Absinthe: A Physical Reaction & the Famous Green Color
Very few spirits are shrouded in as much mystery and folklore as absinthe, which is often associated with post-impressionist artists in the late 1800’s drinking in smoke filled Parisian cafes. Tales of “green fairies” and the hallucinogenic effects of the spirituous liquor were vividly portrayed by the media and eventually led to a widespread ban on absinthe. But why was absinthe, of all the numerous herbal spirits available at the time, singled out for its allegedly dangerous properties? The green color and the mysterious “louche” effect - the way the spirit takes on a milky opalescence when water is added - were probably major contributing factors.
Fortunately, the United States ban on the spirit was lifted after a determination that the levels of “thujone” - the active ingredient in wormwood (scientific name: artemisia absinthium) - were generally too low in the finished spirit to cause the alleged hallucinations. That said, you may still wonder about the bright green color and why the drink develops a milky sheen when prepared correctly. The answer actually comes quite naturally (pun intended - read on!).
At Glacier Distilling, we base our Trail of the Cedars absinthe on a traditional Swiss recipe for “extrait d’Absinthe vert,” which just means a green colored extract of the absinthe herb. Absinthe is more commonly known as wormwood and grows abundantly in the well drained soils of northwest Montana. Wormwood, anise and fennel are the three main herbs required to make a traditional absinthe. After distilling the anise, fennel and wormwood with grain spirits, we extract a clear liquid packed with the essences and oils from the herbs. We then infuse that spirit with more fresh herbs, which pulls the chlorophyll from the leaves and creates a bright green color to the spirit - just like a freshly brewed green tea.
So the green color is in fact a natural coloring extracted from the herbs. And like a fallen leaf, it will quickly turn yellow and then brown - especially if exposed to sunlight. This means that although our Trail of the Cedars absinthe starts out a bright emerald green, it fades to a dead-leaf yellow over time. And like many distilled spirits, a bit of age only improves the flavors, so a yellowed absinthe is often a sign of a well matured spirit and a mark of quality. So if you see a bright green absinthe in the store in a clear bottle - most likely it is colored with something artificial to preserve the color.
The milky white color that forms when you add water to the spirit is also due to a natural property of the herbal infusion - mainly the anethole, an essential oil found in high concentrations in anise seed. Aromatic oils and essences dissolve to a much greater degree in alcohol than water. So the absinthe, which is distilled and bottled at a high proof, is able to carry a lot of these flavor compounds dissolved in the alcohol. When you add water, it lowers the alcohol content and the dissolved oils will drop out of solution and quickly form a cloudy haze in the liquid. Bringing those oils out of solution make the accessible to your sense of taste and smell - just like how a perfume only really shines once the alcohol evaporates leaving the fragrances behind to enjoy.
The moral of the story - take some time to dilute your absinthe with a bit of chilled water to bring out the flavors locked in the alcohol. If you enjoy responsibly you don’t need to fear the green fairy.
Glacier Distilling Company's Trail of the Cedars Absinthe won a Silver Medal in the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.