Ever wondered what it’s like to dance with the green fairy? Allow me to clarify; I’m talking about drinking absinthe—the mint-colored spirit rumored to cause hallucinations, and the supposed muse for famous writers and artists of the past. Before Saturday night, that was the extent of my knowledge on the subject. However, I was lucky enough to attend an Absinthe seminar and tasting at Minnie’s Tavern & Rye House, hosted by local Chef Andrew Weissman, Bar Manager Andy Hack and absinthe enthusiast Stephen Paprocki. Post-seminar, I’m an expert! Just kidding. But I will share with you what I learned.
I walked upstairs and into the room to find forty seats set up in rows, each place setting complete with three absinthe-infused chocolate truffles, a shot glass and a few pamphlets. It took all my strength not to devour those chocolates as I sat and waited until Paprocki greeted the room and shared the story of his longtime love of the green drink—an affair that began when he was 19 years old. He has since traveled the world in search of his favorite recipe, meanwhile learning the ins and outs of its history and production along the way.
Paprocki started out by explaining how the drink is made. Absinthe is basically a combination of alcohol and distilled herbs, which most often include Artemisia Absinthium, or Grand Wormwood, with anise, sweet fennel and other varied herbs. The interesting part of absinthe production is not its ingredients, however, but its preparation.
Now before I go on explaining how to make absinthe, don’t get too excited—it’s illegal to distill it on your own. Paprocki shared a loophole to get around the whole “distillation” step, but I’ll leave you to Google that one on your own time.
OK, back to business. When following the classic French method, the bartender takes a glass and fills it with a measure of absinthe. He then rests a slotted spoon over the glass and places a sugar cube in the spoon. Next, ice water drips onto the sugar cube, dissolving the sugar so that the sugar-water mixture falls into the drink and creates a cloudy appearance. The end result is typically three to five parts sugar-water to one part absinthe.
Some of you may be asking yourself, “Isn’t this stuff illegal?” That’s what I thought, at least! You, like I, have probably heard about the absinthe found in other countries, which contains a much higher alcohol concentration than what’s allowed in the US. But it’s for other reasons that the drink has caused quite a bit of controversy for centuries both in and out of America. Absinthe has a well-known reputation for being a dangerous, addictive, psychoactive drug that causes hallucinations. These effects are purportedly due to a chemical compound called thujone, which is very toxic in high amounts. Lucky for us, absinthe only contains trace amounts of thujone, producing a mild buzz similar to what you’d feel after downing any alcoholic drink. So it’s safe. Phew!
Once Paprocki wrapped up his presentation, and after I tried an absinthe truffle (yum!) he led us downstairs to taste the spirit for ourselves. We all crowded into the dim room and fought for a view of the bar. Standing on my tiptoes, I caught a glimpse of green-filled glasses all lined up with ice-water drips in between each. I watched the water drip, drip, drip onto the sugar cubes, dissolve and drop into the spirit. After about ten minutes of anticipation they were finally ready. I reached out, grabbed my glass, and took a great, big gulp.
Of everything I learned that night, the most important would be NOT to gulp down absinthe. It tasted strong, minty… like licorice. But I liked it. A few sips in and I felt the aforementioned buzz.
Though I may not be considered an absinthe expert, knowing the story behind the green fairy made our dance that night much more enjoyable.