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SUNDAY Series: Absinthe DEUX

La Fee VerteOrigins

There is some debate amongst absinthe historians as to when exactly the traditional absinthe ritual originated. Certainly, there is no evidence that it was ever normal to drink absinthe neat, without water. Absinthe was drunk with the addition of both water and sugar from at least the 1850’s, and probably earlier.

Absinthe was by no means unique in this respect – 19th century drinkers had a far sweeter tooth when it came to alcohol than we have today, and other drinks and cordials were also regularly sweetened with sugar.

They were usually served with a long cordial spoon or a kind of swizzle stick, to help dissolve the sugar. The use of a perforated spoon specifically for absinthe was a later development, which appears to have originated in the 1870’s and only became widespread in the 1880’s and 1890’s

From the 1890’s onwards, it seems, on the evidence of existing engravings and cartoons, almost all absinthes in bars and cafés were served with a perforated spoon.

Variations

A popular alternative to using crystalized sugar (une absinthe au sucre) was to add either gum syrup (une absinthe gommée) or sweet liqueur d’anis (une absinthe anisée). Neither of these versions of course required a perforated spoon.

It was perfectly acceptable to drink an absinthe without sugar (une absinthe pure), but, based on all the historical evidence this certainly wasn’t the norm, and there is no publicity material extant from any manufacturer that suggests this was the primary method – it’s always referred to, if at all, as an alternative to the sugared version.

Occasionally absinthe was drunk diluted with other lower strength alcohol – white wine (une absinthe de minuit), or cognac (Toulouse Lautrec’s speciality, un tremblement de terre). But these were very unusual methods, which always aroused special comment, usually disapproving.

Drinking neat absinthe (ie without water), certainly wasn’t usual at any stage, and was never socially acceptable. Where it is referred to, it is always in the context of alcoholism and degradation – in the same way, for instance, as we might refer to someone drinking a neat triple gin today (the equivalent in alcohol content).

A modern travesty

Today, modern absinthes are often marketed in conjunction with the so-called Bohemian absinthe ritual. This is not a traditional method, but a modern innovation inspired by the success of flaming sambuca and such like.

A shot of absinthe is poured into a glass, and a teaspoonful of sugar is dipped into it. The alcohol soaked sugar is set alight and allowed to burn until it bubbles and caramelises. The spoon of melted sugar is then plunged into the absinthe and stirred in, which usually sets the absinthe itself alight. Ice water is then poured in, dousing the flames.

This method, has become increasingly popular, especially since it was shown in the American film “Moulin Rouge”, but is a historical travesty, and would have horrified any Belle Epoque absintheur!

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