Absinthe is a drink of mystery.

Most of us have, at best, a casual understanding of the "Green Fairy.” You might believe it will lead you to hallucinate, cut off a body part, and create memorable French art. All three of those things are unlikely, unless of course you have way too much of the stuff -- but that's the case with any spirit. You have to know your limitations.

Despite its cryptic, alchemistic reputation (or perhaps because of it), absinthe is still the kind of liquor you should add to your well-stocked bar. It's delicious. It has variety. It sips well and goes even better in cocktails. And it's a surefire conversation starter.

Absinthe is a festively green liquor created by distilling a base spirit with anise, wormwood and other herbs like lemon balm or coriander. It was originally created by a French doctor in Switzerland in the late 1700s to use the distilled wormwood for medicinal purposes.

Governments, including the U.S., eventually banned the making and sale of absinthe because it contained thujone (which comes from the wormwood). It's the thujone that supposedly makes absinthe the "Green Fairy.” Recently, a bit of chemical analysis proved that the quantity of thujone that makes it through the distillation process is so small that absinthe is actually legal. This means that, as of 2007, you can get absinthe in the U.S.

It also means that absinthe probably never contained enough thujone to cause anyone to go nutty. That doesn't mean that no one has had a little too much of it at one time or another, and then gone and done something, well, stupid. But that's just alcohol for you.

Even though it's legal now -- and doesn't carry the cache of a contraband booze or the promise of turning you into the next Vincent Van Gogh -- absinthe is still a tasty and fun drink you should enjoy and share with your adventurous friends. There is more than one type of good absinthe, and more than one way to truly enjoy it.

Experiment with classic recipes, recipes with unique base spirits and recipes with different spices. It's always best to choose an absinthe distilled with real herbs, not an oil mix. The flavors blend better and taste richer. Good absinthe is green because of the herbs used and the distillation and aging, not from dye, so stay away from the bottles of neon green regret.

Well-made absinthe will have the minty, spiced flavor of anise, but it won't overpower. You can drink absinthe straight, or with a bit of ice water added (called louching, a huge part of enjoying the spirit), with a cube of sugar, or in a cocktail. Just don't set it on fire.

Here are a few bottles to get you started:

  • 1

    Pernod Absinthe

    Pernod Ricard's absinthe was one of the earliest popular absinthe recipes. After the ban was lifted, the company used records from the 1800s to re-create the original spirit and make some improvements to it, like using a wine base instead of a neutral. It's a classic French absinthe and a great place to begin.

    The flavors are well-balanced. You'll taste the anise, but the other herbs help keep it from being bitter. It's a bit pricier than some other bottles you'll find, but it's worth it. ($85)

  • 2

    Pacifique Absinthe Verte Superieure

    This American-made absinthe from an old French recipe gets high marks from fans of the spirit. Pacific Distillery's Pacifique Verte Superieure is a natural light green, nearly yellow, in color. It gets a classic wormwood flavor from the two different wormwoods used in distilling.

    It's a fragrant spirit with floral, spice and mint flavors that all harmonize well. For some absinthe drinkers, it is the top choice. ($55)

  • 3

    Absinthe Duplais Balance

    This verte absinthe from Switzerland lives up to its name and provides a very balanced flavor. Lovers of absinthe will tell you that Duplais Balance looks and acts the way absinthe should.

    In this complex absinthe, each flavor takes its turn as the highlight after you louche and sip. And at this price, you aren't getting in over your head while trying something new. ($50)

  • 4


    Some people might want a bottle of Mansinthe just for its notoriety, but even the experts will tell you that this absinthe, the pet project of Marilyn Manson, is the real deal.

    It starts with a light green, almost yellow color. Then you're treated to a rich, spicy aroma. A creamy louche and even finish make this an easy absinthe to start with. Pick up a bottle (we found one for under 50 bucks) and have the beautiful people over for a tasting. ($43)

  • 5

    La Clandestine Absinthe Blanche

    This Absinthe Blanche makes the list because your absinthe collection should have variety. A blanche, white or blue absinthe is made like any other absinthe, except no herbs are added after distillation. This keeps the spirit from turning green. The result is a milder, sweeter absinthe that still has the wormwood, anise and fennel flavors you're looking for and a delightful, creamy louche.

    La Clandestine's recipe comes from a well-known Swiss moonshiner and provides a fresh taste and silky quality. ($69)


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