Pop quiz: Absinthe is a) the liquid psychedelic of fin de siècle France that powered artists' imaginations and drove men insane before it was outlawed, b) the forbidden quaff that's so naughty, it must be a kick or c) an anise-flavored liqueur well worth exploring.
The answer a) is flawed and b) is no longer true as it was legalized in the United States in 2007. The correct answer is c). But be careful! Absinthe gets its illicit reputation from Paris, where the likes of van Gogh, Rimbaud and Wilde pursued "the Green Fairy" (after the color and its soporific effect). Absinthe was blamed for some ugly incidents in the early twentieth century and was widely banned. The culprit was supposedly thujone, a chemical relative of cannabis found in the wormwood portion of the drink's herbal flavoring. Ignored was absinthe's high alcoholic content (up to 150 proof, or 75 percent).
With some titillation, we tested a group of absinthes, and while we didn't see the Green Fairy, we enjoyed a range of taste experiences. The highest proof of the bunch was France's Grande Absente at 138. Light green, almost yellow in appearance, it had a tight anise nose that opened up with a little water. On the palate, it was oily and savory, almost buttery, and it finished with wood. La Fée Absinthe Parisienne (France, 136 proof) was bright lime green and its woody nose smelled faintly of that fruit as well. On the palate it was drier and woodier, but it finished mellow, almost chalky. Vieux Carre Superior (120 proof), a product of the United States, had a yellow-green, almost olive oil color and a complex oily nose with candy, citrus, flowers and ginger. The palate was sweet and savory, but it had a short finish.
Mata Hari (120 proof) announces itself as a bohemian-style absinthe, even while hailing from Vienna. Its color was light green, and its nose had the least licorice component of the bunch, but smacked of caramel and nuts. Neither did anise dominate the palate. Instead it was spicy—mint, sage—and woody, like a complex peppermint schnapps. The finish was woody and bitter. Switzerland's Kübler (106 proof) was the least alcoholic of our absinthes and was also uncolored. The clear liquid became cloudy, however, with some water. A fruity, floral nose turned to a candy licorice flavor in the mouth with some hints of wood, and an oily finish.