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Tales of Artemesia Absinthium


Tales of the Cocktail is just over a week away. One seminar I’m very much looking forward to is The Journey of Artemesia Absinthium, which aims to explore the bitter and mysterious herb more commonly known as wormwood. This will be most familiar to people as the (formerly) forbidden flavoring in absinthe, but there’s more to it than that. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with panelists Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller, the “inseparable cocktail couple,” and ask a few pointed questions in advance of the actual event.

I’ve noticed an uptick of interest in bitters and bitter liqueurs such as Italian amari. Is the American palate shifting, and what does that mean for cocktails and spirits flavored with Artemesia absinthium?

The American palate is shifting as wonderful traditional ingredients are re-discovered. Both consumers and bartenders are reaching a level of sophistication not seen in a century, ever since two world wars and Prohibition — not just in the US, but in Canada, parts of the Caribbean and eastern Europe — broke the master/apprentice bond between generations of bartenders.

For consumers, this means a whole new range of remarkably balanced flavours, and a step away from the cirtus inundation of the past decade (it should be noted that too much citrus damages tooth enamel — thus bartenders who taste every drink and mix a lot of citrusy drinks find themselves buying a lot of toothpaste for sensitive teeth).

Despite the current broad fascination with wormwood, we were surprised when we hosted a cocktails evening at Portobello Star in London recently, that no one we encountered had ever seen fresh wormwood before.

Do you have a favorite cocktail that incorporates Artemisia absinthium in some way, shape or form? If so please do tell.

Gin and Wormwood! Jerry Thomas included it in the 1862 edition of his book. There was an intimation that it was a rather colloquial drink, not really something you’d find in posh establishments. After all, you simply pick a few choice sprigs of wormwood, stuff them into the gin bottle, and let it rest for about thirty minutes. This reveals surprisingly sweet flavours in the wormwood, along with a subtle bitter undertone. If allowed to infuse too long, the mixture will turn into wormwood bitters, so it is best to make just enough for the evening. We stir it over ice, then strain it into chilled cocktail glasses. We have also served it in chilled shot glasses, but that diminishes the nose.

Was the ban on wormwood in absinthe an example of “reefer madness,” that is, unwarranted hysteria and moral panic, in your opinion?

Actually, we’re conspiracy theorists on this one. It might have been dressed up as hysteria and moral panic, but we suspect the French wine industry might have had a hand in promoting it. They had been beaten down by phylloxera for years. Now, they were recovering and the government had given them substantial funds and other incentives to help them get back on their feet. Large chunks of this were spent on anti spirits propaganda. They also attacked cocktails and even mineral water.

Absinthe was not a contributing factor any more than wine, beer, etc. in either of the infamous “absinthe murders”. If you look at the epic quantity one of the perpetrators consumed throughout the day before the murder, absinthe accounted for a small portion of his alcohol intake. As far as thujone tipping the scales, it is found elsewhere in our diets in greater concentration than in absinthe. (The active compound in absinthe was and always will be the alcohol.)

Inspired by the “I Hate Vodka, I Love Vodka” panel last year, I’m asking everyone for some sort of opinion on vodka. Since I already know your [Anistatia’s] position on this delicate matter, perhaps I can ask you if there is any significant intersection between the subject of your seminar and vodka. Any Artemesia absinthium flavored vodkas, or any decent cocktails involving such a spirit and vodka, or — well — anything?

First, a point that didn’t really come up in last year’s Love/Hate session. Vodka? That’s a pretty broad generalization. Imagine a similar session on whiskey. The first comment would be, there’s great whiskies and crap whiskies. There are great vodkas and miserable ones. But that’s a rant for another day.

We just tried Babicka Wormwood Vodka. It is surprisingly good. We expected something wrenchingly bitter. It was actually like sipping a good Gin and Wormwood: sweet and bitter notes in an herbaceous balance. It has a place next to (or a shelf above) bison grass vodka.

I have long been fascinated by Artemesia absinthium and grew it for years before absinthe became re-legalized. (I wasn’t flavoring anything with it; I just thought it was a cool herb.) If there is a story behind how your seminar “came to be,” I would love to hear it.

We came to wormwood from the other side, the one less traveled. We are huge fans of vermouth. Yes, it’s not so many years since a bartender in one of New York’s top new cocktail bars said to me with sneer of disdain when I asked for a Carpano on the rocks, “I could never respect anyone who drinks straight vermouth!” Those days have past, but people still find fascination with wormwood primarily for its association with absinthe. We, on the other hand, have traveled through France, Italy, and Spain seeking out vermouths. The name vermouth, of course, comes from the German word Wermut meaning wormwood.

I have to admit, if it wasn’t for Tales of the Cocktail, I too would remain a benighted vermouth skeptic. I got a taste of Carpano Antica Formula last year and it rocked my world. Took me ten months to find it on the local shelves. But I digress.

Alas, The Journey of Artemesia Absinthium is sold out, and even my media credential has not been sufficient to guarantee access; nevertheless I hope to wangle my way in at the last moment. If so, you’ll read more about it here.

Photo: Wormwood / Rebecca-Lee / CC BY-ND 2.0

Published inFood & Drinx


  1. Brooks Brooks

    I’m sure Jared and Anastasia could shoehorn you into the seminar if you axed ’em. Did you ax ’em? Never hurts to ax.

    Evidence supports their “conspiracy” take on the absinthe ban. In the 1880s, France’s vineyards were devastated by not one, but two phyloxera blights that crippled the industry for decades. During that period (when grapes were in short supply) wine became more expensive than absinthe, and absinthe sales skyrocketed. By 1910, when it had replaced wine as the most popular drink in France, the French were consuming 36 million liters of absinthe per year.

    Also, Europe’s temperance movement (formed in the 1860s) had, by the turn of the century, grown quite shrill. It’s interesting to note that the temperance crusaders did not target wine — regarded in those days as “blameless” and “healthy.” The wine industry, seeing an opportunity to regain commercial supremacy by killing the competition, threw its full backing and support behind temperance…..and, eventually, the absinthe ban.

  2. […] Journey of Artemesia Absinthium.” Attentive readers may recall that, though I conducted a pre-interview with the presenters, I was not at all sure I’d be able to wangle my way into the seminar […]

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