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Absinthe is a distilled, highly-alcoholic, anise-flavored spirit derived from herbs including the flowers and leaves of the medicinal plant Artemisia absinthium, also called wormwood. Sometimes incorrectly called a liqueur, absinthe does not contain added sugar and is therefore classed as a liquor or spirit.
Absinthe is often referred to as la Fée Verte ("The Green Fairy") because of its coloring, typically pale or emerald green, but sometimes clear. Because of its high proof and concentration of oils before drinking absintheurs typically add three to five parts ice cold water to a dose of absinthe, which causes the drink to turn cloudy (called "louching"); often the water is used to dissolve sugar to decrease bitterness. This preparation is considered an important part of the experience of drinking absinthe, so much so that it has become ritualized, complete with special slotted absinthe spoons and other accoutrements. Absinthe's flavor is similar to anise-flavored liqueurs, with a light bitterness and more complex flavor imparted by multiple herbs.
Absinthe had its start in Switzerland as an elixir, but is more well-known for its popularity in late 19th and 20th century France, particularly among Parisian artists and writers, whose romantic associations with the drink still linger in popular culture. In its heyday, the most popular brand of absinthe worldwide was Pernod Fils. At the height of its popularity, absinthe was portrayed as a dangerously addictive, psychoactive drug, the chemical thujone was blamed for most of its deleterious effects. By 1915 it was banned in a number of European countries and the United States. Modern evidence shows it to be as safe, or dangerous, as ordinary alcohol. A modern-day absinthe revival began in the 1990s, as countries in the European Union began to reauthorize its manufacture and sale.
Traditionally absinthe is poured into a glass over which a specially designed, slotted spoon is placed. A sugar cube is then deposited in the bowl of the spoon. Ice cold water is poured or dripped over the sugar until the drink is diluted 3:1 to 5:1. During this process, the components that are not soluble in water come out of solution and cloud the drink; that milky opalescence is called the louche (Fr. "opaque" or "shady" pronounced "loosh"). The addition of water is important causing the herbs to "blossom," bringing out many of the flavors originally over powered by the anise. For most people a good quality absinthe shouldn't require sugar but is added according to taste and will also thicken the mouth-feel of the drink.
With increased popularity the absinthe fountain came into use - a large jar of ice-water on a base with spigots. It allowed a number of drinks to be prepared at once, and with a hands-free drip, patrons were able to socialize while louching a glass.
Although many bars served absinthe in standard glasses there are a number of glasses specifically made for absinthe, having a dose line, bulge or bubble in the lower portion of the glass marking how much absinthe should be poured into it (often around 1 oz).
Numerous artists and writers living in France during the late 19th and early 20th century were noted absinthe drinkers and featured absinthe in their work. These include Vincent Van Gogh, Manet, Guy de Maupassant and Toulouse Lautrec. Van Gogh spent a good deal of time painting in cafés but feared the bohemian lifestyle was damaging. During a fit in 1888 Van Gogh cut off his ear lobe and gave it to a brothel wench. This fit has often been said to have been absinthe-induced; nevertheless, there is no evidence to suggest this. According to Gauguin, Van Gogh had been acting in an unstable manner almost a week before the incident and had flung the only absinthe Gauguin had seen him order, before drinking it.
Art historians still debate of the exact cause or causes of Van Gogh's behavior. Degas' painting "L'Absinthe" (1876) portrayed grim absinthe drinkers in a cafe. Years later it set off a flurry in the london art world. The grim realism of "L'Absinthe," a theme popular with bohemian artists, was seen as a disease by London art critics and a lesson against alcohol and the French in general. Picasso depicted absinthe in different media, including the paintings "Woman Drinking Absinthe" (1901) and "Bottle of Pernod and Glass" (1912), and the sculpture "Absinthe Glass" (1914). Oscar Wilde has been quoted as saying, "What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?" Finally, disappointed with the quality of other liquor available, Robert Jordan turns to Absinthe while fighting with the Loyalist guerrillas in Hemingway's immortal novel, "For Whom the Bell Tolls."