“After the first glass [of absinthe] you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.” – Oscar Wilde.
Also known as la fée verte (the green fairy), playwright and poet Oscar Wilde was but one of many entangled in a love affair with absinthe. Its impact on 19th century literature and visual arts was profound and absinthe’s ability to lure men into its web and to inspire their creativity can be noted in the work of artist Vincent van Gogh, a ferocious drinker of the spirit, and writers such as Wilde and Ernest Hemingway.
While absinthe is mainly associated with the glittering lights of la Belle Époque (the Beautiful Era) of French history – a glamorous and progressive period lasting from 1871 until the start of World War I in 1914 – its historical birthplace is said to be in the Val-de-Travers district of western Switzerland.
Those interested in chasing the green fairy can follow the Franco-Swiss Absinthe Trail from Pontarlier, France to Noiraigue, Switzerland and visit distilleries, former smuggling sites, and attend summer absinthe festivals.
Absinthe clearly has a long and storied history, but how do you drink it?
- Absinthe is a distilled spirit made with herbs such as grand wormwood, green anise, petite wormwood, fennel, and hyssop.
- Be aware that well-made absinthe is actually clear or pale green in colour.
- First place a single sugar cube on a flat absinthe spoon and then settle the spoon horizontally onto a small glass containing a dose (30 millilitres) of absinthe.
- Slowly drip ice water over the sugar cube, allowing it to dissolve and drip into the glass.
- Purists add ice water with great care, letting it fall drop by single drop. This takes time and patience as three or four parts of water are typically added to one part of absinthe.
- With each drop of water the pale green spirit will louche into an opalescent white colour. The subtle herbal and floral characters of the absinthe will become more pronounced. It is ready to drink.
After being banned in France in 1915, absinthe experienced a European revival in the late 20th century and more Bohemian methods of drinking it were popularised. These involve first soaking the sugar cube in absinthe, lighting it on fire and plunging it into the glass, in turn setting the absinthe alight. While this method is more flamboyant the best way to appreciate absinthe is to take your time, close your eyes, and savour such a historical drink.