Absinthe is a strongly alcoholic aperitif made from alcohol and distilled herbs or herbal extracts, chief amongst them grand wormwood(Artemisia absinthium) and green anise, but also almost always including 3 other herbs: petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica, aka Roman wormwood), fennel, and hyssop. Some regionally authentic recipes also call for additional herbs like star anise (badiane), sweet flag (aka calamus), melissa (aka lemonbalm or citronnelle), angelica (both root and seed), dittany (a type of oregano grown in Crete), coriander, veronica (aka speedwell), marjoram or peppermint.
Grand and petite wormwood were historically cultivated near Pontarlier in the Doubs region of east France and in the adjoining Val de Travers in Switzerland, the two traditional homes of absinthe, while the other herbs were shipped in: fennel from the Gard region of France and even from Italy, the anise from the Tarn region or from Andalusia.
In modern Spanish absinthes star anise (badiane) is sometimes substituted wholly or partly for the green anise, but this tends to give a very one dimensional liquorice-like taste. Badiane was used only very sparingly if at all in traditional Swiss or French manufacture. So called Czech or German “absinths” sometimes omit the anise entirely, but these are not true absinthes and are best avoided. Home “absinthe-making kits” widely advertised on the internet, and based on adding dried herbs or essences to vodka or Everclear, do not produce even a rough approximation of the real drink – and the results, apart from being very unpleasant tasting, may be actively harmful.
High quality absinthes are always distilled rather than produced from herbal essences, and have a deliciously complex herbal and floral character, with an underlying bitterness caused by the wormwood. The classic green absinthe verte is produced by a 3-step process: first maceration of the herbal mixture in a base alcohol, then distillation of the resultant liquid and finally chlorophyllic coloration by gentle heating of a further herbal infusion.
The absinthe distillation process was summarised by J. de Brevans in his 1908 La Fabrication des Liqueurs as follows:
Absinthe is made in accordance with a great number of recipes which are all based upon the following plants: grand wormwood, petite wormwood, anise, fennel, and hyssop. In general these different plants are mixed together for distillation; but a few manufacturers prefer to treat wormwood, anise and fennel separately, to later mix the scented spirits in the desired proportions.
The raw ingredients are placed into a steam-heated still, …with the desired quantity of alcohol and half the volume of water needed for distillation; the plants are allowed to macerate 12 to 24 hours or even longer; the rest of the water is added and distillation is started. …This operation is stopped
as soon as the first spurt of distillate marks 60% (alcohol): rectification is thereby avoided.
The first part of the tails is collected separately and used to make absinthes ordinaire; only the heart is used to prepare fine absinthes. The milky liquid which distills at the end is added to subsequent macerations.
Absinthe scented-spirit is colorless. To color it, a mixture of petite wormwood and hyssop is macerated; a colorator, a special apparatus heated by steam or hot water circulation, is useful for this purpose; the process takes 12 hours.
Absinthe is put into barrels for aging, then reduced to desired proof before delivering for consumption.
Each herb adds its own subtle character to the blend – grand wormwood has both woody and bitter notes; petite wormwood is aromatic but less bitter (and also useful for coloration); green anise gives its characteristic scent and rich smooth mouth-feel (which fennel also enhances); the dried hyssop flowers contributes to the classic absinthe feuille morte (dead leaf) colour.
Well made absinthes are generally pale green, but louche, or turn milky, when water is added. This is caused by the essential oils precipitating out of the solution, as the alcohol is diluted. Absinthes with a high percentage of star anise (or badiane as it is known in France), such as those made in Spain, tend to have a very dramatic and opaque louche, while the louche in more traditionally made
absinthes develops slowly, and is more subtly translucent. Traditionally made absinthes are never a bright emerald green – those that are, have artificial colouring added.
Clear absinthes – often called La Bleue or La Blanche, and historically popular in Switzerland – are made without the final colouring step, and may also differ slightly in herbal composition (sometimes for instance containing génépi, which is not otherwise usually found in absinthe). A red absinthe (originally probably coloured with paprika) has been made under the name Serpis for several decades in Spain, but this is an isolated oddity.
The traditional strength is 55% – 72% alcohol, or 110º – 144º proof. Historically the best absinthes, including those from Pernod Fils, were made from a base of grape alcohol, although cheaper grain or beet alcohols were also widely used.
Almost from its inception, absinthe has been known as “La Fée Verte” or “The Green Fairy”, a tribute to its reputedly seductive and intoxicating powers.