First published in the Irish Times, Saturday 8th October, 2016
Absinthe can claim to have the worst reputation of all alcoholic drinks, quite an achievement. Held responsible for many of the ills that plagued society in continental Europe, it was banned in many countries for most of the 20th century. Yet its lighter cousin, pastis, brings forth benign images of happy Provencales playing pétanque in the square.
Absinthe came before pastis. It was first produced in Switzerland in the late 18th century, but it is generally accepted that Henri-Louis Pernod was the first to make it commercially. It became the favourite tipple of many artists and writers, from Van Gogh to Hemingway, in Europe at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, gaining an unsavoury reputation, accused of being a hallucinogenic, or causing convulsions.
Absinthe is traditionally made with wormwood, anise or star anise, and other herbs, but it usually tastes strongly of anise. The herbs give absinthe its green colour, and its nickname La Fée Verte, or Green Fairy, although today it comes in all sorts of colours.
Wormwood contains a chemical compound called thujone, which in very high doses can be toxic, and cause convulsions. There is only a small amount in absinthe, as in many other foods, so you would probably die of alcohol poisoning long before the thujone could take effect. More likely the problem was alcohol abuse. Absinthe was very popular in France and very strong – it can be anything from 55 per cent to a whopping 75 per cent abv.It is not intended to be drunk neat. These days it often appears as an ingredient in cocktails dreamt up by mixologists, but traditionally it was diluted with water, or louched, an elaborate procedure whereby the drinker slowly drips water through a cube of sugar balanced on special spoon into the absinthe below, clouding the clear drink.
Absinthe was never actually banned here or in the UK, but as it was prohibited in the main producer countries of France and Switzerland, supply was always going to be a problem. Retailers I spoke to talked of a niche interest.
Pastis began when absinthe was banned; it is lighter and consumed diluted with water, classically one part pastis to five of water. It is a refreshing aniseed-flavoured drink, drunk chilled, preferably outdoors in a cafe somewhere in the south of France. Therein lies its problem; the cold European north has never quite taken to pastis. The same retailers reported a healthy trade though, mainly with ex-pats, but also a number of Francophiles. Pastis is also very useful as an ingredient in sauces with fish. Ricard, Pernod and Henri Bardouin are the three biggest brands, the first two being readily available if you fancy reliving that holiday in the sun.
Pure anise and liquorice on nose and palate. An attractive refreshing drink with cold water or ice.
Stockists: Dunnes; Tesco; SuperValu; O’Briens, Next Door and off-licences.
More complex herbal nose, richer on the palate with more body; all herbs and anise. Again, a lovely drink.
Stockists: O’Briens, SuperValu and off-licences.
Drunk neat, an almighty explosion of alcohol and aniseed with a bitter edge. Louching essential.
Stockists: Celtic Whiskey Shop; Redmonds, Ranelagh; Bradley’s, Cork.