Absinthe Chemistry and Recipes

History, Chemistry, Recipes, and How to Drink Absinthe

Thujone in the chemical in absinthe believed to produce its psychoactive effects.
Thujone in the chemical in absinthe believed to produce its psychoactive effects. Laura Johansen, Getty Images

Absinthe is a wormwood and anise flavored liqueur that was highly popular in France circa 1880 – 1914. Although sometimes colorless, the slightly bitter spirit is traditionally bright green. It has also been known as 'le fee vert', or 'the green fairy'.

Absinthe History

Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor, is credited with creating absinthe in 1789. He mixed wormwood and other herbs with alcohol to make a 136 proof elixir, which he used to treat the sick.

According to some reports, Dr. Ordinaire gave his recipe to Mademoiselle Grand-Pierre, who supposedly sold it to two sisters named Henroid. Other reports indicate the Henroid sisters were making absinthe before the Dr. Ordinaire arrived. In any case, the Henroid sisters offered samples of the elixir to sell in pharmacies. In 1797, they sold their recipe to a Frenchman named Major Dubied. The Major, his son Marcellin, and son-in-law Henri-Louis Pernod built the first commercial absinthe distillery in Couvet. In 1805 Pernod opened a larger factory called "Maison Pernod Fils". At the height of production, this factory produced 30,000 liters of absinthe per day, which was distributed around the world. Pernod Fils' original recipe included six aromatic herbs: wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), Roman wormwood (Artemisia pontica), hyssop, lemon balm, fennel and anise. Herbs added into later recipes include angelica, dittany, juniper, nutmeg, and star anise.

Absinthe has appeared in works by Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh. It was popularized by famous artists and writers including Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Cezanne, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allen Poe, and Ernest Hemingway. By the end of the 19th century, absinthe was the spirit of choice, particularly in France, where the cocktail hour became known as as 'L'Heure Verte', or 'the green hour'.

However, the drink became associated with an outcry over alcoholism, sometimes called 'Absinthism', and there were concerns over its potential effects on the nervous system. In August 1905, the farmer Jean Lanfray shot his family. European news headlines stated he was under the influence of absinthe (he had also consumed several bottles of wine and other alcohlic beverages that day). Public outcry ensued over the sensational headlines. Over the next few years absinthe was banned in many countries.

Most of the blame for the reputed deleterious effects of absinthe was directed at the wormwood used to flavor the drink. Wormwood, Angelica absinthium, contains the terpene thujone, which is used for medicinal purposes, but is toxic in high doses. Interestingly, thujone is present in the culinary herbs sage and tarragon and is used to flavor another (non-banned) alcoholic beverage, vermouth. More likely, the hallucinations and purported insanity resulted from the presence of toxic impurities or additives. For example, the green coloration the spirit derives from herbs was sometimes achieved through the addition of cupric acetate and other copper salts. Antimony trichloride was added to some preparations to enhance the louche effect (the opalescent milkiness seen when water is added to the liqueur).

At the time of this writing, authentic absinthe containing significant levels of thujone is not sold in the United States. The thujone levels in commercially distilled absinthe must be 10 mg/l or less in order to comply with European Union (EU) limits. The thujone levels in commercially distilled absinthe in Germany must be 30 mg/l or less. Herbal kits for making absinthe are widely available, however, these kits tend not to rely on distillation, which is required to make traditional absinthe.

Here's how absinthe is made...

Absinthe is prepared by steeping herbs in a neutral spirit and then distilling the product of the mixture. Wine is the traditional alcohol, called the 'proof spirit' for this process, although vodka is used for some recipes. After the steam distillation, additional herbs are allowed to infuse the distilled spirit, which is then filtered before consumption. Therefore, the steps to preparing absinthe are:

  1. Obtain a neutral spirit. A prepared neutral spirit, such as vodka, could be used, or wine may be distilled to obtain a more concentrated spirit.

     

  2. Add macerated herbs to the proof spirit. Allow the aromatic oils from the herbs to infuse the spirit. The dry herbs are mixed with the wine spirits or vodka or another spirit that is at least 85% ethanol. The maceration is allowed to rest for several days in a cool location out of direct light, shaken occasionally. At the end of this time, the mixture is filtered and added to water (half the volume of water as the amount of proof spirit, e.g., half a liter of water if a liter of alcohol was used).

