By Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi
The French drank 300,000 liters of absinthe, the anise-flavored liqueur, in 1874. By 1910, they were chugging 36 million liters of The Green Fairy (as the drink was called) every year. The painter Van Gogh and the poet Rimbaud were among absinthe's loyal fans.
Soon after, however, absinthe got a bad rap. Posters in the streets claimed it induced hallucinations and violent behavior. Europe banned absinthe. But the countries around the Mediterranean had already grown to love the anise-alcohol combination. Anisette, ouzo, pastis and sambuca grew in popularity after this ban, as drinkers searched for substitutes.
While anise, fennel, licorice, all unrelated, but similarly sweet herbs, have been historically used to flavor drinks all over Europe, their French origin is fascinating. In 1755, a Marie Brizard from Bordeaux, France, started selling a liqueur using sweet anise seeds to make a refreshing drink. The story goes that she had saved the life of a fevered sailor she found in the town square, nursing him back to health at her home. The recipe for anisette was his thank-you gift to her. Marie and her brother started their company selling this one product, and today the Marie Brizard company is one of the major spirits companies of Europe.
Absinthe was born not much after Marie's venture. In the 1790s, a French doctor living in Switzerland decided to make the "healing properties" of the wormwood plant more accessible by putting it into a spirit. A few years later, the recipe, Dr Pierre Oridinaire's absinthe, was bought by Major Dubied, who went on to commercially manufacture the spirit with his son-in-law Henri-Louis Pernod. (If that name sounds familiar, it should be no surprise. It is the same company that owns brands such as Jameson Irish Whiskey, Absolut vodka, and Pernod Ricard pastis).
In 1914, the production of absinthe was banned in France, following bans across Europe. The ingredient thujone, from the wormwood plant was supposed to make people murder others or die themselves. (This has since been disproved.) Most companies making absinthe had started distilling pastis as an alternative to absinthe. Among them was Paul Ricard, who came up with his version in 1932. In 1975 Pernod and Ricard, bitter rivals until then, merged their businesses.
In Paris, I've notice that every bar, cafe and restaurant stocks a bottle of Pernod pastis. To make the French version, simply mix the liqueur with water and drink as a low-alcohol aperitif, or enjoy by itself.
Anise's refreshing properties combined with the relaxing effects of alcohol are popular all over the Mediterranean. Greece loves cooling down with ouzo, Italy finishes its dinners with a neat sambuca topped with three coffee beans, ans Spain adores its anis del mono (anis of the monkey, named after a monkey who lived in the brewery it was first made in) or anis del chinchon, named after the town where it comes from.
There are variations in the distillation methods and flavoring processes across the continent. Some use a simple mash of anise seeds and others use a complex blend of herbs and spices, including star anise, imported from Asia. Like wine, each of these regions believes their anise liqueur is the only one worth drinking.
Unlike the high-proof spirit absinthe, the ban for which has been lifted in recent years, the other drinks have a lower proof and have been fortified with sugar, and are true liqueurs. Almost all drinks containing anise turn cloudy when water is added to them, because the anethol oils in the herb are soluble in alcohol, but not in water. Seeing water swirl into clouds in a glass is part of the pleasure of mixing the drink.
I like to be like the Europeans and make my own anise drink. Here is a simple recipe to get started:
Mash three ounces of anise seeds until the oils are released. Mix into a quart of vodka or grain alcohol. Put into a sealed glass container and forget about it for a few weeks.
You can either strain it and drink as is, or add simple syrup to taste and age until you feel the flavor is right - from a month to a year.