What is Absinthe?Absinthe, commonly called the "green fairy," is a spirit of high alcohol content and is derived from herbs. Anise and fennel lend it a characteristic licorice flavor, while wormwood is responsible for absinthe’s supposed hallucinogenic side effects—it contains a chemical called thujone. Thujone is regulated in many countries, including the U.S., but is legal in the Czech Republic, where many brands are produced today.
Why is Absinthe Controversial?Absinthe originated as a medicinal treatment for malaria and other ills in the 18th century, wormwood having antiseptic and other benefits when prepared properly. However, with the establishment of absinthe distilleries, the drink exploded in popularity, and in the 19th century, it was widely used as a recreational beverage. Visitors to Old Town Prague may have seen the Czechs enjoying this beverage during this period in history, though there’s more legend than truth to its tradition in Prague.
Absinthe became associated with the wayward lifestyle of artists and other creative personalities, who sought out inspiration from psychoactive substances and alcohol. The thujone in absinthe supposedly caused hallucinations for those who drank it, though it’s widely believed that this effect has been exaggerated. More likely, the high alcohol content was responsible for crime and other socially unacceptable behavior from absinthe drinkers. The drink’s toxic effects eventually led to a ban on the drink in some countries.
Thujone is still illegal in the United States, and this ban has undoubtedly contributed to absinthe’s mystique.
Drinking Absinthe in PragueDo be warned that ordering absinthe in Prague will mark you as a tourist. In fact, it seems the whole absinthe industry in Prague was developed to attract tourists, even down to the “traditional” act of setting a sugar cube aflame to melt into the drink.
Some, but not all, absinthe in Prague is so-called Bohemian-style absinthe (or absinth—Czechs spell it without the e). These “wormwood alcohols” are made without the combination of herbs, though they do contain wormwood. They tend to be less complex and less pleasant to drink, rendering the addition of sugar necessary for flavor.
However, if you can’t stand the thought of Prague travel without trying absinthe, you can at least be prepared.
Absinthe is available at most bars in Prague. The drink usually contains between 60 and 70 percent alcohol. Some absinthes advertise by thujone content, which ranges from 10 to 100 mg/l. The highest thujone-content absinthes include Bairnsfather at 32 mg/l and King of Spirits at 100 mg/l. Both of these drinks are popular and widely available, though some absinthe connoisseurs don’t necessarily recommend them.
Some distilleries have sought to improve the reputation of Czech absinthes, producing it in a traditional way with attention to ingredients, flavor, and “louche”—the way the drink clouds when water is added to dilute its strength.
Absinthes from the Zufanek distillery get high marks from critics. These include La Grenouille and St. Antoine. Other absinthe aficionados will suggest absinthes based upon their similarity to traditionally produced absinthe, their absence of artificial ingredients, the noticeability of the anise flavor, the louche produced before being drunk, and the subtlety of wormwood bitterness.
If you order absinthe in Prague, you’ll be given a spoon, a source of fire, a glass of water, and sugar or a sugar cube. Sometimes the spoon will be slotted, sometimes it won’t be. The idea is that the sugar is soaked with a small amount of absinthe, set aflame, then melted into the absinthe. The water is poured into the absinthe, which turns cloudy.
Remember that you’re unlikely to hallucinate after drinking absinthe, but you are likely to get very drunk very quickly; don’t plan to navigate maps or even the metro system after you’ve been out absinthe drinking. Be on the safe side and try absinthe when you’re within stumbling distance of your hotel.