The Absinthe Ritual

~ The Absinthe Encyclopedia - CHAPTER IV ~

Unlike many everyday apéritifs, absinthe was historically almost always prepared and drunk in a highly specific way – this, the so-called absinthe ritual was part of the reason for its popularity and for the unique position it’s always held in the pantheon of drinks.

While the elements of the basic ritual are well known – the sugar cube positioned on a perforated spoon placed on top of the glass, iced water dripped on the cube, slowly dissolving it and diluting the absinthe dose in the glass with the sugared water – there are many refinements which both enhance the pleasure of preparing the drink and subtly improve the taste of the finished absinthe. They’re all discussed in detail here, and illustrated with three streaming videos. There’s also a page devoted to an alternative preparation ritual – the little known, but fascinating and historically sanctioned “glass-in-a-glass” method.

The Classic French Absinthe Ritual

The Classic French Absinthe Ritual

All true absinthes are bitter to some degree (due to the presence of absinthin, extracted from the wormwood), and are therefore usually served with the addition of sugar. This not only counters the bitterness, but in well made absinthes seems also to subtly improve the herbal flavour profile of the drink. The classic French absinthe ritual involves placing a sugar cube on a flat perforated spoon, which rests on the rim of the glass containing a measure or “dose” of absinthe. Iced water is then very slowly dripped on to the sugar cube, which gradually dissolves and drips, along with the water, into the absinthe, causing the green liquor to louche (“loosh”) into an opaque opalescent white as the essential oils precipitate out of the alcoholic solution. Usually three to four parts water are added to one part of 68% absinthe. Historically, true absintheurs used to take great care...

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The Glass in a Glass Method

The Glass in a Glass Method

Another little known alternative preparation ritual (fascinating and historically sanctioned) is the “glass-in-a-glass” method. Cumbersome in practice, but fascinating to watch, this involves placing the absinthe dose in a small stemmed glass inside a much larger glass, then slowly adding water until all the absinthe in the small glass has been displaced and has overflowed into the larger glass. This method was never widely used, but is historically authentic. Its use is documented in France in the 1840’s, and it’s also described in George Saintsbury’s legendary “Notes on a Cellar-book”, which although published in 1920 primarily records the drinking habits of the 1870’s and 1880’s. It seems likely that this method survived longer in the UK than it did in France. From “Notes on a Cellar-book”, by George Saintsbury. London, 1920: However, I will not close this short chapter without saying something of the supposed wickedest of all the...

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The Louche Effect

The Louche Effect

To drink a pre-ban absinthe from 1910, from the era of Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh, of Verlaine and Rimbaud is an extraordinary and life enhancing experience, this is truly, in Barnaby Conrad’s words, history in a bottle – one has the feeling of reaching back like a time traveller into the distant past, and feeling for just a moment a flicker of the warmth of a summer’s day on a Parisian boulevard a century ago. The pictures in the next section (named “The taste of vintage absinthe”) document the louche of a number of well preserved vintage absinthes. As you’ll see there is considerable variety both in the colour, and in the opacity of the louche. These absinthes were naturally chlorophyllically coloured and have generally faded to a light brown or amber tint, just as leaves turn in the fall. Interestingly though, when iced water is added and the...

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The Taste of Vintage Absinthe

The Taste of Vintage Absinthe

The taste of vintage absinthe is varied – each marque had its own unique style, some rich and spicy, some lighter and more floral. Very few show any pronounced bitterness though, and almost all are subtle, complex, multi-dimensional and delicious. A tiny handful of modern absinthes approach this quality but none equal or surpass it. Absinthe H. Bazinet Jeune, circa 1910 A circa 1910 Absinthe H. Bazinet, in very good condition, labelled for the US market. Founded in 1880, H.Bazinet were an important Pontarlier-based producer whose absinthe commanded a premium price in the 1900’s. Like other top-quality producers, they used an entirely natural chlorophyllic colouration process. This is the first intact bottle of this brand from the pre-ban era recorded so far. Tasting notes: Clear and bright, with a few traces of sediment at the bottom of the bottle – a remnant of the chlorophyllic colouration. Undiluted, the absinthe...

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Sugar and the Absinthe Ritual

Sugar and the Absinthe Ritual

Pernod Fils, and other leading manufacturers, actively promoted the sugar ritual (while also of course saying that their absinthe could – not should, but could – be drunk sans sucre). There is much more evidence of absinthe in the Belle Époque being drunk with sugar, than without – and generally a generous dose of sugar, often two or even three cubes as you’ll see in some of the contemporary photographs on the following pages (it’s been suggested that late 19th century sugar, being less highly refined than the modern equivalent, was also less sweet). Cusenier, producer of the only absinthe more expensive than Pernod, showed it being drunk with sugar in all their promotional material. The modern idea expressed sometimes amongst some US absintheurs, that sugar “masks” flavours is incorrect. It’s really more about individual preferences, and also about the characteristics of an individual absinthe. Generally sugar binds together...

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The Principles of Pouring

The Principles of Pouring

The satirical journals of the day delighted in mocking the pretensions of absintheurs, and the intricacies of the absinthe ritual. A particular point of amusement was the tendency of experienced absinthe drinkers to hold the carafe as high as possible above the glass, so as to battre (batter) the...

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