Amidst the pricey boutiques and refined patisseries of Paris’s 6th arrondissement sits the Closerie des Lilas. Part brasserie, part cafe, part piano bar, the Lilas–with its moody scarlet-inflected interior, mosaic tile floors, and pleasant, bustling din–practically drips with the “je ne sais quoi” grandeur and romanticism that is quintessential to the City of Lights.
But the Lilas’s mystique lies not simply in its decor. Rather, it boasts an authenticity that owes much to its storied role as host to the great minds of the Belle Epoque and, later, the interwar period. These men and women of the arts and letters–Cezanne, Verlaine, Modigliani, Picasso, Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald–cozied up to its mahogany bar or hunkered down at one of its leather banquettes to work on their respective crafts, exchange and debate ideas that would dictate the course of western culture, and while away days and nights immersed in eloquence and surrounded by the hedonistic trappings of the good life.
Absinthe in Paris
The lively debates and creative energy that characterized the Lilas were fueled, in large part, by the emotive properties of spirits, and for a good portion of the cafe’s history, absinthe (lovingly referred to as “the Green Fairy”) was the drink of choice among the city’s fashionable and intellectual elite. The verdant tipple was consumed by Parisians in such enormous quantities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the hours of 5 to 7 p.m. were, according to historian W. Scott Haine, a timeframe during which “one could witness [on any given day] the celebration of ‘absinthe hour’” along the city’s grand boulevards. Indeed, between 1885 and 1895, as the cost of absinthe fell relative to wine following an 1880s phylloxera outbreak that decimated two-thirds of Europe’s vineyards, absinthe’s consumption nearly tripled in France.
Unfortunately, it was during this same time that absinthe was unfairly demonized as hallucinogenic and psychosis-inducing thanks to a combination of factors that included:
- The production of inferior, imitation absinthe products that likely were dangerous
- A vocal temperance campaign that blamed high-proof alcohol like absinthe for society’s ills
- Politically influential wine industry competitors that lobbied for governmental intervention
In 1915, France declared absinthe illegal, as the United States had in 1912. The bans in both countries were eventually lifted, but not before absinthe’s reputation had been tarnished to near disrepair.
What Is Absinthe?
Absinthe is a complex, delicately flavored, dry aperitif that traditionally comes in a shade of green ranging anywhere from pale jade to peridot to olive. To be considered authentic, absinthe must comprise a neutral base spirit (distilled from grains, beets, or grapes) flavored with a combination of wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), green or star anise, and fennel seed–the last two of which combine to give absinthe its signature black licorice taste and aroma. Beyond this “holy trinity,” any number of other herbs and spices may be used by distillers to imbue a particular absinthe with a unique flavor profile and bouquet.
The Absinthe Myth
That thujone, a naturally occurring chemical compound found in wormwood and various other edible botanicals, is a neurotoxin in high doses was fodder for absinthe’s ban and the basis for the myth that it is an hallucinogenic. In fact, thujone is present in absinthe in far too miniscule a dose to pose any danger. That said, a number of the herbs typically present in absinthe are thought to have stimulating properties (much like caffeine), which may explain the particularly type of intoxication absinthe is said to cause.
“It actually gives a sense of clarity. I totally understand why Picasso, Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde and many other artists loved to imbibe in it so much.”
[Read our full interview with SLIPSTREAM® Absinthe co-founder Dimitri Uhlik.]
Contrary to popular belief, absinthe is no more harmful than any other alcoholic beverage, which is to say moderation is key. Absinthe was never intended to be thrown down one’s gullet, shot by shot, in rapid succession. Not only is it far too high in alcohol to be consumed safely in said manner (most fall in the range of 90 to 144 proof), reckless, unceremonious consumption also deprives the drinker of experiencing the intricate qualities and nuanced pleasures of absinthe–things the artistic set of the Closerie des Lilas would have understood well and intimately.
According to tradition dating back at least to the nineteenth century, absinthe is best enjoyed in a 3 to 1 to 5 to 1 ratio with ice water. A cube’s worth of sugar may also be added, if the drinker wishes to cut the bitterness of the wormwood. According to R. Winston Guthrie, author of A Taste for Absinthe: 65 Recipes for Classic and Contemporary Cocktails, “The slow addition of cold water to absinthe causes a reaction that allows essential oils to precipitate out of their suspension in the high alcohol content, releasing the aromas and flavors that are so appreciated by the absintheur.”
Uhlik passionately agrees that the only way to properly consume absinthe is with water:
“Water activates the botanicals in the absinthe; it releases them. When you add water to absinthe, the essential oils and aromas come alive, and it changes everything about it. Neat absinthe blossoms with the addition of water and releases the magic of the herbs and changes the taste.”
The drip process also affects the absinthe visually. As the water dilutes the absinthe, a thin, streaming cloud, or louche, forms that eventually overwhelms and supplants the absinthe’s original green color. The resultant drink can be thick and milky or moderately opaque and opalescent, depending on the herbal formula of the brand of absinthe used. And absinthe connoisseurs generally have a strong preference.
“In most cases the better and thicker the louche the more I enjoy the absinthe,” Uhlik reports.
Thanks to the release of the essential oils, louched absinthe is also a better, fuller expression of absinthe’s flavor profile than the same spirit consumed neat. It is a drink that, in its subtle complexity, begs to be sipped slowly and conscientiously.
The French Absinthe Ritual
The traditional French method for louching absinthe–the same method that would be have been employed in nineteenth century Parisian cafes–is an exercise in patience and mindfulness. It is a ritual that asks of its participants some amount of thoughtfulness and concern for detail, and it rewards those willing to succumb to its demands not merely with a drink but with a time-transportive drinking experience.
“It’s exciting to watch, and the louche tells a story about the absinthe before you drink it,” Uhlik said. “The absinthe ritual itself is fun, and when you add water to the absinthe, the aromas fill the room and create excitement.”
Like all good rituals, the French louching method requires certain paraphernalia. At minimum, you need an absinthe glass, which has a reservoir that indicates the proper volume of absinthe, and a slotted absinthe spoon, which holds the sugar cube over the mouth of the glass and guides its dissolving crystals into the absinthe reservoir as the water slowly drips through it. In accordance with the romantic pedigree of the ritual itself, both absinthe glasses and spoons come ornately designed in some cases, and absinthe connoisseurs have taken to collecting the most beautiful and interesting examples.
Aside from glasses and spoons, a multi-spigot absinthe fountain may be used to control the water drip. Fountains are particularly appropriate for entertaining, both on a practical level, since they allow more than one absinthe to be prepared simultaneously, and for aesthetic and social reasons. The elegance of a fountain and the meditative properties of the louching ritual–from the slow-dripping water to the dreamy, lumbering roll of the onsetting milky haze–are captivating.
Together with the convivial effects of responsible absinthe intoxication, the entire ritual is inherently conducive to contemplation, leisureliness, conversation, and sociality–just as the Belle Epoque intelligentsia might have enjoyed absinthe at the Closerie des Lilas.
- How to Perform a Traditional Absinthe Drip
- Slipstream Absinthe: A Modern Take on the Age-Old Absinthe Tradition
- Product: Absinthe Flavored Lollipop