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Absinthe, also known as absinth, absynthe, or absenta is a drink. It is distilled from herbs including the flowers and leaves of the medicinal plant Artemisia absinthium. It is a very alcoholic drink. Absinthe is usually green. Sometimes colors are added to change the color. It is often called la Fée Verte or The Green Fairy.
Absinthe came from Val-de-Travers, Switzerland. It was very popular in late 19th and early 20th century France. Parisian artists and writers were supposed to drink it. The romantic associations with the drink still linger in popular culture. At the end of 1900 the French were drinking over 2 million litres of absinthe a year. By 1910 this had increased to 36 million litres.
In the 19th century, hotel owners often put bad things into absinthe, such as sulfur to change its color. Absinthe was seen as a dangerous drink with mind altering effects. After the Lanfray murders in 1906 a petition was given to the Swiss government to ban absinthe in Switzerland. Absinthe became banned in other countries. Since 1915, it was banned in a number of European countries and the United States.
Where the word comes from
The word comes from the Latin word absinthium. This is from the Greek word αψίνθιον (apsínthion). Wormwood 'Absinth' (without the 'e') is a way of spelling absinthe that is often seen in central Europe.
Traditionally, absinthe is put into a glass. A sugar cube is then placed in the bowl of a special spoon. Ice-cold water is poured or dripped over the sugar until the drink is diluted. During this process, the parts that are not soluble in water make the liquid cloudy. The resulting milky opalescence is called the louche.
The main herbs used to produce absinthe are green anise, florence fennel and grande wormwood, often called the 'holy trinity'. Many other herbs may be used as well, such as hyssop, melissa, star anise, petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica or Roman wormwood), angelica root, Sweet Flag, dittany leaves, coriander, veronica, juniper, nutmeg, and various mountain herbs.
The herbs are first soaked, a step called "maceration". Heat is added in the process of distillation which extracts a pure liquid. Wormwood, anise, and Florence fennel produce a colorless liquid or distillate that is about 72% alcohol. The distillate can be bottled clear, to produce a Blanche or la Bleue absinthe. A second step can add color to the liquid using artificial or natural coloring.
Traditionally the natural coloring step is done by steeping petite wormwood, hyssop, and melissa, among other herbs, in the liquid. Chlorophyll from these herbs give it its famous green color. This green absinthe is known as a verte. After this process, the liquid is mixed with water to reach the desired amount of alcohol. Historically, most absinthes contain between 60% and 75% alcohol. Sometimes absinthe can be colored red, called a rouge or rose. This made by using a red flower/herb. It is possible to create a 'naturally colored' absinthe of any color by using the correct plant material.
Grades of absinthe
Historically, there were five grades of absinthe: "ordinaire", "demi-fine", "fine", "supérieure" and "Suisse". These were graded in increasing alcoholic strength and quality. A "supérieure" and "Suisse" would always be naturally colored and distilled. "Suisse" did not mean it came from Switzerland. "Ordinaire" and "demi-fine" could be artificially colored and made from oil extracts.
Absinthe should be stored in a cool, room temperature, dry place away from light and heat.
The precise origin of absinthe is unknown. Wormwood has been in medical use since 1500 BC. In 1797,Henry-Louis Pernod, opened the first absinthe distillery, called "Dubied Père et Fils", in Couvet. In 1805Pernod built a second distillery in Pontarlier, France,
Absinthe's popularity grew slowly. In the 1840s absinthe was given to French soldiers as a malaria treatment. When the troops returned home, they started to drink absinthe with water. It became popular at bars and bistros. After the 1860s absinthe had become so popular that it was for sale in most cafés and cabarets. By the 1880s the price had dropped a lot, the market got bigger, and absinthe soon became the drink of France. By 1910 the French were drinking 36 million litres of absinthe per year.
Absinthe was often linked with violent crimes supposedly committed under its influence. Combined with hard liquor use and the low price, absinthe became a social problem in France. Wine makers groups often publicized problems with absinthe. Journalists blamed absinthe for many social problems.
In 1900 absinthe was banned in Switzerland. The banning of absinthe was even written into the constitution in 1907, following a popular initiative. The Netherlands banned absinthe in 1909, followed by the United States in 1912 and France in 1915. Around the same time, Australia banned the liquor too. After the absinthe prohibition, wine and whiskey makers had a big increase in sales.
In the 1990s an importer, George Rowley, discovered that there was no UK law banning the sale of absinthe. It had never been banned in the UK other than the normal laws covering alcoholic beverages. Hill's Liquere, a Czech Republic distillery founded in 1920, began manufacturing Hill's Absinth. This was a Bohemian-style absinthe, which started a modern rebirth in absinthe's popularity.
It has never been banned in Spain or Portugal, where it continues to be made. France never changed the law of 1915. In 1988 a new law was passed. This bans only drinks that call themselves 'absinthe' and drinks that do not meet with European Union laws on thujone. Thujone is the chemical which was thought to cause the hallucinatory (bad dream) effect of absinthe.
In Switzerland, the constitutional ban on absinthe was removed in 2000 during an overhaul of the national constitution. The ban was written into ordinary law instead. Absinthe is now not only sold in Switzerland, but is once again distilled in its Val-de-Travers birthplace.
In the United States the laws banning absinthe are hard to understand. In some states it is legal have a bottle of absinthe, but not to buy or to produce it. The export and import of absinthe is probably illegal.
- The Virtual Absinthe Museum — An online museum of absinthe history, lore, art and antiques.
- Absinthe.se — A collection of absinthe reviews and information.