Herbs in Absinthe: An Overview
BY CASSANDRA | JULY 2006
Absinthe is one complex herbal liquor. Also, there are many different recipes for absinthe and each of these will make use of a different variety of herbs (and their quantity).
Nevertheless, any recipe for genuine, traditional-style absinthe always includes three distinct groups of herbs: the primary "holy trinity" herbs, taste-enhancing herbs and, finally, herbs added for aroma and colour.
Let's take a quick look at some of the most essential herbs...
THE HOLY TRINITY herbs are those herbs that essentially define absinthe as a drink, or set it apart from all other alcoholic beverages. These are the herbs that largely give absinthe its characteristic taste and cause its unusual effects. These three herbs are always present, in any absinthe made:
Grand wormwood · Artemisia absinthium L.
The wormwood plant (grande wormwood that is – not to be confused with petite wormwood or common wormwood or mugwort) is the constituent that pretty much defines absinthe. It is bitter in taste and contains an oily substance called thujone – and, of course, it is thujone that is responsible for the unusual absinthe effects.
Wormwood is a wild plant of European origin, although it now grows in many parts of the United States as well.
When making absinthe, it is important to pay attention to the quality of wormwood. Organic, sun-dried wormwood is best. If at all possible, wormwood grown at high altitudes should be used. Ideally, the plant should be harvested just before it flowers, because it is at this moment that wormwood is richest in thujone. Cheap, mass-produced wormwood from places like Turkey (used in many commercial absinthes) should be avoided.
Wormwood has a long medicinal history; it has been used since the times of the Romans to treat a variety of complaints, especially digestive ones. The plant is also known to stimulate appetite. In the middle ages—before there was liquor-based absinthe—wormwood-infused wine was a popular drink.
Anise · Pimpinella anisum L.
Green anise seeds give absinthe its typical liquorice flavour and scent. Its oil also plays a part in creating the unusual louche (clouding) effect when water is added to absinthe.
The seed (correctly the fruit) of this flowering plant is sweet in taste and very aromatic. Anise is common to the Eastern Mediterranean region and beyond and produces a white feathery head of flowers. Apart from absinthe, it is most notably used to make the traditional Greek liquor ouzo.
Anise contains anethole, a substance believed to cause mild psychedelic effects (this was confirmed by several scientific studies). According to ancient writers such as Pliny, this herb is a reliable cure for insomnia. Just like wormwood, anise stimulates the appetite.
Fennel · Foeniculum vulgare L.
Fennel's liquorice flavour is a little sweeter than anise's but certainly much less intense. It is the last herb in the "holy trinity" but definitely one that no absinthe can go without, as fennel balances the bitterness of wormwood and tones down the sharp edges of anise.
The fruit of fennel (although commonly called the seed) is the part used in absinthe making; it is green in colour and, helpfully, the depth of the colour is the best indicator of quality. Fennel grows throughout the Mediterranean; its flowers grow in a pretty umbel (rather like an umbrella) of equal length from one point.
Fennel is a very distinctive note in traditional Swiss absinthes. In contrast, the French government limits the amount of fenchone, a constituent of the plant, to 5mg per litre of absinthe. Just like anise, fennel also contains anethole.
Fennel is frequently mentioned in ancient medical texts. According to the great medieval herbalist Hildegard of Bingen, fennel seeds "make one's eyes see clearly." Nature's Paradise, written in 1650, claims that "both the seeds, leaves and root of our Garden Fennel are much used in drinks and broths for those that are grown fat, to abate their unwieldiness and cause them to grow more gaunt and lank."
TASTE-ENHANCING HERBS add balance to the very potent and dominant flavour of the three Holy Trinity herbs. Hyssop, for example, eases the astringent wormwood bitterness. A few of these herbs (e.g. calamus, to give one example) are also silent players in the absinthe effect. Here are all of them in more detail:
Calamus · Acorus calamus L.
Calamus is sometimes called sweet flag root. The plant indeed has sweet aroma, and it is the root that is used in absinthe-making – or it should be used, to be precise. Modern-day commercial absinthe manufacturers often leave calamus out altogether, despite the fact that it was an essential ingredient in all pre-ban absinthe recipes. In fact, many experienced herbalists go as far as to say it is calamus that gives the Green Fairy her "wings."
Calamus is a green reed with sword-like leaves and grows on the banks of rivers, lakes and in other watery environments of the Northern Hemisphere. For the purpose of absinthe-making, it is important that the root is dried at a low temperature.
