Absinthe – the Green Fairy

The recent appearance in Tijuana of a legendary alcoholic drink known as absinthe is attracting U.S. tourists who are curious about the strange effects often associated with the concoction. Banned in the U.S. since 1912 because of health risks, it is now making a strong comeback in Mexico where it was never made illegal.

Absinthe is an alcoholic drink made from a mixture of herbs and a wormwood extract (artemisia absinthium). Wormwood contains the chemical thujone which in large enough quantities can cause ailments anywhere from digestive problems to brain damage or death. Wormwood was originally used in the Middle Ages as a medicine against tapeworms but was too bitter by itself and was later mixed with other ingredients to make it easier to take, thus the birth of absinthe.

Authentic absinthe can range in flavor from heavenly to downright dreadful. One brand found in Europe, Tombstone – and very aptly named at that – tastes like diluted mouthwash and no amount of sugar can make it any better. The variety popping up in Tijuana, Green Fairy Absinth (spelled without the final e), is produced in the Czech republic and is slightly better tasting, though most absinthe aficionados still liken it to window cleaner.

Green Fairy Absinth can cost anywhere from $18 to $25 dollars for a small 180ml bottle, depending on where you purchase it, and one shot will set you back as much as $8. In Tijuana nightclubs the absinthe is poured a little bit at a time over a flaming sugar cube into a glass of ice – don’t try this at home. The warm liquid melts the ice slightly and helps to dilute the absinthe. Traditionally the liqueur is added to a glass of ice and cold water is poured over one or more sugar cubes held over the glass with a specially made absinthe spoon; the ratio anywhere from 1 to 5 parts water to 1 part absinthe. The odd practice of adding alcohol to an open flame seems like an unnecessary, dangerous practice and is a waste of good alcohol.

For those who are still curious about the drink but are concerned about the legality and the possible health risks, there are alternatives to trekking down to Mexico. Several absinthe-like drinks are available legally in specialty liquor stores throughout the United States. These legal versions are safe from the damaging effects of thujone and are not likely to cause you to mail parts of your face to friends – that is, of course, unless you were already inclined to do so.

On the high-end of the price range is Absente (absinthe refined) at just over $40 for a 750ml bottle. This version is made following the original recipe but the wormwood has been replaced with its cousin, southern-wormwood, which does not contain thujone. Some connoisseurs believe that the lack of thujone (which is normally found in trace amounts anyway) does not reduce the “effects” of the drink and that the “effects” are no more then being pleasantly drunk. Sometimes Absente is available in a boxed set which also includes a traditional absinthe spoon. Wine Enthusiast rating 94 pts.

In the midrange is La Muse Verte (The Green Muse) at $30 for a 750ml bottle. The problem with the name, however, is that it is not green at all but very yellow. When mixed with sugar and water it takes on the appearance of pineapple juice. The taste is strong with anise and is best at a ratio of about 1 part Muse to 2 parts water. This is the least of my favorites of the three alternatives but on the up side it is available in a boxed set with the fancy absinthe spoon included. Wine Enthusiast rating 94 pts.

Herbsaint is a cheaper alternative to Absente costing just under $14 for the same 750ml bottle. It has a similar taste but appears more yellow then green and ends up looking like orange juice when mixed with sugar and water. Herbsaint, produced originally under the name Legendre Absinthe, originates out of Louisiana and remains one of the most popular absinthe substitutes on the market. Has no Wine Enthusiast rating but has a higher customer rating than both Absente and La Muse Verte.

So before packing up the family and heading south of the border to elicit the company of “the green fairy”, first try some of the popular alternatives here in the U.S. At the very least you will have a better idea of what to expect while still in the safety of your own home.

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