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Absinthe has been known by a number of nicknames over the years, including "the green fairy" due to its reputed hallucinogenic effects. In reality, you are not going to see things if you drink this spirit (responsibly, of course). But you will open yourself up to a complex and interesting liqueur that can be enjoyed in a variety of cocktails. The traditional way to drink absinthe is to place a spoon with a sugar cube on top of a glass, then gently pour water over it to dilute the spirit and open up the palate. Absinthe is flavored predominantly with anise, fennel, and wormwood, and is usually bottled at a very high proof. For many years, real absinthe was banned in the U.S., but it was made legal in 2007, leading to many craft distilleries making their own. Here are some of the best absinthes to drink now, according to some bar industry experts.
Best Overall: Pernod Absinthe
"Pernod is the closest to the absinthe we used to drink," says David Libespere, general manager of New York's 67 Orange Street, and a French local. Pernod is better known for its anise-flavored pastis, but the brand does make real absinthe as well. "Pernod Absinthe is great when you drink it in what we called the bohemian style: sugar on the absinthe spoon on top of the glass, pour the absinthe, flame it and add cold water on top, stir with the spoon to get a cloudy drink and enjoy," says Libespere.
Best Budget: Absinthe Ordinaire
High quality, flavorful absinthe doesn’t have to break the bank. "An affordable and good entry-level absinthe is Absinthe Ordinaire," says Darnell Holguin, co-founder of The Silver Sun Group and beverage partner at New York's Las' Lap. "It's got sweet anise, star anise, sweet balm and peppermint [botanicals], giving a floral, refreshing touch to cocktails." It’s also lower in proof than most other expensive bottles, making it a bit more accessible.
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Best American: St. George Absinthe Verte
"One of my favorite absinthes to work with is St. George Verte," says Brendan Bartley, beverage director of Bathtub Gin and The 18th Room, who is a fan of this California distillery. "It was the first legal [American] absinthe available after the ban in 2007, and they use real ingredients." He adds, "For such a volatile category they really have made an elegant, refined spirit. It balances well in cocktails without taking over."
Best for Beginners: Absente Absinthe Liqueur
Absente may not be the lowest ABV absinthe at 110 proof, but its alcohol content is manageable and the blend of botanicals makes it ideal for newcomers to the category. Wormwood, mugwort, anise, peppermint and lemon balm are just some of the ingredients in this recipe that dates back to the 19th century, according to the brand. This widely available absinthe also contains the infamous hallucinogen thujone, but its reputation has been greatly exaggerated and there is only a small amount used.
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Best Barrel-Finished: Copper & Kings Absinthe Alembic
Copper & Kings is an innovative brandy distillery in Louisville, Ky. that also makes excellent absinthe. Absinthe Alembic is double distilled from wine in small batches, non-chill filtered and has no additional flavors or colors. Some of the botanicals used include artemisia absinthium, anise and fennel. And interestingly, this absinthe is aged for a period of time in American brandy barrels, mellowing the flavor and adding notes of vanilla and pear. "At 65 percent ABV, it’s warm but not overpowering like others," says Reniel Garcia, bar director of Havana 1957 on Española Way.
Best Swiss: Kübler Absinthe
Kübler Absinthe is steeped in history. "Kübler hails from the birthplace of absinthe, Val-de-Travers, Switzerland," says Nestor Marchand, director of food and beverage at Plunge Beach Resort. "It is light, herbal and refreshing." Yves Kübler is the fourth generation master distiller who makes the absinthe in what he considers to be the traditional Swiss style, which predated its popularity in France and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic).
Best High-Proof: Leopold Bros. Absinthe Verte
If you're in the market for some high octane absinthe, look no further than Leopold Bros. Absinthe Verte. This Colorado distillery bottles its spirit at 130 proof, making it excellent to drink using the traditional method of diluting under a spoonful of sugar. Leopold Bros. makes its absinthe from a grape spirit base, adds botanicals like anise seed, fennel, and grande wormwood, and colors it using lemon balm and other herbs. The high proof doesn’t overpower the complexity of the spirit, though, so this is well worth trying.
Best for Sazerac: Vieux Carré Absinthe Supérieure
Vieux Carré Absinthe Supérieure is made by Philadelphia Distilling and works extremely well in a Sazerac cocktail. The first step in a Sazerac involves rinsing a glass with absinthe to impart flavor without actually adding the spirit to the drink. Vieux Carré is named after New Orleans’ French Quarter, and according to the brand, this was the first absinthe to be distilled and sold on the East Coast in over a century when it launched in 2008. The main botanicals used are star anise and wormwood.
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries for many years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac and all things distilled.