The Charm of Absinthe

Despite the lovely charm of a good rosé, we know that occasionally you may want to drink something else on a hot summer night. In that case, there is another famous, well-loved French libation—absinthe, a bitter, bold green, licorice-flavored spirit that in French cafés is usually served as an aperitif with a carafe of ice water. When the water is added to the absinthe, the drink immediately turns ominously cloudy. Absinthe’s emerald green color and herbaceously bitter flavor come from green anise, fennel, and the plant wormwood. Alas, in the early 20th century, several reports claimed that a volatile compound in wormwood, thujone, was a hallucinogen that could “destroy the nervous system.” Although absinthe brands like Pernod were wildly popular among Paris’ bohemian artists and authors at the time, absinthe was banned in France in 1915, and before that in much of the rest of Europe and the United States. For several decades, absinthe drinkers had little choice but to substitute pastis, a similar spirit made from anise, fennel, and licorice—but no wormwood. Then research in the 1980s revealed that wormwood did not contain enough thujone to be toxic or deleterious to health. By the 1990s, bans lifted, wormwood was back as a legal ingredient in absinthe which, for its part, has regained its status as a café staple. Cheers.

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