Crazy talk (or, Absinthe Glossary 101)

It was recently brought to my attention that it would be better to make an “absinthe glossary” available to readers sooner rather than later, so that folks who are new to the world of absinthe both can understand the terminology used in any original source material from the 19th century which I may reference, as well as know that I’m not just making up words as I go along (which I sometimes do in my personal life, but that’s a post for a different blog).

While there are a plethora of words and phrases which are useful to know when navigating the world of absinthe (many of them in French or Latin), I’m going to concentrate on the most essential terms for now, and then add to the list at a later date, as needed.

absinth
An alternate spelling of “absinthe.” Generally restricted to Eastern and Central Europe, most commonly in the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia) and Germany, and having come to be frequently identified with inauthentic products (known as “fauxsinthe,” “crapsinthe,” and/or “Czechsinthe”) claiming to be absinthe.

absinthe
A distilled liquor derived from grande wormwood, and other herbs or botanicals (almost always including anise and fennel) with an alcohol content ranging between approximately 45% to 74%.

absinthism
An antiquated designation most commonly used by the temperance faction of the 19th and early 20th century to describe symptoms of alcoholism which were incorrectly attributed to the consumption of absinthe in particular, rather than the consumption of alcoholic beverages in general.

absinthiste
A victim of absinthism (i.e. alcoholism). An absinthe “addict”. Used by the anti-absinthe and temperance movements in the 19th century.

Belle Époque
A period in European history spanning the late 19th century through the outbreak of World War I, and considered to be a golden age in terms of art, culture, and scientific progress.

blanche
A clear (or “white”) absinthe which has not undergone a coloration step after distillation. Sometimes called a Swiss-style absinthe, or a “la bleue.”

Fin de siècle 
French for “End of the Century.” Belonging to, or characteristic of, the close of the (19th) century; hence, modern; “up-to-date;” sophisticated; world-weary; decadent.

louche
The cloudiness which results from dripping water into absinthe during preparation of the drink, and which is caused by the release of the essential oils of herbs and botanicals used in production.

Pontarlier
A town in France which was the center of absinthe production from approximately 1805 through 1915. Also, the definitive style of absinthe, which contains the “holy trinity” of grande wormwood, anise, and fennel, as well as only three additional ingredients – Roman (or petite) wormwood, hyssop and melissa. In addition, the definitive reservoir glass used for drinking absinthe.

pre-Ban (or preban)
The historical period prior to the ban on absinthe. While the year of criminalization varies by country, the French ban in 1915 is most frequently used as the definitive cutoff date.

proof
A measure of alcoholic content equal to double the percentage, i.e. 68% = 136 proof.

thujone
A chemical compound found in many plants, such as wormwood, mint, juniper, oregano, and sage. It is dangerous and even lethal in large doses, and was singled out in the 19th century as being the active ingredient in absinthe responsible for hallucinations, tremors, and “absinthism,” although absinthe has recently been shown to contain less than a tenth the amount of thujone than what was originally thought. Other plants containing thujone are often used in herbal medicine, primarily for their ability to stimulate a patient’s immune-system.

verte
A “green” absinthe which has achieved its hue by being colored with herbs after the initial distillation. Absinthes of lower quality may be unnaturally colored with dye.

wormwood
Generally, a plant of the genus Artemisia. Only one variety is specifically used in absinthe in order for the liquor to be considered authentic, and this is Artemisia absinthium (or “grande wormwood”). Roman wormwood or petite wormwood (Artemisia pontica), is often used supplementally as a coloring agent for many absinthes.

Artemisia absinthium. Drawing of plant, flowers, seeds and fruits (drawing by W. Müller, published 1885).

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5 Comments

  1. kissthewookiee said,

    March 21, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Do the Swiss or French have an absinthe version of the Reinheitsgebot? Seems like with all the crapsinthe (thanks for that word) around an official standard would be in order; better late than never.

    • March 21, 2012 at 1:44 pm

      I’ll confess I had to look up ‘Reinheitsgebot’ and I like the concept of a “German beer purity law.” Switzerland is the only country to date which has a legal definition for absinthe (part of which includes that absinthe must be distilled, and must not be unnaturally colored). They recently introduced a measure (called an IGP) to expand on that definition to exclude substandard products (such as Czechsinthes), but unfortunately at the detriment of other legitimate producers. It’s actually a sticky and complex political issue (especially with France starting to generate its own legislation), and if you’d like to know more about it, you could start your reading here.

  2. March 29, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    ‘Absinth’ is actually the correct spelling in German. Here’s a propaganda film from 1913 showing such. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLOKFN9kHtE

    Although I’ve personally seen no modern absinth that wasn’t also a fauxsinthe FWIW.

    • April 1, 2012 at 7:03 am

      At first I was puzzled by your comment since we are in agreement, but then I realized that it must have been the line “an alternative spelling of absinthe” which threw you on my definition of “absinthe”. What I meant was that it is an alternative to how absinthe is spelled in France and Switzerland (where absinthe originated), not that it is considered to be an alternative spelling in every country (namely, in Central and Eastern Europe, including Germany). Sorry for any confusion.

      I will say that I’ve had the Eichelberger 68 Absinth (from Germany), and it was very good genuine absinthe, so you might try that out if you’re interested.

      • April 2, 2012 at 11:40 am

        Aye, that absinth has been on my “must try” list for a while now. Currently I’m working on getting lots more U.S. made stuff under my belt in the next few months. Delaware Phoenix’s offerings sound really good.


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