The History of Absinthe
Absinthe was invented in the 1790s by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French Pharmacist living in Switzerland at the time as a way to kill intestinal tapeworms. The Pharmacist figured that wormwood oil would be even more effective at killing worms if it was mixed with a super high proof alcohol. Absinthe would be bottled anywhere from 50 to 75% alcohol. To make it taste better if it was flavored with star anise and fennel. In 1912 absinthe was banned for public safety because wormwood oil is actually really dangerous in high doses and people would begin to hallucinate at toxic levels. LSD had pink elephants and Absinthe had the green fairy. It was replaced with other anise flavored alcohols that lacked wormwood oil and in 2007 the ban was lifted and Absinthe is legally able to be sold again. This time minus the wormwood.
Absinthe Without a Sugar Cube
You don’t need a sugar cube if you don’t want to add it or don’t have one. Simple syrup works fine or just plain water. The sugar cube has no effect on the color of the cocktail and is simply there to try and mask the intense alcohol taste. Again this all goes back to when Absinthe was used as an actual medicine and a common way to make medicine taste better was to add sugar. It doesn’t matter if you use sugar or not, add the water fast or drip it in slow, or add no sugar at all. The final product will be the mostly the same but if you find the oils and flavor a bit much then some sugar will help. The fountain and spoon are all part of the presentation and more theatrics than structural to making the drink.
Why Absinthe turns a Milky White Color in Water
So there is actually quite a bit of star anise, fennel, coriander, and other wood oils in absinthe. It’s these oils that give it its intense flavor and also provided its medicinal qualities. lipids, like oil, are soluble in alcohol because molecularly they are very similar. likes dissolve likes. Therefore the high percentage of alcohol and low percentage of water is able to act as a solution to the herb oil and keep them in a nice clear evenly suspended solution. Once the alcohol to water ratio drops low enough, as in the case of this cocktail, the strongly hydrophobic oil is repelled by the water and separates from the ethanol molecule. The oil then bonds to other free floating repelled oils. We perceive these large groups of suspended oil molecules as cloudiness.
Typically the oil molecules will just keep bonding together until they form a fat blob of oil (pun intended) that floats to the top. Just like a balsamic vinaigrette. But balsamic vinaigrette, Absinthe with water will stay cloudy almost indefinitely. Why? Truth is scientist don’t fully know why. This effect is called the Ostwald Ripening effect. What the scientist discover was at a certain point the oil molecules stopped bonding together and these small groups of oil floated evenly away from the surrounding alcohol, water, AND the other oil groups. And they don’t know why. Some of their guesses are after the oil molecule broke free of the alcohol molecule it picked ups slight negative charge and once enough oil bonds together the charge is strong enough that it pushes away from the other negatively charged groups of oil. Another guess what maybe the Osmotic pressure kept them from further bonding together. This effect can be observed in any liqueur made from infused oil. Orange liqueur will do the same thing when you add water, Limoncello, essential oils, etc. Its nothing specific to Absinthe, but any oil infused high proof solution. To drive the point home further, a non cocktail example of this is dissolving real lipid based, saponified soap in water. Most “soap” these days are actually detergents and not true soap. Actual chemically correct soap is a combination of oils and glycerol. An easy to find real soap is that Dr. Bonners liquid Castile soap, just add it to water and see it turn cloudy like absinthe. The oils are bonded to glycerol, glycerol is an alcohol, and when the soap dissolves in the water it turns it a cloudy white color.
Absinthe and the Green Fairy
Absinthe earned the title of the Green Fairy in the 1800s because of the madness it was said to give those who drank it. This madness was most likely the result of just drinking too many of them and getting blackout drunk, and at 50 – 75% ABV that’s very easy to do. It is also possible that at high enough doses, wormwood is toxic to humans and can bring about psychosis and eventually death. There is a saying that the only difference between a remedy and a poison is quality. It didn’t help absinthe’s image that many artist and social outcast were fans of this cocktail and some of their more eccentric behaviors were believed to be results of drinking too much absinthe. So for better or worse, in 1912, Absinthe was banned in most or Europe and the United States and replaced in many cocktails by the much lower proof anise Liqueur. But if you would like to experience the cocktail that enchanted Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and many others than give this simple drink a taste.