     

  3. Distill the maceration. The distillation process is essentially the same as that used to make moonshine. The heads and tails, or the liquid obtained at the very beginning and end of the distillation, are discarded. The remaining liquid is collected and reserved. For some absinthe recipes, this is the final product.

     

  1. Traditional green absinthe is prepared by adding more herbs to the distilled product. This step is referred to as 'the finish'. These herbs add flavor and impart the green color to the spirit. After the flavor and color of the finish herbs has been imparted to the spirit, it is then filtered and ready for use.

    There are several popular recipes for absinthe...

    Recipes for absinthe generally have two parts. There is the maceration, which is the list of herbs to be soaked in the proof spirit prior to distillation, and the list of finish herbs, which are herbs infused into the spirit after the distillation. After the finish has had time to work its way into the liqueur, it is filtered and ready for use or storage. Absinthe should be bottled in tightly sealed containers, as with corks or screw caps.

    Absinthe should be stored in a cool location (steady 13-18°C), away from direct sunlight. Bottles with a cork may be stored on their sides and rotated to keep the cork moist. Bottles with screw on caps should be stored upright to prevent leaking.

    Spanish Absinthe

    (Primary Maceration for Distillation - 1.5 liters)

    • 4 grams - Common Wormwood
    • 8 grams - Green Anise (Seeds)
    • 6 grams - Fennel Seed
    • 12 grams - Star Anise
    • 2 grams - Angelica root
    • 1 gram - Coriander
    (Finish)
    • 2 grams - Hyssop
    • 3 grams - Melissa (Lemon Balm)

    Suisse La Bleue (clear absinthe)

    (Primary Maceration for Distillation - 1.5 liters)

    • 4 grams - Common Wormwood
    • 8 grams - Green Anise (Seeds)
    • 6 gram - Fennel Seed
    • 4 grams - Star Anise
    • 3 grams - Peppermint Leaf
    • 2 grams - Hyssop
    • 2 grams - Angelica root

    French Absinthe

    (Primary Maceration for Distillation - 1.5 liters)

    • 3 grams - Common Wormwood
    • 4 grams - Green Anise (Seeds)
    • 2 gram - Fennel Seed
    • 2 grams - Star Anise
    • 2 grams - Angelica root
    • 1 gram - Coriander

    (Finish)

    • 2 grams - Hyssop
    • 2 gram - Melissa

    Winston's La Fee Verte

    (Primary Maceration for Distillation - 1.5 liters)

    • 4 grams - Common Wormwood
    • 6 grams - Green Anise (Seeds)
    • 4 gram - Fennel Seed
    • 8 grams - Star Anise
    • 2 gram - Hyssop
    • 4 grams - Peppermint Leaf
    • 2 grams - Angelica root

      (Finish)

      • 2 grams - Hyssop
      • 2 grams - Melissa
      • 4 grams - Peppermint Leaf

      Recipe Notes

       

      • The proof spirit is usually distilled from wine.

         

      • Flowers and leaves of wormwood are preferred for their aromatic and fresh flavors. The stems of wormwood have a higher thujone content than the leaves and flowers and also impart more of a bitter note. Most recipes do not call for wormwood in the finish, because addition of the fresh herb at this point can add too much astringency. If wormwood in the finish is desired, it is recommended that a small quantity be used.

         

      • Wormwood, peppermint leaf, and hyssop are usually the source of the green color associated with absinthe. The louche is due to a reaction with the anise in the spirit.

        Here's how to drink absinthe...

      The traditional ritual for serving absinthe is to pour ice-cold water over a sugarcube that has been placed on a slotted spoon. The slotted spoon rests on glass containing absinthe. The cold water dissolves the sugar and mixes with the absinthe. When the water mixes with the absinthe, the clear liquid becomes cloudy. This is called the 'louche'.

      The usual ratio for drinking absinthe this way is to use five parts water to one part absinthe.

      The sugar and water dilutes the alcohol and masks some of the bitterness of the wormwood flavor. Of course, there are many variations on the traditional method. Some people prefer a ratio of three parts water to one part absinthe. It's also possible to drink absinthe neat, or without the water. Some modern absinthes are already sweetened, so no sugarcube is needed or desired when drinking them.

      Learn about the history of absinthe...