How to Make Absinthe: Excerpt from Hooch: Simplified Brewing, Winemaking & Infusing at Home, by Scott MeyerBy TNB Nonfiction
July 28, 2013
As colorful as the history and mythology of moonshine is, absinthe’s may be even more lurid. The herb-flavored and herb-tinted liquor was known as the “Green Fairy” and developed a following among the artists, writers and other bohemians living in France in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its devotees claimed that it promoted visions, that it was more psychoactive than mere alcohol. It was reported that Van Gogh cut off his ear under the deranging influence of absinthe.
Even ordinary drinkers prepared it according to a set of rituals and it was reputed to be highly addictive. By 1915, it had caught the attention of advocates for temperance, and making, selling, and drinking absinthe were outlawed in the United States and most Western European countries. Although no reliable data ever showed that absinthe possessed powers beyond those of any strong liquor, the ban remained in effect until the 1990s, when it was rediscovered by adventurous drinkers, who lobbied for changes in the law. Today, hundreds of commercial brands are available, ranging from artisan-crafted bottles that cost hundreds of dollars to cheap imitations made with artificially flavored and colored vodka.
When made properly, absinthe is a combination of an infusion and distillation. You can try to approximate the flavor of absinthe by just infusing it—and you may create an enjoyable drink—but distilling concentrates the characteristic flavors. More on that in a bit—first, let’s get into the herbs that produce absinthe’s unique taste and color.
Absinthe may seem like an exotic drink, but the flavoring ingredients are anything but. You can grow all of them in a small garden or even in pots on a patio, just about anywhere except the most extreme climates of North America. The defining herb in absinthe is wormwood, known to botanists as Artemisia absinthium. It’s important to know that because there are other plants commonly called wormwood that do not have the same flavors and aromas. Wormwood has long been used as a medicinal plant—absinthe was created by a Swiss doctor in the 1790s, who was trying to prepare a remedy with it. Thujone is a compound found in many plants, but wormwood releases its supply when it soaks in alcohol. Absinthe’s exceptional properties usually are attributed to thujone. If you rub the leaves on your skin on a summer night, you will find that wormwood also works as an insect repellent. (Unfortunately, no studies have been published addressing the proposition that drinking absinthe repels insects.)
Wormwood is a perennial that grows into a small shrub—it reaches 1 to 3 feet tall, with thin, silvery green serrated leaves and round yellow flowers in midsummer. It is very drought tolerant and often is found growing wild along roadsides and other uncultivated areas. Harvest the leaves anytime, though they are richest in the all-important essential oils in the spring, when the leaves are young. You can start a patch of wormwood with seeds or transplants in spring after all danger of frost has passed. Like just about all herbs, including the others that go into absinthe, wormwood needs very well-drained soil and full sun, except in the hottest, driest climates (where a little shade can help protect them). Thujone does have one very noteworthy property—the compound leaches from the roots into the surrounding soil and suppresses the growth of many other plants. Plant wormwood away from your vegetable garden, as it affects tomatoes, strawberries, and many other popular crops. Wormwood isn’t lethal if ingested, but it got its name as a treatment for parasitic worms and you don’t want to experience worm-purging unless absolutely necessary.
The other herbs in absinthe may vary, but almost always include fennel, anise, mint, lemon balm, chamomile, and angelica. Hyssop and coriander are also frequently used. All of these herbs are best started with transplants in spring. Mint, and its relatives lemon balm and hyssop, are aggressive and can become garden bullies, crowding out other plants you want to grow. One way to control that tendency is to plant them in a pot and then bury the pot almost to its edge. For flavoring your absinthe, you strip and crush the leaves of mint, lemon balm, and hyssop, and the flowers of chamomile. Pull the roots of angelica and gather the seeds of fennel, anise, and coriander—break the seeds open in a coffee grinder or food processor to help release their flavors.
The infusion. The base for homemade absinthe is Everclear grain alcohol, unflavored vodka, or any liquor that’s 85 percent ABV. In a large clean jar or any glass container with a large mouth, put an ounce of crushed wormwood leaves and cover them with 2 quarts of the liquor, shake gently, and store in a cool, dark place for ten days to two weeks, shaking gently about once a day. When the liquor has a light greenish tint and smells strongly bitter, filter out the wormwood. Add a tablespoon of each of the other herbs to the wormwood infusion, shake it gently, and wait another couple of days for their flavors to infuse.
Filter and dilute. Strain out the plant matter—a coffee filter works well for this. Mix water with your infusion at about a five-to-one ratio. If you just want a drink that has a taste reminiscent of absinthe and don’t want to bother with distilling, you can let the infusion rest for a day or two to further blend the herbs’ flavors, and then drink it.
Distill. For a more authentic absinthe, distill the infusion just as if you are making brandy or eau de vie. Take extra care not to let the herbs burn while you are heating the mash, by raising the temperature gradually—they can char quickly over direct flame.
Color and age. Divide the absinthe distillate that you’ve gathered into two equal parts. To one part, add another ounce of wormwood; and to the other, about a tablespoon each of the other herbs (crush the leaves of the mint, lemon balm, and hyssop). Allow both parts to infuse for two to three days—the one with the mixed herbs should be vivid green. Strain out the herbs and mix the two parts together again. Leave the flavors to blend for two weeks before you drink your absinthe.
Serve. The final step before drinking absinthe is the ritual known as La Louche. It involves both further diluting and sweetening the bitter drink. Some believe it’s the secret to unlocking its purported powers or at least the best way to activate the essential oils in the herbs. To perform the ritual in classic fashion, you need a glass with a reservoir at the bottom, a slotted spoon, sugar cubes, and about twice as much ice-cold water as absinthe. You fill the reservoir with a couple of ounces of absinthe, rest the spoon on the top of the glass, and put two sugar cubes on the spoon. As you slowly pour the water over the sugar, it melts and drips into the absinthe, changing the drink’s color from emerald green to milky, cloudy green and eventually to an opalescent light green. In a recent variation on this ritual, popularized in the Czech Republic, the sugar cubes are soaked in absinthe before they are set on the spoon and then they are ignited. The sugar caramelizes and drips into the drink as it is cooled by the water. Dramatic stuff, but not nearly as exciting as drinking absinthe you’ve made yourself from homegrown ingredients.
Scott Meyer was on staff at Organic Gardening magazine for more than twenty years, seven of them as editor-in-chief. Meyer is the author of seven books, including The City Homesteader. His writing has appeared in Philadelphia, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Prevention, Organic Style, Mountain Bike, and more. He lives with his wife, two children, and garden beds in suburban Philadelphia.