(CNN) — Just a spoonful of sugar helps the "medicine" go down -- March 5 is National Absinthe Day!
Let's play a little word association: What do you think of when you hear the word "absinthe"? I think about a tiny Czech bar I once visited and a ball of fire - but mostly I think of Van Gogh, Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec.
Until the 20th century, absinthe flowed freely at bars and drinking halls in Europe and America. The spirit was known to be high in alcohol content and the presence of thujone, a chemical compound believed to be responsible for absinthe's psychedelic effects, was an additional lure. Government agencies took note of the drink's popularity and promptly banned it, notably in the United States in 1912, then in France in 1915.
Governments were worried that drinking absinthe would create a generation of reckless drunkards, and they might have been right were it not for one small fact - there's not enough thujone in most absinthes to cause its alleged mind-altering properties, including the storied "green fairy." In fact, those people were most likely just hammered.
"I always tell people, if you drink a large amount of any kind of overproof alcohol, you are likely to freak out a little bit - I guarantee you it doesn't have to be absinthe," Maxwell Britten, head bartender of Maison Premiere, said in his Eatocracy column about the misunderstandings and misgivings about absinthe.
Absinthe is a neutral spirit infused with a variety of botanicals, including fennel, green anise and wormwood. It's these botanicals that give the drink its distinctive licorice taste.
While absinthe isn't banned in the U.S. anymore, it's not as regulated as one might think. Because there's no legal definition of absinthe, the green bottle you buy from your local liquor store might not be absinthe at all. Be careful when selecting one, and do your homework before just buying any brand. There are a few brands that are well respected and known for their high quality absinthe. St. George's is one of them, and they were the first to make absinthe after the ban was lifted in the U.S. in 2007.
Once you've chosen your absinthe, there are two ways you can drink it. Hardly anyone does a straight shot of absinthe -- its high ABV rate means it burns...A LOT.
Traditionally, an absinthe spoon with a sugar cube is placed over a glass of absinthe. Cold water is then slowly poured over the sugar cube until it dissolves. The absinthe becomes cloudy and is ready to drink.
The Bohemian method is a bit different. The sugar cube is soaked in absinthe, set alight and dropped into the shot glass. Then, cold water is poured over the slotted spoon to douse the flames. This results in a stronger drink that's more intense than the traditional version.
Absinthe might not be everyone's go-to beverage, but when done right, the spirit has a clean, crisp, anise-flavored taste.