HALLUCINOGENIC GREEN FAIRIES, murder, lunatic asylums, zombie-like alcoholism and a consumption ceremony that wouldn’t look out of place in heroin den – absinthe sounds less like a spirits drink and more like a Hollywood horror film.
“Without doubt it has the most salacious and sordid back story of any spirits drink, more so than even gin,” says absinthe maker and expert Ted Breaux. “But it is a misleading one, and one which has political, economic and social strands to it.”
Absinthe is the Russell Brand of the spirits world. Linked to a hedonistic and debauched past with druggy overtones, it is these days capable of class, sophistication and élan. Nevertheless, there’s still a twinkle in its eye and its past hasn’t completely gone away.
So why is it gaining in popularity and finding its way into some of the world’s finest bars? And why is it that these days you’re more likely to find it rubbing shoulders with the very finest spirits brands and not hanging out with the likes of Buckie or Night Train (fortified wines)?
To understand absinthe you need to know what it is. And right there lies the first problem. With the notable exception of Switzerland, there is no legal definition of it. While there are tight rules on what can and cannot be included in a spirits drink, absinthe, which has been brought to market from a vast range of different countries, has no such protection.
Or as Breaux, whose highly respected Jade absinthe range enjoys loyal support from aficionados, puts it: “If I were to take industrial alcohol to America, colour it and put in artificial flavours and call it Scotch whisky then what do you think would happen? But I can put cheap vodka in a bottle, colour it, call it absinthe, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Not at the moment. But we’re trying to change that.”
By ‘we’ Ted means a small band of absinthe producers across the world who have sought out original recipes and identified what true absinthe is. People such as Alan Moss, who spends most of his time educating barmen and other interested parties about the drink and its history.
“Led by Switzerland and the US – the first country with strict labelling and marketing standards for absinthe – absinthe is moving towards a common standard,” he says. “It should be distilled, and contain at least the three main plants called the ‘trinity’ – anise seed, fennel and wormwood – and without artificial colouring or added sugar.
“But the European Union has yet to reach a final agreement. The example now being set in London and New York will eventually become the blueprint for most of the rest of the world. Eastern Europe, Australasia, and some of the other emerging world markets will take some while to follow.