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Victoria Day and Absinthe ~ Fireworks for the mind ©
© Michael Vaughan 2001
National Post Weekly Wine & Spirits Columnist
Saturday, May 19, 2001

With Victoria Day at hand complete with all the spectacular pyrotechnics, I pondered on the spirits which ignite. At one time, not so long ago, the best ways of lighting a fire in your companion’s eyes would be to sip a flaming Sambuca after a romantic meal. I remember crunching into the bitter espresso coffee bean, which innocently floated on its fiery surface. It made the hot, sweet, viscous, licorice-flavoured liqueur beneath even more exciting. Not only was it delicious, but also served as the perfect breath cleanser, a hopeful harbinger of the delights to follow.

Unfortunately, my bartending friends tell me that flaming Sambuca is about as fashionable as old polyester suits. But perhaps there’s still hope. Last Saturday’s Vintages release featured a very new take on a very old spirit – Absinthe. It’s called Absente and comes in a fancy gift box complete with an Absinthe spoon all for $47.95. This isn’t too bad when you consider that the same package retails for over $40 in the US. (

Absente has a clear day-glow light green colour eerily similar to the original stuff marketed by those lovely nineteenth century posters. Its sweet, honeyed, gently herbal, licorice-driven flavours are reminiscent of Pernod and Chartreuse, while the peppery finish is related to its 55% alcohol level. The slotted flat Absinthe spoon is key to the serving ritual. It would be laid flat across the top of a glass containing 1-1/2 ounces. Then 3 ounces of cold water would be poured over two sugar cubes. This supposedly would dissolve the sugar and sweeten the now-cloudy drink.

Unfortunately North American sugar cubes are harder being much more tightly packed than the traditional French variety. This meant that I had to dump the remnants of the cube into the glass and use the spoon for stirring. As for the resulting taste, I actually preferred the stuff neat! Keep in mind that these Absinthe substitutes are much, much, sweeter than their original versions making the ritual somewhat redundant.

Absente is produced in Provence, France by Vin & Spirit (the Swedish producers of Absolute) for American distributor and marketing guru Michel Roux. And while one might be forgiven for mistaking Absente for Absinthe, the former is definitely a sheep in wolf’s clothing because with the exception of alcohol, all the key ingredients, which gave the original its bad rap, have been carefully removed.

Dr. Pierre Ordinaire reputedly invented the original in 1792. This cure-all was nicknamed “La Fée Verte” (The Green Fairy) for its uplifting powers. The recipe was subsequently to Major Dubied whose daughter married Henri-Louis Pernod who began producing the stuff in 1805. Originally the drink of the rich, by1870’s the French consumption amounted to 700,000 liters annually, which went through the roof to 36 million liters by 1910!

The essence of Absinthe is the extract from wormwood, which gives it an emerald green colour and its extremely bitter taste. Wormwood is a widely found shrubby plant native to the Mediterranean, which grows up to four feet high and has small yellow flower heads. It was called absinthium by the Romans for the Latin word absinthial meaning bitter. Indeed, it is so bitter that the Greeks apparently mixed it with wine and given to winning Olympic athletes to remind them of the bitterness of defeat. 

Rich in essential oils, the key active ingredient in wormwood is thujone, a terpene that can cause convulsions mimicking epilepsy and permanent brain damage. While wormwood’s medicinal use can be traced back 3,500 years, it was the king of Absinthe, Henri-Louis Pernod who used aniseed, hyssop, fennel and lemon balm along with star anise, dittany, juniper, nutmeg, veronica and angelica to popularize the beverage. These ingredients were macerated with wormwood and then distilled up to 75% alcohol. Some producers used calamus, wood alcohol and other toxic/psychoactive ingredients.

Of course, absinthe wasn’t the only dangerous spirit. Vermouth, Chartreuse, Benedictine and a host of other herbal beverages all used to contain thujone. In fact, Vermouth is made from wormwood  flower heads and got its name from "wermuth" (German for "wormwood"). Fortunately you don’t have to be concerned about because the international threshold is 10 parts per billion – a fraction of past levels.

When the US banned it in 1912, it had already taken hold in New Orleans. France held out until 1915, which coincided with the closing of Pernod’s plant and didn’t reopen until the mid 1940’s with a new, improved, safe version. Dozens of anise-tasting spirits exist, from Ouzo and Pastis to Arak. Ironically, you can still get versions of the real thing in Czechoslovakia and Spain where apparently no laws were passed banning this product. Indeed, today there are Absinthe cult bars in London where these mind-altering spirits can be readily found.

Of course there are dozens of “Absinthe” inspired drinks from around the world. At the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans, for instance, it was mixologist Cayetano Ferrer who in 1874 not only created the Absinthe House Frappe but also used it to liberate the flavours of their Oysters Rockefeller.  To make the former, fill a tall glass with crushed ice,  add 1-1/4 ounce of Herbsaint (or Absente), 1/4 ounce of Anisette (or Pernod)  and top with soda water to taste (2-4 ounces). (

In fact, it was here at the bar where I discovered from a fellow imbiber that it was their popular locally-distilled Herbsaint liqueur that supposedly inspired Jerry Lee Lewis to write “Great Balls of Fire” (and I though it was his teenage lover). Of course, when it comes to fireworks, the folks in the Ukraine had it absolutely right. They named a town after the region’s most prolific bush - wormwood  or chernobyl!”

For additional information on the Absinthe posters, etc. see

Copyright Food & Beverage Testing Institute of Canada 2004
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