Absinthe has never been a drink for the casual tippler. Nicknamed 'the green fairy' for its allegedly hallucinogenic properties, absinthe has a reputation for inspiring great art. Among absinthe's famous fans were, well, pretty much every 19th-century European artist and poet you can think of, including Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and Eduard Manet.
Marketed as a medicinal drink at the turn of the 19th century, absinthe became massively popular among the Parisian intellectual class by the 1840s. Due to its association with moral decadence and a (mistaken) belief that it caused insanity, hysteria about the dangers of the liquor developed hand-in-hand with its reputation as artistic muse.
As George Kappeler wrote in his 1895 bartending guide Modern American Drinks,
The belief that absinthe was dangerous led to its prohibition in much of Europe and the U.S. in the early 20th century. Though it continued to be produced in parts of Eastern Europe, absinthe took a nose-dive in popularity until the turn of the 21st century, when, thanks largely to a revival of interest in Belle Époque Paris, American hipsters began clamoring for the bewitching beverage. In 2005, France re-legalized absinthe production, enabling seekers of inspiration the world over to chase the green fairy. There are dozens of absinthe cocktails out there, but we've decided to keep this list short and (not so) sweet by sticking to the most hard-core ways to imbibe the liquor that we could dig up from the annals of history.
1. The Absinthe Drip
Say you're walking down a Parisian street around 1870. It's around 5 p.m., the workers are calling it quits and the artists are getting a head start on their evenings, and everyone's heading to the cafés and bars. Soon, a strange ritual starts: the young and glamorous drinkers balance slotted spoons atop their absinthe glasses, and a lump of sugar atop the spoon. Next, they slowly pour water over the sugar—five parts water for each part absinthe. The liquid in the glass turns from a bright transparent green to a cloudy white, the result of a chemical interaction between absinthe and water.
The French writer Marcel Pagnol evocatively describes the sacrament-like nature of the absinthe drip in his 1960 memoir Le Temps de Secrets:
Why the sugar and water? Simple: with its extra-strong anise flavor, absinthe tastes pretty gross on its own—hence the sugar. And the alcohol content of the undiluted liquor is too high for sugar to dissolve in—hence the water. While it wasn't unheard of to sweeten absinthe by plopping the sugar and water right into the glass sans spoon, the drip method allowed drinkers more control over the level of dilution. It also looked cool.
2. The Maiden Blush
While absinthe was drunk as described above by the vast majority of self-respecting bohemian Parisians of the 19th century, some devotees took inspiration from the nascent American cocktail fad and began to invent their own intoxicating mixtures. One such mixologist was artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who loved absinthe so much that he trained his pet cormorant to drink it ("It takes after me," he allegedly said). Writer Henri Balesta was not impressed with the painter's experiments, writing:
“He invents revolting refinements of drinking to save himself from having to think. Now it isn’t mixed, tempered with water that he drinks that infernal absinthe, it is pure or reinforced with rum or cognac.”
Recipes for two of Toulouse-Lautrec's "revolting" cocktails live on: the Earthquake—which is equal parts cognac and absinthe—and the more complicated Maiden Blush, described below.
According to the American standard Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930, the Maiden Blush is made as follows:
- 1 part absinthe
- 2 parts gin
- dash grenadine
But that's not Toulouse-Lautrec's original recipe, which was quite a bit more creative. According to a 1958 issue of Réalités Monthly Magazine,
A cocktail that was allegedly Toulouse-Lautrec’s favourite was served at the dedication of a room filled with souvenirs of the painter on the premises of the Moulin Rouge. It consists of absinthe, mandarine, bitters, red wine and cognac and is known as a “Maiden’s Blush”.
That sounds like it would definitely pack a punch—but we'd give it a shot.
3. The Death in the Afternoon, or the Hemingway
Cocktail101 describes the Death in the Afternoon, also known as the Hemingway, as
"a foul decoction dreamt up by Ernest Hemingway and called, obviously, after his 1932 study of bullfighting... symptomatic of the lingering influence of Prohibition, when the goal was to get drunk, quickly, and by any means necessary."
As Hemingway himself recommended, "Drink three to five of these slowly." Scary! We think you should try it out and report back to us. This is an easy one (to make—not necessarily to drink), consisting of equal parts absinthe and champagne. Bottoms up?