch write that it became a fashionable beverage in Algerian cafes and nightclubs, and when soldiers returned to France, they weren't ready to give the drink up. At the time, the French wine industry was collapsing owing to a vine-killing aphid called phylloxera that left wine in short supply. Absinthe was in the right place at the right time. But rather than simply substituting one alcohol for another, the French developed a ritual for drinking absinthe that gave rise to some of the greatest liquor paraphernalia — known as absinthiana — around.
First, absinthe is mixed with cold water. Not only does this dilute a liquor that is often bottled at about 70 percent ABV, it also produces a cloudy effect called le louche (which can be roughly translated to "the clouding"). Le louche is a spectacle for the eyes, as the absinthe transforms from a deep green to a milky, iridescent shade. It is a bit of magic in a glass.
Le louche is also an example of a scientifically interesting phenomenon known as the "ouzo effect." Basically, when the water hits the absinthe, it releases the essential oils from the alcohol into the water, creating a spontaneous emulsion. So the drink becomes cloudy, and the effect sticks around a surprisingly long time.
Cold water, it seems, was considered essential to palatability: In Five O'Clock Absinthe, the late-19th century poet Raoul Ponchon wrote that, if you have warm absinthe, boire du pissat d'âne ou du bouillon pointu -- which translates, more or less, to "you might as well drink donkey's urine or 'enema broth' " instead. So cold water it was.
The absinthe is sweetened with a cube of sugar, placed on a slotted spoon balanced on top of the glass. Water is dripped over the sugar, so that it dissolves slowly into the refreshment below.
Why create a special spoon for this purpose? Forks could also work, but in the 1800s, sugar didn't come in cubes but in lumpy rocks, which would have been difficult to balance on tines. So the French created special spoons that could cradle the sugar while allowing the sweetened water to drip down into the glass.
Drip fountains were created for two reasons. First, they allowed people to economically cool the water used to dilute the strong liquor. A small amount of ice — which was still an expensive luxury in the mid-1800s — could be used to chill a large quantity of water. Second, the fountains allowed patrons to draw out the ritual of le louche. Sure, you could simply pour the water in all at once and be done with it. But where is the magic in that? No, drinking absinthe was meant to be an indulgence for the senses — no wonder artists flocked to the beverage. Absinthiana collector Scott MacDonald, author of Absinthe Antiques, refers to the process as "Western civilization's tea ceremony."
Lots of people were drinking absinthe in the latter half of the 19th century, but the way they drank it — and the utensils they used — quickly became a marker of social class. While cafes might carry slotted spoons with a simple design, some wealthy families would order a full set of specially engraved spoons from the silversmith. Like most of us, these wealthy absinthe drinkers weren't immune to trends: MacDonald says that in the 1880s, spoons made out of a new material called aluminum were actually more costly than those made from pure silver.
The French brought their love of absinthe with them to New Orleans, which explains why the city's Southern Food and Beverage Museum has a large exhibit devoted to the drink. Museum President Liz Williams says that only the upper classes could afford a bottle of absinthe on their own — but that didn't make absinthe any less of the people's drink. Instead of happy hour, the time between 5-7 every evening was known as "the green hour" in France. People gathered in cafes, visiting and unwinding over glasses of absinthe.
And MacDonald explains that despite absinthe's reputation as an artist's beverage, it was the common person's beverage first. "Artists enjoyed it because it brought people together," explains MacDonald. "They enjoyed the culture of it."
Correction Aug. 10, 2015
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to phylloxera as a virus. It is, in fact, an aphid.