Calamus has long been priced for its aphrodisiac properties, both in the Orient and in medieval Europe, where people used to steep calamus in wine for this reason. The reed-like structure of the root symbolises an erect male organ in some texts. Calamus also contains aserone, which is a known for its mild psychedelic properties.
American Indians use calamus as entheogen, or a gateway to hallucinogenic dream states. The Cree Tribe have claimed that the root can cause them to "travel great distances without touching the ground." Medieval witchcraft texts prescribe its use in "flying ointments."
Star anise · Illicium verum L.
Star anise is a dried eight-point fruit of a small Asian tree. It is the third player (with anise and fennel) that gives absinthe its typical liquorice taste.
Star anise must be harvested before it is ripe and should be sun dried subsequently. In absinthe, it should only be used sparingly. If overdone, it will give rise to a noticeable "louche" effect, but always at the expense of the other herbal flavours. Also, its overuse will create what some describe as the numb-tongue effect. A single dried fruit is sufficient for about two to three litres of absinthe and it needn't be (shouldn't, in fact) be crushed before infusion.
The oil of star anise contains approximately 90% anethole, which makes it the third herb in the absinthe maker's box with this constituent.
As a matter of interest, we might add that star anise is used in the production of the Tamiflu vaccination; at one time, this caused a temporary worldwide shortage of this herb.
Hyssop · Hyssopus officinalis L.
Hyssop is a plant of the mint family with dark blue flowers which appear at the time of harvesting. In absinthe, hyssop adds a flavour of a slightly bitter vanilla quality. This flavour can be quite intense and so is used sparingly today (though Romans used to love their hyssop-infused wine). Hyssop is also added to absinthe for colour.
In natural medicine, hyssop is used to relax blood vessels. The herb also increases alertness and can aid nervous anxiety. Its oil contains ketone pino-camphone which, in its purest form, has similar properties to thujone.
Angelica · Angelica archangelica L.
Angelica is a green flowering plant common throughout the world. The root and seeds of this plant are used for both flavour and aroma.
Angelica's flavour may be compared to that of juniper. The plant has always been popular for its taste and—apart from absinthe—is added to beverages as diverse as chartreuse, gin, muscatel and even angelica schnapps; it is also used in confectionary.
Commonly known as Holy Ghost in English, angelica is reputed to have a mild anesthetic effect. Angelica archangelica has a long history as a medical herb; its name dates back to a dream in which Archangel Gabriel told a monk it was a cure for smallpox. Angelica was also popular during the Black Death as a supposed curative. "The root of garden Angelica is a singular remedy against poison, and against the plague, and all infections taken by evil and corrupt air," wrote Gerard (The herbal or Generall historie of plantes, 1663). Certain native American tribes, such as the Iroquois, use angelica in religious rituals.
Coriander · Coriandrum sativum L.
Coriander seed may be used to add piquancy to the herbal mix. Coriander has a fresh flowery aroma and will introduce that background spicy flavour that many absinthe drinkers enjoy. It combines well with melissa.
Medical texts from Babylon prescribe coriander's use as a relaxant and a cure for anxiety. This has been recently confirmed by modern medical tests that proved coriander's anxiolytic-sedative properties.
AROMA & COLOUR-ENHANCING HERBS:
Melissa (Melissa officinalis L.)—also known as lemon balm—adds citrus scent to absinthe and causes some of the drink's typical green coloration. Practitioners of natural medicine note that melissa infusions have a calming effect.
Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis L.), together with coriander, adds a background crisp and spicy aroma to absinthe. Just as melissa, roman chamomile is noted for its calming properties and is used in aromatherapy as a relaxant.
Roman wormwood (Artemisia pontica L.) is sometimes known as small absinthe. Unlike Artemisia absinthium—its thujone-rich relative—Artemisia pontica is not bitter. Sometimes called green ginger, this herb is used primarily for colour and second-step aroma.
Mint (Menta piperita L.) Peppermint! May be added in small quantities for its aromatic quality.
Veronica (Veronica officinalis L.) is used to add a light spicy note to the scent and also to deepen the green colour of absinthe.
In addition to the common herbs we have reviewed on this page, some of the others often found in the absinthe maker's kitchen are the stimulant Elecampane (Inula helenium L.) and the beta-thujone bearing Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare L.), as well as Dictamnus (Dictamnus albus L.) and possibly one of the rare varieties of Genepi (Artemisia mutellina, Artemisia spicata, Artemisia umbelliformis or Artemisia glacialis).