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The truth about Absinthe

As part of Good Food Month, Bar Ampere's Benjamin Luzz introduces us to Absinthe, the world's most misunderstood drink.

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Whoever's responsible for absinthe's publicity needs to be sacked. Sure, things have improved since the early 1900s when the anise-flavoured spirit known as ''the green fairy'' was deemed a dangerous, addictive psychoactive drug that promoted (to name a few) epilepsy, tuberculosis, murder, madness and incest and was banned in most of Europe, the US and parts of Africa and South America. The lifting of the bans in the 1990s did help rehabilitate absinthe's reputation but the belief it's going to mess with your mind has never really gone away.

Ben Luzz, co-owner of Melbourne's Bar Ampere, is an absinthe fan and collector of absinthe paraphernalia. He believes absinthe, of which he has more than 20 at his bar, is "a beautiful, subtle drink" that's suffering from an image problem.

"I had a couple in the other day," he says, "and suggested absinthe to them and the woman said: 'Oh no, I couldn't drink absinthe - I have to get on a plane in a couple of hours. I'll just have a martini.' She had three in the end."

Both Gaye Valttila and Ben Luzz suggest going for one of the 'lighter' (aka more low alcohol) absinthes when first starting out.
Both Gaye Valttila and Ben Luzz suggest going for one of the 'lighter' (aka more low alcohol) absinthes when first starting out. Photo: Chris Hopkins

So what is it that has people running scared of a drink that reached the height of its popularity during the Belle Epoque period in France at the turn of last century?

There is something exotically herbal and botanical about the stuff and so there's an association with herbal highs, particularly as ''the holy trinity'' of herbs that forms the flavour base of absinthe and helps deliver the traditional pale green colour - grand wormwood, green anise and Florence fennel - sounds so witchcrafty. But despite all the accusations levelled at absinthe - that thujone (a chemical compound found in wormwood oil) has similar properties to marijuana's THC, that it will send you into LSD-like hallucinations - having been disproved, the sensationalist dirt has stuck.

Admittedly, absinthe is pretty strong (some can clock in at around 80 per cent alcohol) and the absinthe drinking ritual, involving specially shaped glasses, spade-shaped spoons with fancy perforations and elaborate slowly dripping water fountains, does come across as pretty druggy. But it is just this ritual that makes drinking absinthe the traditional way so civilised.

Absinthe aficionado Ben Luzz at Bar Ampere.
Absinthe aficionado Ben Luzz at Bar Ampere. Photo: Eddie Jim

"It slows things down," says Gaye Valtilla, owner of Sydney's Absinthe Salon, where she presides over more than 32 different types of absinthe, mainly from France and Switzerland. "It becomes a social experience and about the ritual. There's no sculling and no rush because it takes time."

The ritual goes something like this. You place a sugar cube on top of a slotted spoon that sits over a glass containing a measure of absinthe. Iced water is then slowly dripped over the sugar (preferably from a table water fountain), turning the water into a sugar spirit that mixes with the absinthe, turning it cloudy (officially known as ''louching''). Those who become proficient at this can alter the amount of sugar and water (it's usually one part absinthe to 3-5 parts water) to suit their own taste.

According to Luzz, who is holding an absinthe education and appreciation class at Bar Ampere as part of Good Food Month, the flavour profile of absinthe should never taste like liquorice - a sure sign you're drinking inferior quality stuff - and should sit more around the "fennel seed, subtle anise spectrum".

"Colour is also a good guide to quality," he says. "You should be looking from a subtle green or clear-coloured liquid.''

And so what about the legendary effects of absinthe? How does it make you feel?

Gaye Valtilla, who has a three-absinthe limit at Absinthe Salon, says "the active constituents cause a lucid feeling that's accompanied by a nice floaty feeling that's a little euphoric''. Others have called it a "a form of lucid drunkenness".

No hallucinations then. No madness. No mayhem. Just a lovely ritual that leaves you lucid and slightly euphoric. Now that's the message that really needs to get out.

Luzz will share his absinthe expertise on November 7, 14, 21 and 28 as part of The Age Good Food Month instant expert series. Tickets: $65. Details: 9663 7557.