To splash mystique into any glass, reach for a bottle of absinthe. Born in Switzerland at the end of the 1700s, the world’s most controversial distillate swept through France over the course of the next century. It quickly became so popular as to foreshadow the concept of happy hour, with 5 p.m. first known as l’heure verte — the green hour. Beloved especially by bohemian creatives, and purported to have mind-bending effects, anise-flavored absinthe was at the peak of its popularity when France began searching for a scapegoat for society’s ills at the turn of the century.
What followed was absinthe’s precipitous fall thanks to media sensationalism, questionable research, the temperance movement and a smear campaign by the wine industry. Absinthe was banned in much of Europe and the United States by the eve of World War I, and lived primarily in legend through the 20th century.
The process of imbibing absinthe properly is enchanting in and of itself: Pour the high-proof liquor into a glass, balance a sugar cube (if you like) over the glass on an intricately carved absinthe spoon and slowly drizzle ice water over it to bring the drink’s proof down to about 25 (most absinthes are bottled near 130). You’ll watch as the absinthe “louches,” releasing aromatic oils to form a colloidal suspension — the opaque, aromatic sipper that absinthe drinkers desire. Bring the glass to your lips and you’ll smell and taste delicate new flavor notes unlocked by dilution.
We know today that reports of absinthe’s hallucinogenic properties have no basis in scientific fact, so perhaps it’s the placebo effect that keeps curious drinkers coming back to this beguiling herbal elixir. Whatever it is, there’s an absinthe out there for every would-be absintheur.
Here are three global selections to try on your own.
St. George Absinthe Verte | Alameda, CA
The first American absinthe released once the U.S. ban was lifted in 2007, St. George’s emerald-green spirit incorporates absinthe’s botanical triumvirate — wormwood, fennel and star anise — in a brandy base for a bewitching drink with hints of dried grass, pepper and tobacco tucked in beyond the anise.
Tenneyson Absinthe Royale | Pontarlier, France
Handcrafted in absinthe’s spiritual homeland, this absinthe blanche skips the usual second round of botanical infusion, where most absinthes gets their green, in favor of a sweet floral flavor and a crystalline color turned opalescent post-louche.
Pilot House Distilling Columbia Absinthe Verte | Astoria, OR
This local bottling nods to all the classic herbal influences yet stays on the softer side, layering elements of lemongrass, mint and dandelion over a subtle, sweet licorice flavor that’ll appeal to even the anise-averse.