To sweeten, or not to sweeten: that is the question when it comes to preparing a glass of absinthe. Absinthe is distinctive in the world of alcohols for a variety of reasons, but one of the most interesting to me is that, while it is technically a liquor (and not a liqueur, which by definition is pre-sweetened in the bottle), it has been overwhelmingly popular to prepare it with sugar. Consider the additional distinction that absinthe as bottled is basically a concentrate, and you have yourself a most unusual alcohol, indeed.
From the tidbits of information I’ve been able to glean regarding distilled absinthe’s transformation from medicinal tonic in the 1700s to mealtime aperitif in the 1800s, it appears that the very earliest versions of absinthe liquor were not intended to have sugar added at all. This makes sense to me given the medicinal origins of absinthe, and also if I consider distillers to share some commonality with chefs, in that they have worked hard to formulate a balanced creation intended for consumption as is, and if you reach for the salt and pepper (or, in the case of absinthe, sugar), there’s an implication of imbalance. For an exacting artist and professional, this is practically akin to a slap across the face and a fart in their general direction.
However, the fact that absinthe is bottled as a concentrate which is meant to have a significant amount of water added to it, but that the ratio of water-to-absinthe was approximate, indicates that there had to be some leeway allowed for individual taste for preparation. In addition to this, folks in the 19th century are said to have had quite a sweet tooth compared to modern-day drinkers (something which is difficult to believe, considering today’s preponderance of things like high-fructose fake grenadines without real pomegranite, and the terribly sweet sweet-and-sour mixers found in stores and out of the gun at any given bar or club, but that’s an argument for another time). Given that absinthe was barely one step removed from still being considered a medicine that folks simply grit their teeth together and choked down because it was good for aiding digestion, it makes sense that there would be a no real objections to allowing folks to add their own measure of water and sweetener to temper the wormwood’s natural bitterness. Interestingly, some photographs and illustrations from the period show no sugar being used at all, while some show two or even three sizable cubes of sugar being used per drink, although it has been surmised that the cane sugar used for cubes produced in that time were not quite as sweet as present-day sugar cubes.
The chronological order in which the Belle Epoque absinthe ritual as we know it today arrived at its ultimate destination is a little murky. It’s generally accepted that absinthe first gained popularity with French legionairres in Algiers (the capital of French Algeria) and other colonies beginning in the 1830s, for whom it was “prescribed” as a salutary method of purifying local water. By the time the North African campaigns ended and the soldiers returned to France, they had developed a taste for the beverage and brought it with them to the local cafes which were just then beginning to become so popular in Europe. For another decade or two, drinking absinthe was largely restricted to the military and the upper classes because it was relatively expensive compared to beer and wine, but it would soon become more affordable as production costs went down. It also skyrocketed in popularity as artists and bohemians consumed it with abandon and began to sing (and paint, and write) its praises; ultimately, it became the pre-dinner drink of choice throughout all of France, and a special perforated absinthe spoon was developed to make the addition of sugar even easier for those who wished to. Even women were getting in on the act, which was a relatively ground-breaking notion in that day given that hard liquor was considered to be for the menfolk.
While it’s a matter of personal preference on how much sugar to add, if at all (hey, I tend to like a teaspoon of agave for many brands of absinthe), see below for one young lady’s lesson on how to prepare a sweetened absinthe and party like it’s 1899.
[Rough translation of the text above:
Once your absinthe is poured into the bottom of a clear glass, place two cubes of sugar, one on top of the other, onto the metal spoon. The carefully pour the clear water in a little waterfall. Take a good look: here's how to do it. So as not to make it too weak, be sure to pour the water very slowly. The absinthe will become paler, and its divine fragrance will fill the room. Within this opaque whiteness, you will see reflections of amber and opal.]